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Narcissistic parents and gaslighting in children

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Gaslighting parents

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation. Through this form of manipulation, someone wants to make you doubt your own thoughts or beliefs. This involves the narcissist distorting reality in order to keep his own ego and self-image high.
Your beliefs are undermined and you begin to doubt yourself. By applying Gaslighting, you begin to doubt your own perception and lose all control over yourself as a result.

Gaslighting does not occur suddenly from day to day. It happens gradually and more and more the narcissist will make you doubt your beliefs. It has a slow build-up until the moment you no longer dare to have your own opinion or thoughts.

Children are easy victims of this. They are impressionable and too attached to the parents’ beliefs and assertions. Often children also do not dare to respond in fear that they might be punished.

Because Gaslighting by a narcissistic parent is applied to the child at an early age, it will be harmful for the rest of his or her life. Later in life, children of narcissistic parents never dare to completely trust their own opinions and perceptions. They also often dare not make a decision in the fear that this decision will be wrong with far-reaching consequences.

Gaslighting and narcissistic parents

Gaslighting is a common method used by narcissistic parents to manipulate their children. Children are sensitive to parents’ opinions and will doubt their own perceptions. An example might be: ‘You ate all the sweets! The child: ‘I didn’t do that at all. The parent: ‘Then you must have forgotten!’ The child begins to doubt his or her own perception and is convinced that he or she ate the candy.

Examples of gaslighting in children

Susan is 4 years old and is with her dad on the busy Coney Island boulevard. She gets an ice cream from her dad, but the ice cream falls on the ground. Logical because Susan wanted to both walk and eat ice cream at the same time. And although her daddy said, sit down with your ice cream, Susan didn’t listen. The girl is inconsolable and Daddy has no intention of buying another ice cream. Instead of perceiving Susan’s sadness and comforting her, daddy does something that prevents Susan from throwing a tantrum. He tries several things:

  • He makes goofy faces so that Susan is confused for a moment and forgets what is happening
  • He lifts Susan up so as not to confront his bystanders with her upcoming tantrum
  • He ignores her and turns away from her
  • Says it’s her own fault and that she should stop acting up
  • After watching her cry for a while he decides to buy an ice cream anyway

Denying, suppressing and twisting emotions in children

What actually happens is that at no point is Susan confirmed in her grief. Her grief over the loss of the ice cream, which for a moment was her whole world, is not allowed to be there. As dad struggles with his own reaction, Susan has to adjust her response to him. Things dad may say that further reinforce the distortion of her view of reality could be:

  • It’s just an ice cream
  • Tomorrow you’ll get another one
  • There are worse things

Ironing out and dismissing Susan’s feelings is form of gaslighting. It is an attempt to convince the child that their experience is not true. What the child feels – loss – is apparently no big deal because daddy says so. What to us is something seemingly trivial like an ice cream can be something big to a child. When we answer crying with phrases like ‘don’t be silly’, ‘it’s just an ice cream’ or ‘it’s no big deal’, we make the child feel that something is wrong with them.

How is it, that losing the ice cream gives so much grief when my father says, it’s no big deal? The child cannot make the link between the reality of her own feelings and her father’s abstracted response. At that point, the child also distances herself from herself.

Gaslighting in divorced parents

The narcissistic parent will also be able to misrepresent the other parent through gaslighting. In a sneaky and subtle way, the narcissistic parent will convince the child that the other parent is a bad person and the child should not trust the other parent. This tactic is often used the moment the child is too drawn to the other parent. This fuels jealousy in the narcissistic parent.

So in a divorce, gaslighting tactics can be used by one of the parents to turn the child against the other parent.
Such is the story of Shanna* (32) whose parents divorced when she was 15. Shanna went to live with her mother because her father had accepted a job abroad. Every Friday afternoon, her father would call Shanna and they would discuss all kinds of plans until after a few weeks the phone calls stopped.

Shanna: ”Mum, has dad called yet? I haven’t heard from him for a while, did I miss his calls?”

Mother: ”No, I haven’t had any calls from your father, maybe he is busy with work or with his new family.”

This reaction came as a shock to Shanna, was she not nice enough anymore? Or had she sometimes said something wrong in previous phone calls with her father?
Shanna started doubting herself immensely and decided not to contact her father herself for a very long time.
After several months, she decided to contact her father again on her own anyway and wanted an explanation, to which her father said: ”I just called you every Friday, but your mother just hung up on the phone every time, and I sent you letters, but apparently she kept them from you as well”

For Shanna, this was a difficult realisation, she didn’t know immediately what to believe either, and has not yet decided to confront her mother with these statements.

The real consequences of gaslighting in children

When children are misled about their feelings and emotions, they will eventually stop listening to them. Stopping listening to feelings, not taking them seriously and downplaying them, is tantamount to suppressing and numbing them. What this teaches a child is that his feelings apparently do not matter. However, the child will thereby start numbing not only their negative feelings, but also their positive ones.
In the field of feelings, there is no such thing as local anaesthesia. You either numb everything or nothing. Because the child no longer knows what they really feel, they can no longer judge whether their feelings are correct at any time. Their intuition, self-confidence and sense of security also come into question as a result. When Susan is an adult and suddenly cries uncontrollably and doesn’t know where it’s coming from, those emotions can come back to haunt her. It then often takes many hours of therapy work to still figure out where the pain is.
How then? Change your own perspective
What could dad have done to acknowledge Susan’s grief? For someone who never learned that grief is allowed to be there herself, this may sound too simple. Someone who holds pain may struggle with that simplicity. What dad could have done is:

  • Let Susan cry for a while, be able to hold her
  • Tell her that it must be very painful to see your ice cream drop
  • Sit quietly together and discuss what the next step might be

This does not mean the father has to make concessions. Buying a new ice cream also wipes out grief. Neither does promising something in the blink of an eye. Looking together at what happened takes both dad and Susan seriously. By just being able to cry passionately for a moment, Susan practices that it is OK to show her feelings. By the way, you can also practise this with your own feelings and emotions. Especially if you have children and you struggle with crying your own children, this is a good exercise.

Know your emotions

The book ‘The Gaslight Effect’ has a list of common emotions. Get to know your own emotions by writing them down. Make a diary and see in which situations you feel; angry, sad, rejected, dependent, anxious, threatened, needy, embarrassed, worried, grateful, depressed, lonely, miserable, energetic … etc.
Make your own list of emotions and see if you can recognise a pattern. Also see if you get a stomach ache at certain times. By getting back in touch with your feelings, whether they are positive or negative, you can more easily recognise and acknowledge your child’s too.

*Shanna is a fictitious name to protect the privacy of the person concerned.

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