Four ways gaslighting can affect families

A strategy of manipulation and abuse, gaslighting is extremely damaging when it comes from parents

A child confused by her parents’ behavior.
A child confused by her parents’ behavior.SanyaSM (Getty Images)

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and abuse that usually occurs in romantic relationships, where one half of the couple mistreats the other. A term coined by psychologists to describe a specific type of abuse, it was inspired by the 1938 play of the same name from director Patrick Hamilton. Several years later, in 1944, the play would be turned into the movie Gaslight, by director George Cukor, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for the role.

The strategy is mainly based on deception, manipulation and the distortion of reality, and is designed to trigger multiple fears, insecurities and even loss of judgment in the victim.

According to the American Psychological Association, the term, “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution, but is now used more generally. This psychological abuse does not occur only in couples, but can be perpetrated among friends, co-workers and even within the family itself.”

According to Raquel Tomé López, psychotherapist and neuropsychologist: “Through gaslighting, the aggressor tries to provoke doubts and uncertainty, which is very damaging to the victim, who starts to doubt reality, leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, disorientation, suicidal thoughts and an exaggerated fear of danger. And, of course, it can happen within the family.”

So how can we spot gaslighting? What types of this abuse exist in families, and what is the impact on children?

“That didn’t happen;” “You’re not hungry, just tired;” “You shouldn’t feel that way;” are just some of the more subtle, and often more damaging, expressions of it. “Gaslighting involves playing on power relationships, so in a household it’s likely to occur between a father and son, or between an older and younger sibling or a mother and daughter, for example,” says Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.

The American Sociological Association, in its study The Sociology of Gaslighting, lists the different ways parents can manipulate their children, which they describe as: “a type of psychological abuse aimed at making victims seem or feel ‘crazy,’ creating a ‘surreal’ interpersonal environment.” As explained in the study, gaslighting should be understood as a social problem, a gender problem and extends to other inequal relationships. The context is usually an intimate relationship, involving the abuse of power between different family members.

According to their report, there are four types of gaslighting:

1. The double-bind family: no matter what the child does or says, the parent does not like it. They may say they understand their child, but use a critical and insulting tone, or they may say they love the child while their body language is expressing the opposite. If the child feels loved and rejected at the same time, confusion and frustration set in.

2. The unpredictable and unstable family. One day, the parent lets their child go to a friend’s house, but the next day they scold them for asking. This often happens with parents who are either addicts, alcoholics or suffer from mental illness. The rules vary and the consequences don’t make sense, as they invalidate reality. Instead of providing emotional support, the parent forces the child to live in permanent frustration.

3. The picture-perfect family. This type of home allows no room for mistakes, negative emotions or weakness. The only image presented to the world is one of perfection, and anything suggesting vulnerability is hidden. These parents place a premium on achievement and strive to be admired and envied by others. Consequently, they become overly controlling with their children, exercising a type of authoritarianism and demanding obedience. In this sense, “the parent controls what their child can like, value and believe in, thereby creating an indecisive child who wrestles to understand their own feelings, opinions, desires and needs,” explains psychotherapist and neuropsychologist Raquel Tomé.

4. The emotionally neglectful family. This is the most subtle form of gaslighting within a family. In fact, it is so subtle that it is difficult for many victims to know whether it’s actually happening. It involves parents disregarding their children’s feelings and emotions. When a child cries or screams, the parents ignore them or tell them their reaction is disproportionate, which totally invalidates the child. As Tomé explains, emotions are the deepest and most personal biological expression of who you are, so when your parents treat your feelings as invisible, irrelevant or meaningless, you naturally feel that your inner self is being erased or reversed: “When they don’t recognize or respond to your emotions, you are prepared to doubt and ignore your deepest self,” she says. “The problem is that the first thing a manipulator does is to objectify the person. They consider the other to be an object to get rid of if they fail to serve their interests.”

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