Are You Gaslighting Your Kids?

Daughter talking to mother while sitting at home

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Many parents want to raise their kids to not only be in tune with their emotions but to also have healthy self-esteem and a solid communication style. If you're reading this article, that's likely true of you, too. Consequently, it may surprise you to learn that some of the things you do or say to your kids aren't actually helpful, but instead could be considered gaslighting.

What Is Gaslighting?

When it comes to gaslighting, it's often considered a subtle form of manipulation that causes the person on the receiving end to question their reality. For example, when your child falls and scrapes their knee, you may say, "You're OK." Your intention is probably to keep them from crying and to reassure them that it's just a little scrape.

But, it also can be a subtle form of gaslighting if you never acknowledge that your child's knee likely stings and hurts and that it's OK for them to cry. After all, skinned knees are no fun. A better response would be to acknowledge how they're feeling first and then reassure them that everything is going to be OK—that you are going to clean it off and apply a band-aid and they will feel much better afterward.

It's also a form of gaslighting to lecture your kids on how rude, selfish, ungrateful, or dramatic they are. Even though your goal may be to get them to be more respectful or giving, labeling your child with these types of words just pushes them further into feeling like there is something wrong with them. And, no one wants their child to feel like they don't measure up in the world.

Even seemingly harmless comments like, "You'll be fine," "This isn't the end of the world," and "It is what it is," send your kids a message that their feelings are not accurate or that they're too intense. And if it happens often enough, eventually your kids may begin to hide their feelings or pretend like everything is OK when it's not. They also begin to doubt their intuition and may lose their sense of security and self-confidence.

And as they get older, hiding or burying their feelings becomes the automatic response. This is an extremely dangerous response because it can be used to mask serious issues or feelings like anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. Your kids won't know how to talk about the really hard things they are thinking or feeling if their tough feelings were always minimized by the adults in their lives.

As a result, this type of default reaction also can open the door to abusive relationships because they truly believe they are always overreacting or too sensitive. As a result, instead of recognizing when someone is treating them inappropriately, they assume they are somehow to blame instead.

Why Parents Sometimes Gaslight Their Kids

In parent-child relationships, gaslighting can be subtle and difficult to detect. After all, there is a natural imbalance of power that already exists between parents and kids. Consequently, all parents are susceptible to gaslighting, especially if they're unaware that what they're doing could be harmful. Likewise, if a parent is overwhelmed or tends to be more of a helicopter parent or lawnmower parent, they may have more tendencies toward gaslighting.

In other parent-child relationships, gaslighting may develop when a child begins to develop some independence. The parent may feel like they are losing control and have a hard time embracing the changes taking place in the relationship. They want to remain at the center of their child's world and when that starts to change, it's very difficult for some parents to cope with these changes. So, they start to use gaslighting as an attempt to maintain the status quo.

Meanwhile, some parents will use gaslighting to cover their own insecurities. After all, there is nothing worse than feeling like a bad parent. So, instead of dealing with those feelings head-on or trying to make constructive and healthy changes, a parent will resort to gaslighting in an effort to manipulate the situation.

In other words, if they can alter the beliefs the child holds and make them believe that the parent did nothing wrong, then they will no longer feel like a failure. Instead, the issues in the parent-child relationship are now the responsibility of the child and the parent can continue to feel like they do no wrong.

Signs of Gaslighting

For many parents, gaslighting their kids occurs without them even realizing they are doing it. For instance, they may have learned these unhealthy behaviors from their own parents and see nothing wrong with the things they are saying. If you are concerned that you may be inadvertently gaslighting your kids, here are some things to look for in your interactions.

Question Memories

It's important to remember that no two people remember the same event in exactly the same way. For this reason, everyone may have different memories of the same event. When you challenge, question, or discredit your child's memories, this could be a form of gaslighting.

Minimize Feelings

Feelings and emotions are real and valid, even if they make you uncomfortable or if you think they are exaggerated. Consequently, if you minimize your child's feelings, you are telling them that what they are feeling is not real, and this is a form of gaslighting.

Try to Compete

Sometimes parents feel insecure or want to be recognized for their skills and abilities. But, when it comes to kids, it's very unhealthy to put yourself in a situation where you are trying to compete with your child or show them how much smarter or better you are.

Make Comparisons

Nothing is more hurtful to a child than to be compared to another child or their sibling. Making comparisons between people is never a kind thing to do. So, it should be avoided at all costs. Even comparisons that you feel are innocuous can be hurtful.

Downplay Success

If you're a parent who pushes your child or is never satisfied with their achievements, then you're likely gaslighting your kids. It's important to celebrate your child's successes and acknowledge the work they put in to reach their goals.

Create Doubts

When you question your child's thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, you're creating doubt that they can see things clearly or that they understand the world around them. Sowing doubt in your child's life is detrimental to their self-confidence and can create insecure kids.

Project Problems

Blaming your kids for your problems—even when their behavior is increasing your stress level—is never healthy. It's important for parents to take responsibility for their own feelings and issues and not to lay blame on anyone else, including their kids. It's one thing to correct a child's behavior but you should not blame them for how you feel.

Promote Isolation

Sometimes parents have a hard time letting their kids grow up or allowing them to have some autonomy or independence. As a result, they will restrict their time with friends and undermine their relationships in an effort to keep them at home and with the family unit. In the end, this is detrimental to kids because it isolates them from their peers. You should try to avoid having so many rules that your kids never see their peers.

How to Avoid Gaslighting

If you're like most parents, the thought of gaslighting your kids—even unintentionally—can be unnerving. For this reason, it's important to know how to avoid falling into old habits and instead take a more constructive and healthy approach when interacting with your kids. Here are some ways you can avoid falling into the trap of gaslighting.

Listen and Validate Feelings

The next time your child is upset, try to take a deep breath and listen to what is upsetting them. Ask questions if you don't fully understand, but be sure you are listening without judgment. You also need to validate how they are feeling, letting them know that you understand.

If your child seems to be having a meltdown or a tantrum, help them respond to their feelings in a healthy way, but try to avoid shaming or criticizing your child in the process. Remember, you are acknowledging how they feel but you don't have to allow them to hurt other people in the process. So, if they are saying hurtful things you need to help them learn how to express and own their feelings without injuring others in the process.

Encourage Independence

As your child gets older, it's important to encourage their independence especially when it comes to making friends. Also, encourage your child to make choices when appropriate and teach them problem-solving skills.

Another great way to teach kids independence is to assign age-appropriate chores and responsibilities. Even though they may groan and moan, doing things around the house not only teaches them important life skills but it also provides them with a sense of accomplishment.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

If you're a sensitive person yourself—or even if you're not—it can be hard to watch someone express uncomfortable feelings like sadness, anger, or frustration. Your first reaction may be to make it stop or to fix the situation somehow, but instead, use these uncomfortable emotions your child is experiencing as a learning opportunity.

While you should never allow your child to express their emotions in a way that is harmful to you or to others, it is important that they learn to recognize that what they're feeling is normal and that there are healthy ways of dealing with those uncomfortable emotions. After all, the last thing you want to do is teach your kids to bury or stuff their feelings.

Find the Beauty in All Your Kids

Every child has something unique and wonderful to offer the world. Be sure you identify those things in each of your kids. Then, make sure when you have some time alone when you share with them the things that you love about them.

Resist the urge to play favorites or to create sibling rivalry by making things a competition. It's also not a good idea to label your kids "the smart one," "the athletic one," "the funny one," and so on. Kids change and labels may pigeonhole them into a role that they no longer want to fill.

Keep Your Promises

Kids need to know that you will be there for them and that you are true to your word. Consequently, if you tell your kids that you're going to be at their game or that you're going to pick them up from soccer practice, follow through on that commitment. And, if something unforeseeable happens where you cannot keep your promise, then apologize. Resist the urge to make excuses and own your mistakes.

Take Responsibility for Your Issues

Parenting is hard, challenging, and overwhelming at times. And while it's true, your kids may be pushing your buttons or testing your limits, it's important that you own your feelings and your responses. Never blame your kids for the stress you're feeling. Instead, take ownership of how you feel. Modeling this type of behavior to your kids is one of the best lessons you can teach them.

A Word From Verywell

Even though you may never intend to harm your child with your words, your intent is not what is important. Instead, you need to realize the impact your actions and your words can have on your kids. When it comes to interacting with your kids, you have a choice to minimize their feelings or to validate them.

Validating your child's emotions and experiences is a powerful way to teach them empathy and compassion. Likewise, allowing them space they need to express and understand their emotions is providing them with the foundation they need to become mentally healthy. So be sure the next time your child is crying over a skinned knee that you take a moment to acknowledge the pain they're feeling.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johnson VE, Nadal KL, Sissoko DRG, King R. "It's Not in Your Head": Gaslighting, 'splaining, victim blaming, and other harmful reactions to microaggressions. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2021 Sep;16(5):1024-1036. doi:10.1177/17456916211011963 PMID:34498522

  2. Kaplow JB, Gipson PY, Horwitz AG, Burch BN, King CA. Emotional suppression mediates the relation between adverse life events and adolescent suicide: implications for preventionPrev Sci. 2014;15(2):177-185. doi:10.1007/s11121-013-0367-9

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.