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Are you guilty of gaslighting your kids?

Incidentally, the term gaslighting is derived from a 1930s play that was later turned into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman. In simple terms, it's about convincing someone so effectively that they begin doubting their own judgments.

Updated: January 31, 2019 10:46:23 am
gaslighting parenting (Source: Getty Images)

By Zofeen Maqsood

Gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation where you tell someone, their emotions may not be right, is rarely associated with parent-child relationships. But what if the opposite may be true?

If I were to ask you, do you sometimes gaslight your children? Do you often try to shut out their emotions or feelings in an attempt to make them ‘stronger’? It’s likely that you would vehemently disagree. But, if I were to begin by giving you a few examples, chances are, you may agree of subconsciously manipulating your kids’ judgements.

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Let’s take up some examples first:

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Situation 1: It’s 7.00 am on a school day in the Bhatia household. The Bhatias’ five-year-old, fussy eater is repeatedly refusing to have another helping of his cereals, but is being force-fed so that he doesn’t go to school “on an empty-stomach”. The young boy, who seems to have had his fill, is left feeling both confused and overstuffed.

Situation 2: Six-year-old Aarav is playing in the background and suddenly stumbles upon his friend and falls. Though not majorly hurt, Aarav comes crying to his mom, who brushes his pants and tells him to be strong, while telling him that he isn’t really hurt. Aarav goes back to his friends feeling both slightly hurt and unloved.

Also Read: The last thing your child needs is disciplining

Situations such as these arise almost daily in households with kids. And more often than not, parents take this approach to make their kids more independent, polite or to ensure their kids well-being in this not-so-easy-to-survive-world.

Gaslighting can have a long-lasting impact on the child

But according to some recent researches on child psychology, this constant smothering of child’s emotions may have negative or in some cases even long-lasting impact on them. In a 2018 study from Flinders University in Australia, authors Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus recognise that gaslighting can occur in parent-child relationship. They warn: “Gaslighting in practice is often subtle and can be difficult to detect, especially in the context of parent-child relationships, where imbalances of power are often a taken-for-granted norm.”


Pondicherry-based clinical psychologist and counsellor Pulkit Sharma says, “Parents in India, particularly often believe that they know what’s best for their children, who need to quickly realise that life is difficult and toughen up. To drill this message into their heads, parents often challenge and ridicule their worldview and emotions. Although the intentions are not bad, the method it’s carried out gives children the message that they are too sensitive, weak or not normal. This can be traumatic for children and they can suffer from its aftereffects.”

On why dismissing a child’s often not-so-serious complain can be harmful, he explains, “We need to step into the shoes of the child, look at life from his/her perspective and validate their worldview.”

What Sharma says does hold true, since for kids, throwing a tantrum is often an exaggerated way of showing feelings that may be otherwise ignored. We need to understand that in a child’s world, a snatched toy holds the same significance that say, a lost engagement ring would hold for an adult. Consider telling an adult: “It’s okay, it’s not an important thing to lose,” or worse, “You must learn to share your engagement ring!” And you are guaranteed to get some dagger glances there.


What is important is how you convey the message. So, by accepting your child’s hurt over a snatched toy and saying, “Oh, that’s bad, let’s try to get our toy back by requesting your friend,” is a much effective strategy. The idea is to accept your child’s judgement and instill faith in them.

Pediatricians say that when a child says, they are full, they really do not need another bite. In fact, they are developing an important sense of judging their body needs. By forcing another spoonful, we are only confusing them about not just what they feel, but what they are expected to do as well.

Incidentally, the term gaslighting is derived from a 1930s play that was later turned into a movie starring Ingrid Bergman. In simple terms, it’s about convincing someone so effectively that they begin doubting their own judgments.

Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, explains in her book that this dynamic can occur in all types of relationships including that of parent-child and that many, including children, have been affected psychologically because someone tries to challenge their reality.

Psychologist Sharma confirms the adverse effects. He says, “I have seen many adults in psychotherapy who have had a similar childhood. They experience a range of difficulties; not being able to express themselves openly because they lack trust that the world will understand them; feeling anxious, shy, inhibited and withdrawn because they fear re-victimisation; not being able to do what they want because they don’t trust their instincts.”


On how parents need to deal with kids’ fragile behaviour, he advises, “We can prevent this damage by empathic parenting and teaching in childhood. This will eventually enable them to develop a strong self that can fight all odds.”

So, the next time your kid complains, say, about a lost sticker, instead of ridiculing him, how about you say: “Oh, that was precious for you. But let’s do something good and earn another one from mama!”

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First published on: 23-01-2019 at 12:50:03 pm

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