When you hear someone talk about child abuse, the image that comes to mind is often that of a battered child, however, not all forms of abuse are physical. In fact, some of the most damaging and life-changing forms of abuse go unnoticed as they are largely hidden from view.
One of the most common forms of child abuse in the world today is the mind game known as ‘gaslighting’. This is a form of mental manipulation in which the abuser tricks their victim repeatedly into questioning their own memory and perception of events. By calling the victim’s memories or instincts into question, they take the one element of trust that every person should be able to fundamentally rely on – trust in themselves. They achieve this in a number of ways including distracting or deflecting the truth or blaming the victim for a chain of events that is actually outside of their control. Ultimately, this provides the abuser with the ability to manipulate and control their victim, convincing them of their own twisted chain of events.
Some common phrases used by these abusers include:
– “You’re just trying to confuse me”
– “You thought that last time and you were wrong”
– “Well you obviously never believed in me then”
– “You have an overactive imagination”
– “Where did you get a crazy idea like that?”
– “You’re going to let something like that come between us?”
– “You’re making that up”
While gaslighting is incredibly manipulative and harmful in any situation, often occurring at the hands of a narcissist, it is particularly dangerous when one is referring to the relationship between child and parent. This is a time in a child’s life in which there is already an imbalance of power.
In a Feb 2018 study, authors Damien W. Riggs and Clare Bartholomaeus from Flinders University in Australia describe the difficulty with this specific dynamic, stating, “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.”
Children look to their parent to help them form their reality, and when that reality is skewed or called into question it can have a lasting impact that will extend into their adult lives. Not only do they distrust their own instincts and view of the world around them, they often also grow up feeling anxious and paranoid, or developing serious inferiority issues. This abuse at a young age can also lay the foundation to make them an easier target for abuse as an adult.
“Parents gaslight their children when either they lose touch with what antecedents are triggering them or purposefully set up antecedents to trigger their children – set them up to fail that is,” explains licensed marriage and family therapist Clara Itule. “The etiology of a gaslighter parent can range from many different backgrounds. The parent can be a very overwhelmed parent, self-involved or narcissistic parent, uneducated or low-intelligence parent or an immature parent.”
In short, not all parents who are gaslighting are even aware that they are doing it. While some will do so as an active attempt to control the situation, some parents will do so simply because they lack the education and experience to know how to deal with specific situations. Trying to maintain their role as the parent they refuse to apologize, giving the impression to their children that they are ‘never right’. However, regardless of the intention, gaslighting is incredibly harmful and needs to be addressed.
Unlike with an adult, most child victims won’t even consider that something may be ‘off’ in the situation. As this is all that they have known, they believe this to be ‘normal’. For this reason, it is incredibly important for other adults in their lives to keep their eyes open for any sign that this may be happening. These are the fundamental years of a child’s development, and we need to work to protect them and keep them safe.
Image via The Rebel Circus