Break Free from Parental Gaslighting: A Therapist's Complete Guide

Break Free from Parental Gaslighting: A Therapist's Complete Guide

This article explores parental gaslighting, a subtle form of emotional manipulation between parents and children that erodes trust and confidence.

We'll explore the characteristics, causes, and consequences of parental gaslighting along with a tried-and-tested, practical STAR method to manage, move beyond and restore your well-being in the face of parental abusive behaviour.

Unravelling the Intricacies of Parental Gaslighting

Have you ever had your confidence and trust in yourself and others abruptly shaken?

Perhaps a time when: 

  •  You're unfairly blamed.
  •  A close friend questions your honesty.
  •  A trusted ally appears indifferent when you are clearly upset.
  •  You feel betrayed by someone you never dreamed would let you down

Incidents like these can be unsettling, fostering self-doubt and undermining belief in yourself and others.

Circumstances become even more tangled when the source of distress derives from precisely the people you'd most hope to rely upon for dependable care and support. In many cases, this means your parents.

Parental gaslighting pitches you an unnerving curveball to test your instincts and emotional ability to step back and gain a clear-eyed perspective on how and when manipulative behaviour is embedded into the parent-child relationship.  

We all have an intrinsic understanding of our parents' profound influence on our psychological development, worldview, and sense of identity. So, when parental manipulation sparks doubt and self-scrutiny, it can ignite a disturbing conflict that strikes at the core of who we are.

This article offers a comprehensive overview of parental gaslighting and a tried-and-tested method to immunize and heal yourself from avoidable parental harm. 

 First, we'll cover the lowdown on Parental Gaslighting: 

  •  Understand Gaslighting: A Closer Look 
  •  Unpacking Parental Gaslighting: Why Does It Occur?
  •  Recognizing Parental Gaslighting: Key Indicators
  •  The Ripple Effect of Parental Gaslighting: Pervasive Consequences

Then, we'll look at parental gaslighting through the personal lens of one man's journey to overcome his mother's gaslighting.

After exploring the complex dynamics of parental gaslighting, you must equip yourself with tools to navigate and heal from this form of manipulation.

As a mental health professional with years of experience in therapeutic work, I've developed the STAR model to help individuals confront and transcend the turmoil of parental gaslighting.

The STAR model (Stop, Tame, Affirm, Rally, Reach Out) provides a practical and positive framework to enhance your awareness of manipulative behaviours and guide your self-recovery.

By recognizing the signs of parental gaslighting and actively working to rebuild your composure and confidence, this method will empower you to regain control and heal from the emotional wounds inflicted by parental abuse.

Understanding Parental Gaslighting: A Closer Look

Gaslighting is a technique of psychological manipulation. Its purpose is to sow doubt in a victim, causing them to question their memory, perception, or sanity.

This deceptive tactic uses denial, diversion, contradiction, and misinformation to unsettle victims and invalidate their beliefs.

The term "gaslighting" originates from the 1938 play and later film "Gas Light," where a man manipulates his wife into questioning her sanity in order to keep her captive.

Forms of Parental Gaslighting

 Parental gaslighting adopts various forms. Parents may, either unintentionally or intentionally, gaslight their children in several ways:

  • Denial of Reality: A parent might refute an event that the child distinctly remembers. For instance, a child might recall their parent shouting angrily at them. The parent might then respond, "I never raised my voice. You're remembering things wrong."
  • Dismissal of Emotions: Parents may downplay or disregard their child's emotions. If a child is upset and expresses their feelings, they might be accused of being overly dramatic.
  • Invalidation: A parent might negate a child's perspective. They may insist the child is mistaken about their perception of an event, eroding their confidence in their judgement.
  • Shift of Blame: Parents may project their inappropriate behaviour onto their child. They might say, "I wouldn't have to raise my voice if you'd just listen the first time."
  • Trivializing: Parents might belittle a child's experiences or accomplishments, making offhand comments such as "Anyone could have made that team."

Unpacking Parental Gaslighting: Why Does It Occur?

Parental gaslighting can be attributed to various causes stemming from the parents' emotional complexities, psychological well-being, and upbringing.

Here are some potential factors that lead parents to gaslight:

  • Desire for Control: Gaslighting is often a means to exert control over another person. A parent might employ gaslighting techniques to manipulate their child's behaviour or maintain (relationship) authority.
  • Unresolved Trauma: Parents grappling with unresolved traumas or psychological challenges might unconsciously gaslight their child as a coping mechanism, projecting their fears, insecurities, or beliefs onto the child.
  • Narcissism: Parents with narcissistic tendencies or Narcissistic Personality Disorder often resort to gaslighting their children to bolster their superiority and maintain their self-image.
  • Fragile self-perception: They might belittle, dismiss, or dispute their child's experiences or emotions to reinforce their self-perception.
  • Insecurity: Some parents, driven by their own insecurities or feelings of inadequacy, might gaslight their children to hide their perceived failures, manipulating their children's perception of reality.
  • Emotional Intelligence Deficit: Parents lacking emotional intelligence, i.e., the ability to recognize and comprehend their own emotions and those of others, might inadvertently gaslight their children. They may dismiss or invalidate their children's feelings because they fail to understand them.
  • Cultural or Societal Factors: Certain cultural norms and societal beliefs can contribute to parental gaslighting. For instance, in cultures where parents are viewed as faultless, any challenge to this notion can trigger gaslighting behaviours as a self-defence mechanism.
  • Cycle of Abuse: Parents who were victims of gaslighting or other psychological manipulation during their upbringing may perpetuate this behaviour with their children, creating a vicious cycle of abuse.

These factors may contribute to a parent's propensity to gaslight but do not excuse or justify the behaviour.

Gaslighting inflicts severe emotional and psychological damage on a child and is considered a form of abuse.

Recognizing Parental Gaslighting: Key Indicators

Detecting parental gaslighting can be akin to trying to see the wind - you can't see it directly, but you can observe its effects.

Especially when the manipulation is subtle or deeply woven into the parent-child interaction, it's a challenging task to identify it.

However, your vigilance to sure signs can unveil this form of manipulation. Here are some potential signals:

  • Denial of Past Events: Imagine a child, now an adult, confronting their parent about hurtful words uttered in the past. But instead of acknowledging this, the parent refutes it, insisting, "I never said anything like that."
  • Discrediting Emotions: It could be as simple yet damaging as the parent invalidating the child's feelings with remarks like, "You're too sensitive," gradually causing the child to mistrust their emotional responses.
  • Blame Shifting: Picture a scenario where a parent turns their emotions into the child's responsibility - "I wouldn't have lost my temper if you had just done as you were told."
  • Distorting Reality: A parent might insist that their perspective is the only valid one, subtly causing the child to doubt their perceptions.
  • Undermining Confidence: A consistent stream of criticism or belittlement can slowly erode a child's confidence, leading to self-esteem issues and a skewed perception of one's self-worth.
  • Confusion and Self-Doubt: If the child often feels baffled or frequently doubts their memory, sanity, or perception more than usual, it could be a red flag pointing to gaslighting.
  • Trivializing Achievements: Remember the school recital where the child did their best, but the parent merely remarked, "That was nothing special"?
  • Inducing Guilt: A gaslighting parent might make a child feel guilty for their everyday actions or emotions. Expressing happiness or pursuing personal interests might be framed as selfishness.
  • Emotional Neglect: Withholding affection or emotional support can also be a manipulation tactic. The parent may use love and approval as a reward or withhold care and support as punishment, thereby destabilizing the child's emotional world.

The Ripple Effect of Parental Gaslighting: Pervasive Consequences

Similar to a stone dropped in a calm pond, parental gaslighting initiates ripples that extend far and wide, profoundly impacting an individual at their epicentre.

The effects can be profound, enduring, and sometimes unseen, influencing a person's perception of themselves and their interactions with the world around them.

While potent, these effects vary based on the duration and intensity of the gaslighting, the child's personality and resilience, and whether there are additional relationships they can rely upon for support.

Here are some typical consequences:

  • Eroded Self-Esteem and Self-Worth: Sowing doubt, dismissing experiences, and belittling can whittle a child's self-confidence. They might grow into adults who question their worth and feel undeserving of love and respect. It's important to remember that these feelings are the scars of gaslighting, not the truth of who you are.
  • Anxiety and Depression: The emotional turmoil and chronic stress that come with gaslighting can give rise to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. With professional help, these conditions are treatable, and it's possible to regain emotional equilibrium.
  • Trust Issues: Experiencing manipulation by a trusted figure can engender a pervasive distrust towards others. It can create hurdles in forming healthy relationships, but with time and support, trust can be rebuilt.
  • Confusion and Self-Doubt: Gaslighting can lead children to question their memory, judgement, and perception of reality, fostering confusion and self-doubt. Yet, you can learn to regain clarity and self-assurance.
  • Fear of Expressing Emotions: A child whose feelings are consistently dismissed may learn to suppress their emotions or fear expressing them. Over time, this can hamper their ability to communicate and emotionally connect with others. Learning to express feelings safely is a critical part of the healing process.
  • Impaired Decision-Making: Gaslighting can shake a child's trust in their judgement, making decisions difficult in adulthood. Developing confidence in decision-making can be a focus of therapeutic work.
  • Chronic Guilt: A child who internalizes blame for a parent's actions might develop pervasive guilt. They may feel responsible for resolving conflicts or appeasing the parent. Addressing this misplaced guilt is crucial in therapy.
  • Relational Difficulties: As adults, individuals subjected to gaslighting may struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships. They might tolerate abusive behaviours or mimic the manipulative patterns they experienced growing up. With support, healthier relationship patterns can be learned.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): In severe cases, the child may manifest symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety. However, PTSD, while challenging, is treatable, and recovery is entirely possible with the right help. 

While the repercussions of parental gaslighting can be significant, they needn't permanently scar one's identity or dictate one's future.

Every individual possesses an inherent resilience that can be ignited to heal, grow, and transcend adversities.

David's Story - One Man's Journey With A Gaslighting Mother

David, a 36-year-old accountant from London, approached me with a problem rooted in his early life.

His bond with his mother had always been a complex knot of tension, compounded by the fact he was an only child.

Without a father or siblings to distribute the emotional load, he described a sense of single-handedly shouldering the weight of his mother's discontent and high expectations.

As an adult, David tried distancing himself from what often appeared a complex imposition - being his mother's main confidant and chief foundation for support.

Yet he grappled with the burden of being a good son, all the while fearing his mother's disappointment should he prove unable to offer the love and attention she felt was due.

David explained that - from his perspective - his mother demanded love without ever taking what he considered as affirmative steps to earn it. 

To him, these steps would have meant her showing consistent and predictable behaviour, recognizing his struggles, and taking time to understand him.

It would have meant providing empathetic support that wasn't conditional or laden with expectations—for example, help that didn't hinge on him adhering to her exacting standards or attempting to fulfil her unmet needs.

Instead, she had treated love and attention as her right, not a gift she needed to reciprocate or foster with nurturing behaviour. Consequently, David was a regular recipient of unpredictable treatment and betrayals of trust that his mother would attribute to his own behaviour.

The crux of the issue likely lay within his mother's discontent - her loneliness, lack of mental steadiness, and a host of unfulfilled life aspirations.

As a result, she harboured deep resentments and sensitivities that dominated her attention, a shadow that cast significant blind spots regarding her role as a parent and carer.

Unsurprisingly, David didn't feel his mother was invested in his well-being. He could only count on her to offload her stress onto him, positioning him as the 'problem-solver' or 'fixer.'

In her narrative, if only he did things differently, her life would be better.

David began to sense something was amiss as a child, yet he was reluctant to accept it. It felt easier - and safer - to see himself as the problem and his mother as the voice of reason.

Again, this is unsurprising. After all, children yearn for someone wiser and more capable to provide a protective and comforting presence.

So David had set aside his doubts about his mother in a desperate desire to believe she was right—and that she could be relied upon to be a stable, loving, and shielding influence in his life.

But as he transitioned from child to young adult and later to a husband and father, his mother's behaviour became intolerable.

Looking back across his life's landscape, it was clear how her demands, expectations, harsh criticisms and unpredictable behaviour had jeopardized his mental health.

His mother's gaslighting tendencies led to a complex web of emotional challenges. Her voice of blame and criticism had woven its way into his internal narrative.

Now, as an adult, he would often:

  •  Question his decision-making abilities
  •  Seek excess affirmation and reassurance
  •  Assume love was contingent on his performance
  •  Doubt the legitimacy of his own emotions
  •  Lower his expectations to protect himself against potential rejection or disappointment.

It was at a critical point in his life that David contacted me. During a particularly vulnerable period - his wife had undergone several consecutive miscarriages, and various health issues were plaguing his daily life - David had received a deeply hurtful audio message from his mother.

Brimming with criticism and pointed accusations that arrived out of the blue, David described feeling deeply shaken by the message.

It contrasted with the pleasant conversation they had shared just days prior, adding to his confusion and distress.

David reached a turning point after enduring years of his mother's harmful interactions. No longer willing to tolerate this unpredictable and precarious relationship, he sought a structured approach to healing, determined to move beyond the emotional scars.

Recognizing the complexity of his emotional challenges and the need for a tailored solution, we devised and refined the STAR model.

This tool, designed specifically to identify, handle, and move beyond the distressing experience of parental gaslighting, provided David with a clear path to regain control and rebuild his self-confidence.

The STAR model has five stages:

  •   Stop - Put an End to the Cycle
  •   Tame - Foster Inner Resilience
  •   Affirm - Adopt Self-Compassion
  •   Rally - Build a Support Network
  •   Reach Out – Become the Help You Need

Whether tackling individual episodes of gaslighting or readying to leave a history of abuse behind, these steps will equip you to regain balance and move forward. 

Step 1: Stop - A Definitive Stand to End The Cycle

Ships don't sink because of the water around them. Ships sink because of the water that gets in them – Anon.

 The first step of the STAR model is "Stop."

This crucial action represents your resolute stance against inappropriate and abusive gaslighting.

From a child's perspective, gaslighting betrays a primary caregiver's nurturing, supporting, and protecting role.

If parents fall short in these areas, their fault is not yours. Recognizing this, you must raise your defences and firmly declare, "STOP!"

Envision a bold, red traffic sign in your mind, signalling you to halt as soon as you encounter hurtful narratives like, "You always…", "You never…", "You let me down…" Counter these internally with a resolute "STOP!"

You're no longer required to analyze or understand these criticisms. If they don't stand up to honest scrutiny, discard them.

A question to consider:

How will you recognize when to say to STOP and protect your well-being?

With this firm commitment in place, you're ready to become your own emotional anchor, leading us to the second step of our STAR model.

Step 2: Tame - Nurturing Inner Resilience

Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless. - Ian Pears

 The second step of the STAR model is "Tame." 

Once you're determined to resist parental gaslighting, it's time to take control over how you talk to yourself.

'Tame' signals an end to re-running toxic conversations and trying to disentangle complex parental behaviours that don't belong to you.

Instead, your focus is cultivating an inner voice of support and encouragement, even if it feels like starting from scratch. 

A consistent and predictable voice of reason may have been absent for adults confronting longstanding parental gaslighting. As a result, a model for a kind and reassuring inner dialogue may be sketchy.

Here's what a kind and supportive inner voice will sound like:

  • Affirmative: A kind and supportive inner voice reinforces your self-worth and morale. It uses affirming language that highlights your capabilities, achievements, and strengths, such as "I can do this," "I am capable," or "I have overcome challenges before. I can do it again."
  • Compassionate: A kind and supportive inner voice seeks to understand your feelings and emotions, especially during hard times. It is gentle and non-judgmental, offering comfort, such as, "It's okay to feel this way," or "Everyone has tough days."
  • Optimistic: A kind and supportive inner voice helps you maintain a hopeful outlook on life. It reminds you that hardships are temporary and encourages resilience and perseverance, with thoughts like "This too shall pass," or "Every setback is a setup for a comeback."
  • Rational: A kind and supportive inner voice is also realistic. It enables you to acknowledge your mistakes or shortcomings without excessive self-criticism. Instead of saying, "I always mess up," it might suggest, "I made a mistake, but I can learn from it."
  • Motivated: A kind and supportive inner voice helps spur you to action and encourages personal growth. It inspires and motivates you to move forward, offering statements like "Let's try again" or "What's the next step I can take?

Each characteristic fosters a nurturing, kind, and supportive inner dialogue, which can be instrumental in overcoming the effects of parental gaslighting.

Instead of responding to the distress of parental gaslighting, learning to tame is about gaining control over your emotional voice rather than letting it dictate your actions.

This is particularly challenging when dealing with parental interactions, as parents often know our emotional triggers. 

However, remaining rational, calm, and objective is crucial when confronting parental gaslighting. 

Although emotions can be a reliable barometer of our internal state, they shouldn't be the sole determinant of our decisions.

Uncontrolled emotions can steer you towards unregulated behaviour, such as excessive drinking or overspending, creating new problems over time.

The "Tame" step involves acknowledging your feelings while managing your responses. Your emotions inform you; they don't have to control you. 

A question to consider: 

Tame - How will you retain a measured and balanced inner dialogue during and after gaslighting?

This paves the way for the third step in our STAR model.

Step 3: Affirm - Embrace Self-Compassion

You've been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn't worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. - Kristin Neff

Now that you've committed to Stop! and repositioning your response to a gaslighting parent, it's time to consider some affirmative care and kindness. 

The third step in the STAR model is "Affirm," an action centred around embracing self-compassion. 

Recognizing your humanity and acknowledging that life is replete with highs and lows, successes and failures, is pivotal at this stage. 

When dealing with erratic parents, we need to modify our expectations. Life is everyone's first attempt; unfortunately, not all parents do an adequate job of it. 

In these instances, we have to extend understanding and compassion towards ourselves.

Practising self-love is an ambiguous concept.

A helpful strategy can be to ask: 'If I met that younger version of myself in this situation, what acts of love, kindness, and empathy would I extend to them?' or 'How would I support a friend going through a similar situation?' 

Imagine the nurturing and protective energy that such a friend embodies.

When encountering negativity from a toxic person, reflect on what you might need to establish emotional distance and reduce the intensity of your feelings. 

This could be taking a moment to breathe and lean into your feelings, not to be consumed by upset but to recognize and acknowledge the impact of toxic behaviour and your desire to overturn it.

Equally, you might seek to spend time in a serene environment, engage in physical activity, spend time with a trusted companion, or write a reassuring note to contradict the content of parental gaslighting.

It's often about crafting a mixture of these self-soothing strategies that resonate personally with you.

The goal is to engage in acts that acknowledge and honour the impact of your experiences, no matter how fleeting. 

A question to consider: 

What self-soothing techniques resonate with you, and how could you integrate them into your daily routine for self-support?

With that, we move towards the fourth step of the STAR model.

Step 4 - Rally - Cultivate a Supportive Network

The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one. - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The fourth step in the STAR model is "Rally," underscoring the significance of surrounding yourself with a supportive, affirming social network. 

Engaging with those who love you, have faith in you, and lift your spirits is crucial.

The impact of our immediate companions on our habits, beliefs, and expectations cannot be understated. They shape our behaviour, self-worth perception, and vision of what's achievable.

Surrounding yourself with understanding and validating friends can counterbalance the detrimental effects of parental gaslighting. 

These individuals can validate your feelings and experiences, bolster your self-assurance, and spur personal development. 

They offer an alternative viewpoint, questioning the damaging narratives imposed by gaslighting and reinforcing your sense of reality and self.

Conscious efforts to seek out and nurture relationships with supportive individuals are vital to building such a network. 

This network could include friends who respect and value you, mentors who inspire you, or therapists who provide professional advice. 

It may also involve participation in online or offline support communities that bring together people with shared experiences.

In essence, this step is about creating a nurturing environment that reinforces your worth and potential, in contrast to the toxic environment you aim to overcome. 

It's an essential step in combating gaslighting and reclaiming your identity. This prepares you for the final phase of the STAR model.

A question to consider: 

Who uplifts you, and how will you extend these relationships as a buffer against gaslighting?

Step 5 - Reach out (Be the Support You Need)

 No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. - Charles Dickens

The final step of the STAR model is "Reach Out," which advocates for the courageous and liberating act of becoming the supportive figure for others you've needed.

There may be times when the emotional support we need seems scarce. During such moments, rallying oneself and reaching out can seem arduous. Still, it can also present an opportunity for growth and empowerment.

Drawing inspiration from the saying, "To have a good friend, you need to be a good friend," this step encourages us to extend a hand to others, providing them with the empathy, understanding, and support we may have yearned for.

This isn't about ignoring our own struggles or exhausting ourselves to help others. Instead, it's about validating our strength, competence, and resilience by aiding others.

Supporting others often leads us to discover the best within ourselves - in lighting the way for other people, we also illuminate our own path. 

This step underscores our ability to cope and offer the empathy and kindness we've longed for, emphasizing our worthiness and resilience. 

It's a potent method of showing ourselves that, despite the gaslighting we've endured, we can overcome it and be a beacon of strength and support for those around us.

A question to consider

Reach Out: How can you extend your empathy and understanding to others and demonstrate your capacity to rise above the gaslighting you've experienced?

Sum up: The STAR Model to Overcome Gaslighting

To navigate challenging or even toxic situations, remember these steps of the STAR model: 

Stop the internalisation of damaging narratives, 

Tame your emotions, 

Affirm yourself through acts of self-compassion, 

Rally by surrounding yourself with positive influences,

Reach Out by becoming the support for others that you desire. 

Each stage in this model is a building block to help you construct a healthier self-perception, away from the harmful narratives you may have been taught to believe.

Addressing the impact of parental gaslighting represents a complex process requiring understanding the nuances of your own experiences and emotions.

While the STAR model offers a structured path toward healing from parental gaslighting, it's vital to recognize that the journey may present challenges and obstacles.

Implementing these steps requires courage, self-awareness, and persistence.

You may encounter internal and external resistance as you strive to break free from ingrained patterns and build new, healthier ways of relating to yourself and others.

It's normal to feel overwhelmed or uncertain at times. Remember, healing is a process, not an event, and it's okay to seek professional guidance or lean on supportive friends and family as you navigate this complex terrain.

The STAR model is a guide, but your personal path may require personalized adjustments and continuous self-reflection.

You are deserving of love, support, and encouragement. 

You are worthy.

Thanks for reading.

I'm Dominic Decker - a  British-registered psychotherapist. If you found this article helpful, consider subscribing to the blog so you receive future blog posts.