According to the website vox.com and author, Robin Stern, “the phrase ‘to gaslight’ refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings.” Its origins can be traced to the play, and then film, “Gas Light.” The story is about a couple, Gregory and Paula. “Throughout the film version of the story, Paula sees gaslights dimming and brightening for no apparent reason. Gregory convinces her that it’s all inside her head. In reality, he was switching the attic lights on and off to create the gaslight flickers. He manipulated her belief in her own perception of reality through the gaslights.” (pri.org) The phrase has grown in popularity over the past few years, and has become a regular part of our vernacular.
Typically, when you hear the term being used, it is a reference to how one adult is treating another, but I began to think about how parents do this to their children all the time without even realizing it.
For example, your child comes home from school with a bad grade and they begin to share how unfair they feel their teacher is being. The test was too hard, there wasn’t enough notice, there were items that weren’t even covered in class, etc. etc. More often than not, we rush in to negate their experience. We may say things like, “I don’t think your teacher is being unfair, are you sure you were paying attention?” Or, “I’m sure if you had studied last night instead of being on your phone you would’ve done fine.” Is there a possibility that you are right? Of course, but that’s not the point. Your child’s feelings are valid and real to them, and deserve to be heard and explored.
Perhaps you’ve experienced a child who didn’t make the team, or get invited to the party, or get the role in the play and your instinct was to work overtime to make them feel better. This could look like any of the following:
You shouldn’t feel bad, that coach doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Don’t be sad. We can have our own party!
You were so much better than ________, don’t worry about it.
You may be thinking, what’s wrong with trying to make my child feel better? The honest answer is, this type of reaction is so much more about making ourselves feel better. We gaslight our children because we are acutely uncomfortable with their suffering. While this is understandable, our efforts to minimize or eliminate their struggles is ultimately harmful.
Instead of rushing in next time, try this instead:
Reflect their experience. “Wow, that sounds ____________.” (frustrating, annoying, aggravating, etc.)
Empathize. “I’m sorry that happened.”
Listen and refrain from giving unsolicited advice or solving the problem for them.
Ask them what they think they want to do about it if appropriate.
Through this type of listening and understanding you will show your child that you can handle all of their experiences and that how they feel is valid and real. They will learn to trust their emotions and become comfortable sharing negative experiences with you because you will have convinced them that you can handle it! In addition, by turning the problem-solving reins over to your child, you will help to foster their sense of autonomy and competency, two important facets of healthy self-development.
Negative emotions, suffering and struggling are part of the human experience. It is how we learn and grow, so get comfortable with the struggle and leave the gaslighting to the movies where it belongs!