Psychologists Are Begging Families to Recognize the Most Common Form of Gaslighting—Plus, Here's Exactly How To Respond

While being part of a family can be a fun, rewarding and supportive experience, it can also be tricky to navigate those family dynamics. For instance, there are things that parents and grandparents do every day that can negatively impact their children and grandchildren. Certain parenting styles can be less-than-ideal for a parent/child relationship. And arguments can abound.

One of the most damaging things that can take place in families though? Gaslighting, and the most common form of it can be especially impactful upon families. It can either be happening to you personally or perhaps you’re witnessing it taking place in another family or within a child’s life.

Related: 9 Subtle Signs of Gaslighting That Are Often Easy to Miss, According to Psychologists

What Is Gaslighting?

Psychologist Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Integrative and Children’s Mental Health Expert, says that gaslighting happens “when someone makes you second-guess your thoughts, feelings and memories, which makes you doubt yourself.”

Dr. Deborah Gilman, owner and Chief Licensed Psychologist at Fox Chapel Psychological Services, uses this metaphor: imagine that you and a friend are watching a movie together. It's a bright, sunny day in the film. But your friend insists it's raining. You know you're right, but your friend keeps saying it's raining, making you doubt your own memory.

“Gaslighting is similar,” she says. “It's a type of emotional abuse where someone makes you question your own reality. They might deny things they said or did, twist events to make you seem crazy or make you feel like you're overreacting to normal situations.”

Related: 14 Genius Phrases To Shut Down Gaslighting, According to Psychologists

Why Is Gaslighting Detrimental to Families?

Unfortunately, gaslighting is something that can take place in families, and it’s imperative to be aware of certain signs and signals that this is happening.

Since “families are supposed to be safe spaces where we are loved and supported,” as Dr. Gilman says, gaslighting in a family setting can be especially damaging “because it can erode trust and create a toxic environment.”

According to Dr. Gilman, gaslighting can create these negative effects in a family:

  • Breaks down trust

  • Creates confusion and uncertainty

  • Trivialization and guilt-tripping

  • Damages self-esteem

  • Impacts emotional regulation

  • Isolates family members

  • Normalizes abuse

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says that when a parent gaslights their child, they make the child believe their thoughts and emotions are wrong or not real, which can undermine the child's self-esteem and cause them to distrust their “gut,” making them less confident and open to manipulation from others.

When children who are gaslit grow into adulthood, the impact of gaslighting can be far-reaching. Dr. Gilman says that individuals who grew up in gaslighting families often have difficulty trusting others.

“As an adult, the individual might struggle to trust others or develop close, intimate relationships due to the fear of being manipulated or hurt again,” she says. “They may be hesitant to express their needs for fear of being dismissed or ridiculed.”

Dr. Capanna-Hodge adds that adults who were gaslit as children may be more likely to experience clinical issues such as anxiety, OCD or depression.

Whether you’re a young member of your family or are an adult who suspects gaslighting in your family, as detailed by Dr. Gilman, some specific signs can include:

  • You constantly question your own memory or perception of events.

  • You feel like you're "walking on eggshells" around a family member.

  • You apologize frequently, even when you haven't done anything wrong.

  • You feel confused and doubt your own judgment.

  • You feel isolated from other family members.

Related: Here's Exactly What To Do When Someone Gaslights You, According to a Psychologist

Psychologists Are Begging Families to Recognize the Most Common Form of Gaslighting

As Dr. Capanna-Hodge shares, the most common form of gaslighting often looks like one person regularly brushing off or minimizing another’s feelings and experiences. This can manifest as some of those previously discussed signs, which Dr. Capanna-Hodge says includes constantly doubting one’s feelings and memories, not trusting one’s instincts and frequently apologizing even when not at fault.

Related: 35 Common Gaslighting Phrases in Relationships and How To Respond, According to Therapists

Here's Exactly How To Respond

Since children have limited power when compared to adults, as Dr. Gilman says, their options for responding may be limited, especially when they’re younger children.

“The goal might not be to change the parent's behavior immediately, but to equip the child with coping mechanisms to manage the situation and protect their emotional well-being,” she says. “It's important to prioritize the child's safety. If the parent is abusive or the child feels unsafe, encourage them to seek help from a trusted adult or call a helpline.” This may be something you notice as a teacher, coach or another trusted adult figure in a child’s life.

For younger children in elementary school, Dr. Gilman says that it’s important to validate their feelings. Let them know their feelings are okay, even if the parent dismisses them. You can say phrases such as, “You seem upset about what happened. It’s okay to feel that way.”

For older children in middle school and high school, encourage them to use “I” statements to help express their feelings and perspective. As Dr. Gilman says, the child can use phrases like, “I feel hurt when you say…” or “I remember things differently…”

Also, older children should set boundaries with caution.

“Depending on the situation, they might be able to say, ‘I don't like it when you talk to me like that’ or ‘I need some space,’” Dr. Gilman says, adding, “However, prioritizing safety is key.”

Related: 10 Phrases To Replace Saying 'Sorry' as a Reflex, According to a Therapist

Those who are being gaslit should also focus on self-care. “Encourage healthy activities and outlets for emotions, like journaling, spending time with trusted friends or creative hobbies,” Dr. Gilman says.

Additionally, Dr. Gilman says, “If the gaslighting is severe or the child feels comfortable, they could keep a simple record of events (dates, times, brief descriptions) on a hidden note or phone app (if safe to do so). This can be helpful for them later or if they need support from an adult. Encourage the child/family to talk to a trusted adult, therapist or counselor. A professional can provide a safe space to express their feelings, develop coping mechanisms and learn how to navigate the situation.”

If you are the one who is being gaslit in a family, Dr. Capanna-Hodge says that the first and hardest step is to recognize the signs and trust your own feelings.

“Next, setting boundaries is essential to break the manipulation pattern,” she says. “If a person is struggling, it is always important to talk to supportive friends or family and seek professional support.”

For more help, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 or the National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 422-4453.

Next up, learn how to spot the earliest signs of gaslighting.