When a parent physical abuses their child, it leaves marks and outbursts of anger in the child. When they verbally abuse their child, it strips them of self-confidence and instills fear. When they sexually abuse their child, it destroys the possibility of intimacy and healthy sexuality. But when a parent mentally abuses their child by gaslighting, the child believes they are crazy. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, often doing a lifetime of damage.
Gaslighting is a psychological term used to describe the process of grooming someone into believing that they are losing it or going crazy. Gaslighting a child is perhaps the most egregious form of child abuse. During the first stage of development from birth to eighteen months, a child learns to trust their parent to meet their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, support and nurturing. When a parent meets these needs, the child learns to trust; when it is not met, the child develops mistrust. Once the trust has been established, the child will naturally believe the parent over their own intuition.
A parent who gaslights their child is manipulatively deceptive. They take advantage of their position of trust and authority over the child to meet their own dysfunctional needs. The child, whose brain and emotions are still in the developmental stages, doesn’t have the ability to see their parent’s behavior as abusive. Rather, the child trusts the parent even more and begins to believe that they are in fact crazy. Sometimes this process is done in ignorance, as their parents did the same behavior to them as children. Other times, it is done intentionally to keep the child emotionally stunted so the parent can remain in control. Here is how it works.
- Establish trust. At first, the gaslighting parent will seem to be the perfect person. They will be attentive, caring, and constantly present. While this is comforting to the child, it might a method of studying the child. The more they learn, the greater the ability to successfully twist the truth. It is important to note that healthy parenting and abusive parenting look exactly the same in the beginning. It is only as the next steps progress that things become glaringly different.
- Push the boundaries. Early on the abusive parent refuses to see a difference between where they end and the child begins. The child becomes an extension of the parent in likes, dislikes, behavior, and moods. The abusive parent leaves no room for the child to establish any boundaries of self. Rather, the child is taught that they are a “mini-me” version of the parent. This is an early indicator of future abusive behavior.
- Gives surprise gifts. A common tactic is for the abusive parent to give a gift to the child for no reason and then randomly take it away. The gift is usually something that is highly valued to the child. Once appreciation is shown, then it is removed as a precursor to a push-pull abuse tactic. The idea is that the parent is in complete control of the child: giving pleasure and then taking it away. This creates a strange fear that things will be taken away if the child does not do exactly what the parent demands.
- Isolates from others. In order to be effective, the abusive parent needs to be the only dominant voice in the child’s head. So all friends, family, and even neighbors are systematically put in and then removed from the child’s life. There are excuses for this distance such as “your grandparent is crazy”, “your best friend said mean things about you” and “no one cares for you as much as I do”. This reinforces the dependency on the abusive parent to meet all of the needs of their child.
- Makes subtle statements. Once the stage is set, the actual work of manipulation begins in this step. It starts with hints of “you are forgetful” or “you are angry”. The child might not actually be forgetful but a little suggestion followed by the random disappearance of items such as keys easily reinforces the concept. The child might not feel anger and in an attempt to defend, says “no I’m not”. To which the abusive parent responds, “I can hear it the tone of your voice and your body language, I know you better than you know yourself.” Even if the child wasn’t feeling anger before, they will be now.
- Projects suspicions onto the child. A gaslighter is naturally a suspicious person who takes their own fears and states that it is the child who is actually the paranoid person. This projection can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the child (who has become dependent on their abusive parent) believes what is being said. Without anyone else to counteract with the truth, twisted perception becomes a reality.
- Plants seeds of imagination. This is step begins by suggesting that the child is imagining things that aren’t real. It is reinforced through intentional removal of “lost” items, claiming the child hears random noises and generating unnecessary emergencies or illnesses. Everything is done to cause the child to become even more dependent on the abusive parent’s perception. Frequently, this step is done in conjunction with a repetition of the other previous six steps.
- Attack and retreat. The push-pull abuse tactic comes into full view as the abusive parent attacks the child through random anger outbursts which are designed to startle the child into further submission. Then the abusive parent follows it by making a joke of the incident claiming that the child’s reaction is an overreaction. The child feels ridiculous and subsequently trusts their instincts even less. Successful completion of this phase gives the gaslighter complete control to now convince their child that they are going crazy.
- Takes advantage of the victim. This last step is where the abusive parent has obtained enough influence and domination that they are able to literally do whatever they want to the child. Usually, there are no limits or boundaries anymore and the child is unfortunately completely submissive. Since the abusive parent has most likely added other forms of abuse and trauma onto the child, this last phase is even more painful as trauma is built on top of even more trauma. The gaslighter, who has no empathy for the child, can only see that the end justifies the means of getting what they want.
It usually takes the observation of an outsider to help the child escape from the clutches of their abusive parent. This could be a family member, a friend to the child or parent, a neighbor, or even a counselor. Being such a person requires observation, courage, and careful timing. But to the child, it is a life-saver.