You may have heard the term “gaslighting” lately. Like narcissism, it’s a psychological term that’s quite popular in the media today, and it’s relevant, since accidentally but chronically gaslighting our children can cause our children deep pain. When we learn to stop gaslighting, we can better support our child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
The term gaslighting means to deny another person’s perception of reality. Over time, when our perception is routinely overruled by someone we love, we lose confidence in our ability to accurately judge how people see us and even changes how we see ourselves.
Many of the articles about gaslighting today talk about adult relationships, in which one partner gaslights the other, leading to gross manipulation and emotional abuse. The partner who is being gaslighted is instructed to escape the gaslighter or suffer lifelong pain and suffering.
There are also articles written by adult children of parents who are gaslighters. These children suffer lifelong timidity and self-doubt. They report terrible self esteem and say they constantly seek love from the gaslighting parent. They usually talk about years of therapy while they desperately try to recover.
Most parents gaslight their kids some of the time
Like so many psychological terms, gaslighting falls along a spectrum, and most parents do some form of gaslighting some of the time. Parental gaslighting of the everyday variety is typically in response to a child’s distress.
Our toddler falls down, and we coo “you’re OK,” as our child is crying. We are honestly trying to be the best parent by reassuring our child. But, in fact, comments like these deny our child’s actual experience and can cause cognitive dissonance. Our child is clearly hurting, but we are saying they are OK.
Our children may begin to think “if I feel bad, but Mom says I’m OK, am I over-reacting to the pain I feel?” Remember that we are the ultimate authority in our child’s life, and obtaining our love and approval is their most primal need. As we innocently continue to protest our child’s discomfort, our child begins to doubt herself, and may think “I must be crazy to have all these feelings.”
As parents, we often have no idea that we’re accidentally impacting our child’s sense of self-trust. We are just trying to protect our children from upsetting emotions. When our child cries, we jump to stop the tears as quickly as possible. It’s not because we’re monsters: it’s because we want our children to be happy.
It gets even harder as our kids grow and become more independent. With independence comes an increase in arguments, especially in the teenage years.
Now it’s not just that our child is crying because he fell and scraped his knee. Now our child is crying because he is angry with us and feels wronged and misunderstood. We immediately jump into action, trying to stop our child’s distress, which is often directed at us, as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, this attempt to get our child to recover from being upset is a form of gaslighting. We are so desperate for them to return to emotional homeostasis that we invalidate or deny their emotional expression in an attempt to shut down the distressing feelings. We are uncomfortable with their discomfort, so we try to sweep it under the rug so we can all move on with “normal life.”
We say things like:
“That’s not true”
“I can’t believe you said that”
“That’s not what I said”
“That’s not what happened”
“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal about this”
“I don’t know why you’re so upset”
“You’re just too sensitive”
“It’s fine. Why are you making a big deal about this?”
There is hope after accidental gaslighting
The good news is that when we have accidentally gaslighted our child, we can recover. Over time, we can help our child by validating, instead of trying to get past her feelings. This is a critical part of building our connection with our children who have eating disorders, because eating disorders usually signal an inability to process emotions in a healthy manner.
Our children who have eating disorders are using food, restriction and purging as a maladaptive coping mechanism to process their emotions. They are, in essence, gaslighting themselves.
Stop gaslighting and start validating
To stop being a parent who accidentally gaslights a child, you have to practice validating instead of denying feelings. This is not easy. It will take time and practice. And we can’t expect perfection, but we can keep trying, and our practice will make a positive impact on our relationship with our kids.
We have to get comfortable with our children’s uncomfortable emotions. Yes, all of them. This includes their rages, their screams, their sudden tears and complete breakdowns. This includes when they make unreasonable accusations that are actually not true.
A child’s emotional breakdown is not the time to pursue truth. It is a time to validate that feelings are happening. Over time, you can have discussions about the fact that feelings are not always true. Just like us, in the heat of our emotions, our kids say things that feel real, but that, in hindsight, they recognize were not actually true.
Emotional expression is a part of being human. Instead of trying to get our kids to recover quickly, we need to validate the feelings and allow them to exist.
When we validate our children’s emotional experience, we help them build emotional metabolism. They learn to label their emotions and let them be processed without judgment or shame. This is much of what our kids’ therapists are doing with them during eating disorder recovery.
In fact: if you’re wondering what your children are doing in therapy, there’s a good chance they are talking about how they feel, and their therapist is validating those feelings.
Our kids’ therapists know that when we have an eating disorder, we are stuck in a pattern of ignoring our emotional responses, and we must learn to metabolize our emotions in order to recover.
How to validate your child’s feelings
The first key when you validate your child’s feelings is to recognize that this is hard for you. Yes, that’s right. Before you attend to your child, take a minute to send yourself some self-compassion for the experience of witnessing your child’s pain. At first, it feels very unnatural and very wrong to just sit by and validate our kids’ feelings rather than trying to make everything OK.
When your child begins expressing feelings, give yourself self-compassion and recognize that you need to do some conscious, active parenting in order to validate the feelings.
Here is what validation looks like:
Child: “I hate everyone. This is terrible. I hate you!”
Parent: “I can see you’re really angry right now.”
Child: “Yeah! I’m pissed! Life just sucks!”
Parent: “It’s so hard for you right now.”
Child: Crying “I’m such a mess. I hate my life.”
Parent: “I’m so sorry, Sweetie.”
Child: Crying “I’m sorry”
Parent: “I’m here, Sweetie. I’m here. It will be OK”
As your child begins to calm down, you can talk about the feelings in a reflective, non-judgemental manner.
“Wow, those were some big feelings there.”
“Those feelings can be so scary.”
“It felt like those feelings were really rough on you.”
We can also reassure our children that feelings ebb and flow. They are real feelings, but they are not always the truth.
“Big feelings like anger and hopelessness feel so scary. Sometimes we have to just let them happen, and get as big as they need to, and then they will pass and turn into another feeling.”
Don’t judge the feelings, or talk about them as if they are bad. The can be big and scary, but they are not bad.
Remember to give yourself self-compassion every step of the way. Take some deep breaths, and even consider stroking your arm soothingly and saying to yourself “this is hard.”
We can all improve our parenting. It’s hard, but it pays dividends for both our own and our children’s lives.