6 Signs Your Parent Might Be Gaslighting You (and What to Do About it)

gaslighting parents

Has your mom ever called you a drama queen for speaking up about relationship stress? Does your dad regularly play the victim when you call him out for any little thing? In an ideal world, we’d all have strong, fabulous relationships with our parents. In reality, though, parents are real people, too, and sometimes real people treat each other poorly. If you suspect your parent is gaslighting you, read on for some telltale signs, plus tips for what to do.

What Is Gaslighting?

Before we jump into the signs, let’s define gaslighting. Though it can take many different forms, at its core, gaslighting is a communication technique in which someone causes you to question your own version of past events. Most times, it’s meant to make you feel like you’re losing your grip on reality. In its milder forms, gaslighting creates an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. But at its worst, gaslighting can actually be considered a form of mind-control and psychological abuse.

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6 Signs Your Parents Are Gaslighting You

1. They Make You Question Your Recollection of Past Events

It’s normal for you and your parent to remember events, specifically from your childhood, a little differently. Maybe you could’ve sworn it was your fifth birthday party that was Power Ranger-themed instead of your sixth, or that your favorite backpack was the Barbie one, not the Barney one. It veers into gaslighting territory, though, when your parent tries to act like something that had a profound effect on you didn’t happen. Let’s say you remember a time when you were bullied in middle school. You might try to bring it up, only to be told that you’re being dramatic, and that that actually never really happened. This, in turn, invalidates your experiences and makes you question your own memory. Both major red flags.  

2. They Tell You What You Like (and What You Don’t)

When we’re children, it’s not uncommon for parents to do this. They probably have a better recollection of the first time you tried pickles and cried for 25 minutes than you do. However, you’re an adult now, and only you get to decide what you like and what you don’t like. If your parent consistently tries to convince you that you’ve definitely said that you’d never want to move to New York, they’re actively trying to get you to second guess your own opinions, giving them more control.

3. They Deny Things You Call Them Out For

This one applies to any type of relationship where you suspecting someone is gaslighting you. You know in your rational mind that something is going on, but when you bring it up, you’re met with total denial and potentially even a, “You’re crazy. What are you talking about?!” Again, this is a way for them to make you question your own sanity and deflect blame from themselves.

4. They Tell You You’re Overreacting

Another telltale sign someone is gaslighting you. One of the main goals of a gaslighter is to get you to question your own thoughts and emotions. Let’s say you’ve taken to your bed over a breakup. Your parent doesn’t understand why you’re making such a big deal of it and can’t believe you’re cancelling your dinner plans over that person. Fine—he doesn’t have to. But saying “you’re making too big a deal out of this” is grade-A toxicity; while “I don’t know what you are going through, but I’m so sorry this happened” is way more compassionate.

5. They Don’t Get Excited for You

You got a huge promotion at work that you’ve been gunning for the better part of the last year. When you call your mom to tell her about it, her reaction is lackluster at best. Parents should be some of your biggest cheerleaders, and making you feel badly or down could be a sign that it’s a toxic relationship. Immediately after spending time with them, ask yourself, "Do I feel better or worse than when I left the house this morning?" If you consistently feel worse, they’re toxic. "[These] people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return."

6. They Always Play the Victim

In 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life by Bill Eddy, the author identifies HCP (high-conflict personalities) who have the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of their friends and family members. A common thread among these people are a lack of ability to change or to see their part in life problems. “They mistakenly believe that all their problems just happen to them—as if they dropped from the sky—and that there’s nothing they can do about it,” he explains. “They chronically feel like a victim in life.” Anyone with a perceived lack of agency in their own life is apt to spiral into bitterness without a willingness to break old patterns.

How to Deal with Parental Gaslighting

1. Try to Recognize What’s Happening

Gaslighting works best when a victim isn’t aware of what’s going on. Once you understanding what’s happening, you’ll be better equipped to prepare to fight back, or at least call the gaslighter out on their behavior, which might throw them off their game, or make them reconsider you as a prime target. If you suspected someone is gaslighting you, educate yourself about what gaslighting is, the tactics a gaslighter uses and ways to handle it. Psychology Today is an excellent resource for articles written by mental health professionals. 

2. Confront Them About Their Behavior

Once you’ve studied up on the motivations behind and tactics used in gaslighting, it's time to take action. As mentioned, gaslighting works best when the victim is in the dark about what’s going on. If you feel comfortable doing so, let the person who’s gaslighting you know that you see what they’re doing, and you’re not going to stand for it. If you show that you’re onto them, they might decide the payoff isn’t worth the struggle. But be aware that how you call someone out is crucial. Instead of getting heated and going into attack mode, try to call your gaslighter out calmly. This will show them that, in addition to understanding what they’re up to, you’re also not riled up about the situation.

3. Compile Proof

Because the main goal of gaslighting is to make you feel like you’ve lost touch with reality, it’s important to keep a record of things as they happen, to return to as proof when you start to doubt your own memory. When it comes to proof, the National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends keeping a journal with dates, times and as many details as possible, in addition to confiding in a trusted family member or friend.

4. Decide Whether the Relationship Is Worth It

Clearly every relationship is different, but if you think gaslighting is in play, it’s always worth a check-in. If the person gaslighting you is a family member or someone you’re in a romantic relationship with, it can be trickier to make a clean break. First steps might include the services of a therapist.

5. Lean on Friends and Family

Though it’s often the goal of a gaslighter to isolate you from the people who care about you, having other people to confide in is crucial. In addition to acting as a sounding board, a friend or family member is an unbiased third party who can reality check the situation and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t “crazy” or “exaggerated.”

6. Prioritize Self-Care

Worrying about gaslighting can creep into pretty much every area of your life, making it tough to enjoy even your favorite people, places or things. Because it takes such a huge toll on your mental health, self-care is paramount. By focusing on yourself, you’ll feel more capable of standing up for yourself and dealing with all the challenges life is throwing at you. From writing gratitude lists to watching motivational TED Talks, here are dozens of super-simple ways to practice self-care.

7. Seek Professional Help

Some gaslighting situations are easier to leave than others, and family relationships are one of the tougher ones. If you suspect there’s gaslighting going on in your relationship with your parent (or parents), seek out the help of a licensed therapist—specifically someone who specializes in family therapy—who can help you define what you’re going through and help you get past it.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...