Hello! I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Over the holiday I came across an interesting article entitled Can We Stop Gaslighting Our Kids? It gives an in-depth explanation of some of the messages that are being portrayed to children during this time of year (to read the full article click here) and speaks of a term called “gaslighting”. This story explains the term: The term gaslighting comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the gas-powered lights in their home. When his wife points out that the lights are dim, he denies that the light has changed. In the context of abuse and control, it can be a powerful tool for an abuser to break someone of their confidence, causing them to question reality and mistrust their instincts and perception. Over time, the person is conditioned to believe that they are crazy or at the very least, that their version of reality is suspect. This causes them to stay in bad relationships out of fear that it’s not as bad as they think it is…When we tell our kids to be happy or calm down or not react to big changes, big disappointments, or big deals in their really small lives, we do the same thing. We condition them to not react the way they, or anyone, would normally react to these situations. We tell them that they shouldn’t feel sad or mad or really, anything but glad. We take away their voices This reminded me of similar situations I often explain to the parents of young children, not only during this time of year. However, this topic does seem appropriate given the fact that during the holidays children tend to be put in more difficult situations that usual – being forced to sit on the lap of a stranger at the mall and being told to smile, made to hug or kiss unfamiliar relatives, asked to sit still for long dinners and the list goes on. Without intentionally doing so, I find that many parents “gaslight” their children.
The most common example that comes to mind is gaslighting under the guise of comforting children. EVERY parent has watched as their child has fallen down or gotten hurt in one way or another and picked them up saying, “You’re ok” as a way of comforting them. But, my question is – how do you know they are ok? What if they are NOT ok and you are telling them that if they scrape their knee, or break a bone, or a kid pushes them down that they are “ok”? Translation – this is not a reason to be upset/cry/be sad. While the intentions are good, the child is taking away that their expression of feeling is wrong. However, with a slight change in presentation, this response can be validating AND comforting for the child. For example: “Oh I saw you fell down, I bet that hurt! We will get some ice and in a little while I think you will be ok”. By validating the pain, you are allowing the child to have whatever feelings they are having and comforting them with the knowledge that this pain will not last forever.
I often encourage my clients, who are parents or caregivers, to put themselves in the shoes of the child. To a child the whole entire world is new, they are just figuring it all out for the first time and they only have 1,2,3 etc. years of experience in which to base their findings. It is the parent or guardian that children look to for help to fill in some of the blanks. Think, for a moment, of an incident in your adult life that brought you great sadness. Then take that feeling of sadness or pain and imagine you have no idea what it is, you have no idea what is happening and you have no concept of time. With their limited years of experience, this is exactly how a child feels. The feelings that adults have are just as intense for children, but they have smaller bodies or containers for it, then add that they have no words to identify the emotion, it feels like it is happening TO them AND they have no concept of time. So as far as they know this is their new state of being that will never end. When put into that perspective it is easier for an adult to imagine how horrible and scary feelings of sadness, anger, pain, anxiety, fear or any other number of feelings must be.
The good news is, as the parents or adults in a child’s life you have the ability to help them identify, acknowledge and make any number of feelings ok. Children, like adults, need their feelings to be acknowledged and respected. The aforementioned article gives some prime examples of parents trying to “help” by forcing children to do things like hug or kiss unfamiliar relatives, pretend to be “ok” when they feel uncomfortable and ultimately hide their real feelings then feel shame for having them in the first place. The more we, as adults, make an effort to place ourselves in the places of the children we nurture, the more compassionately we will be able to respond. If a child feels heard, validated and respected when they are young and tell you they “Feel too shy to hug Uncle Lester” or “Don’t like to play with Suzie from next door”, then they are more likely to come and tell you their feelings about the big things when they are older.
A section of my BIG Feelings, little Kids workshop helps the participants gain more insight into what things are REALLY being communicated to children. I am going to end this blog with a few examples of “what we say” and “what kids hear”. For more examples and other informative information about how to compassionately respond to children, book a BIG Feelings, little Kids Workshop for your parenting group, PTA, Brownie troop leaders, teachers etc.
What Adults say What Kids Hear
|You should have studied/tried harder||You are not good enough, its your fault|
|Crying is for babies||You are a baby, you should not express your emotions, You can’t be sad|
|Here, let me just do it||You can’t do it right|
|Stop crying before I give you something to cry about||You will be punished for your feelings|
|Don’t talk back||You cannot disagree with me, Your opinion does not count unless it is the same as mine|