When a Child Gaslights a Parent

When a Child Gaslights a Parent

Photo: ©Zurijeta via Canva.com

Children are born gaslighters, something that is no surprise to you, I’m sure. Kids, just like the rest of us, want what they want and have the propensity to use any means to get it. Since kids are small and relatively powerless, gaslighting as a form of persuasion can be the most effective tool in their little arsenals. If you have a little gaslighter in your home, I trust these thoughts will help you to adjust your thinking and responses to those family members who manipulate you.

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Repackaged Self-reliance

When you get right down to it, gaslighting is our old friend, self-reliance, repackaged and given a shiny modern name. It’s part of the foolishness that is bound up in the heart of a child, and he needs help to put it to death. More than just words of instruction, this little person needs a living example pointing him to the perfectly sufficient God who does everything well. Learning to trust our Lord with the outcomes of his life will free your child to experience the peace he cannot attain on his own.

As a prologue to this topic, our sympathy vs. empathy discussion is crucial to your ability to resist and play a redemptive role in your child’s manipulation. I encourage you to watch this webinar. Also, I cannot overstate the importance of understanding God’s impassibility. God calls us to be steadfast and immovable, a distinctly un-creaturely descriptor. He’s calling us to bear His image. A stable God makes for stable image bearers, and the resultant strength is something you can export to your child. Courage, humility, and integrity are at the core of godly resistance to manipulation, bringing us to the all-important question, how can you exemplify these traits and train your child in them as well? Here are some suggestions.

Victims and Unfairness

Refuse to embrace or condone a victim mentality. Self-pity is poisonous to the human soul. Look for ways to communicate, day in and day out, that the Lord gives both pleasant and challenging things for our good, and we must praise Him for both. We will be sinless in the new heavens and earth, no longer needing trials. However, today we must trust our good Father to bring the precise measure of blessing and trial we need. Parent, if you tend to grumble, your child will too. I appeal to you to repent and put on gratitude (an essential component of humility) and teach your child to do the same so that you do not communicate victimhood to him.

  • When you talk about the weather you don’t prefer, how do you do so?
  • Even if you’re not saying it explicitly, will your kids think they have the right to accuse God in their hearts if He inconveniences them?
  • How do you talk about other drivers or the people in your way in a crowded store?
  • What is your attitude toward your spouse?
  • Will your son or daughter learn to esteem others as more significant than themselves by watching how you treat the other parent?
  • When another child mistreats your daughter, will you be a mama or papa bear, or will you help her react redemptively?
  • Whom will you glorify by your responses?

Teach your child the joy of being unfair in the same way God is. We deserve death and hell, but God gave us Christ, the Spirit, and eternal life! To whom can your child be unfair today? Can he use his strength and gifts to benefit someone rather than serve himself? If you must walk another person through their sin against your child, can you do so with their best interest in mind?

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Guilt and Fear

Don’t parent out of guilt or fear. These motives are antonyms of faith or trust in God. They assume you cannot rely on God to make things turn out rightly, so parents take matters into their own hands. To parent out of guilt implies “the cross is not enough to satisfy the payment for my sin, so I must make up the difference by giving in to my child because of my sin and shortcomings against her.” Parenting out of fear suggests that God is not good or lacks power, so “if I want a good outcome, I’m on my own to produce it.” The parent controlled by guilt and fear is an easy target for a selfish, needy child.

Your kids need to see you living consistently in faithfulness to God, trusting Him with the results of your obedience, whatever they are. If you focus on an outcome you desperately want, or one you desperately want to avoid, the temptation to control the people around you to get what you hope for will be hard to resist. The chances are great that they will bear your image in that way as they seek to solve problems in their lives. Part of trusting God is allowing your kids to make mistakes. Age-appropriate natural consequences are excellent teachers—they can remind your child that he is not omniscient and lacks wisdom.

Modeling a quiet soul, meaning no fear, anger, or I-told-you-so’s, lets your child know that the stability of your faith in God isn’t dependent on his choices. He needs to see that your world won’t end if you don’t get what you hoped to get so that he knows how to react when similarly disappointed. It’s always tempting to shield our children from pain, and, to an extent, God calls us to do that as parents. However, remember that perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:1-5) only come through suffering. In your desire to protect, see that you don’t circumvent God’s good work in your loved ones’ lives.

It’s About God

When your child does need discipline for his sinful choices, including his choice to manipulate or gaslight you, possessing a quiet soul coupled with an incorruptible faith in God will also free you to focus on what he needs most rather than making his sin against you personal and punishing him or making him pay for what he did wrong. His sin is not about you; it reveals his relationship with God, and his greatest need is to get to the Savior. Conversely, when he is angry with you for something you did, please do not allow him to punish you. Your guilt and penance cannot atone for your sin; only Christ can.

You should grieve appropriately over your sin, but grieve with the hope of the gospel in view—in the promise of 1 John 1:9. If you have been manipulated a lot in your past, you may be tempted to take responsibility for others’ sin; you’ll need to guard against this and take ownership of it—no one can make you take responsibility for their sin. As I said earlier, your child has the life God chose for her, and she must learn to see His hand, even in the hard circumstances and the sin against her. You must know and model this as well.

The life you have had is the life God specifically gave you. If you place the accent in the right spot, you will make it much easier for your child to see the grace of God in her own life. Walking out repentance for sin is vital. Confession of sin is crucial, but it is not repentance in and of itself. A search of the word “repentance” on this site will serve you well if you need to grow your understanding of this area.

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Love God and Others

Teach the child to take responsibility. Please don’t make the child the center of your universe or let him dictate family life. He must learn to yield and submit where appropriate rather than demanding his way and overestimating his wisdom and authority. Virtually every influence in the culture bombards him with the message that authority, hierarchy, and structure are detrimental to him. Still, these things are gifts from his good Father for his flourishing and protection.

If you have the blessing of reading this while your kids are young and still love to help, search online for a list of age-appropriate chores and disciple them faithfully. This time will take a lot of work for you in the short term, but it will have a blessed long-term payoff, particularly in your family’s character and servant-heartedness. If you’re getting a late start, begin right where you are to envision your kids about their place in your family and the requirement God places on them to serve their nearest neighbors—their own family. Your kids do not exist for themselves but for God and others.

Taking the easy way out in discipling your kids makes it easy for them to do the same concerning their responsibilities. Giving in to whining and self-pity or responding with whining and self-pity will devastate your family. Again, you must do the hard work now to reap joy and blessing; put off the hard work, and you will reap sorrow and frustration later. Don’t take responsibility for the child’s emotions, and don’t allow feelings to frame the basis of your reality.

Living In Reality

I am not saying you shouldn’t acknowledge the suffering caused by your sin against them. But when you ask for forgiveness, remember that the Savior died for sins, not for hurt feelings. Sins of commission (what you did wrong, according to the Bible) or sins of omission (a positive command you should have obeyed but failed to) are the only things that need true forgiveness. It’s appropriate to express regret for the consequences of our sin on others but not to accept responsibility for another’s reaction.

Conversely, sin needs pardon, even if the person sinned against does not feel hurt. Your child must use words to clearly express what they want rather than dropping hints or expecting others to intuit their desires. This discipline is a form of truthfulness. Of course, the same should be true for you; your child should not receive discipline for standards he was unaware you had. I mentioned this before, but it’s not about you. Make it easy for your kids to know, love, honor, and obey you and the Lord.

Never forget, believer, that God desires your joy and peace. When His children honor Him, it goes well with them, even amid difficulties. Never be tempted to think that God’s glory and your child’s good are at odds with each other; that’s impossible. Any true good is a reflection of the Good. Even if, Lord forbid, your older child fully rebels or comes under church discipline one day, know that to be faithful to God is to be faithful to your child, regardless of what your heart says to do. God is good, and He does good. He cannot do otherwise. Be faithful to those little souls, parents. You lead, you model. When you fail, repent, grow, and keep going. The Lord is with you when you do this humbly and faithfully.

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