Mom and son
What is gaslighting? UAE mental health experts explain... Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: I’m at a playground watching my child play tag with other children, when all of a sudden, one of the boys falls to the ground and hurts his knee. With a scraped knee and tears in his eyes, he runs to his mother who is sitting on the same bench as me. “It’s just a tiny scratch, you are okay,” I overhear her say, as she briefly pulls her attention away from her smartphone to glance at his knee.

Her intention was probably to stop him from crying and reassure him that it was just a little bruise that he shouldn’t make a fuss over.

Honestly, it is something I would do too, thinking it will make my child resilient. However, recently, I was surprised to discover how some responses that used by parents quite often, thinking it was “tough love”, could, on the contrary, be damaging to children.

Apparently, the mother’s response in the earlier mentioned situation, could be considered as subtle gaslighting. Read on to know what UAE-based mental health experts say would be a better response and why.

What Is Gaslighting?

If you are an Instagram savvy mum, you’ve probably come across this buzzword recently, with many mental health experts addressing the issue on the social media platform.

In simple words, gaslighting is a subtle form of manipulation that causes the person on the receiving end to question their reality.

Speaking to Gulf News, Dubai-based mental health trainer, Dr Daniela Salazar at The LightHouse Arabia, explained: “Gaslighting is a term used to describe a type of psychological manipulation or emotional abuse where one person purposely makes another doubt their own perception, memories or understanding of events.

“In extreme cases, gaslighting can cause a person to question their self and reality.”

We might assume gaslighters know they’re gaslighting, but that’s not always the case. An unintentional gaslighter who was a victim of gaslighting or is mirroring habits learned as a youth in a toxic home, may not know they are guilty of the same bad behaviour.

“Individuals who engage in gaslighting are not born this way; it is something they learned from previous experiences from their own life,” added Dr. Salazar.

While most videos address the issue in adult relationships, she adds that gaslightling widely exists in parent-children relationships too.

According to her: “Gaslighting can happen in any relationship but it is particularly common in relationships where there is a clear power differential, like a parent-child relationship. In this case, parents are often able to dictate or control a child’s perception of an experience, and as children hold very little power, they often fully trust their caregivers and believe what they say to be true.”

What gaslighting does to a child

Long-term effects of gaslighting on a child can be things like anxiety, self-doubt, insecurity, paranoia, distrust, and even perpetuating the cycle of gaslighting itself.

“It causes the children to question themselves and have the core belief of ‘something must be wrong with me’. As time goes on, and the belief becomes stronger, it becomes more difficult to identify how gaslighting may work or how it may look like in other relationships as teens or adults,” said Dr Salazar.

So, in the previously mentioned situation where the child is hurt, a better response would be to first acknowledge that the child is feeling pain and help them overcome by saying that you will clean their wound off and assuring the child that he or she will be fine soon. Help them get a Band-Aid if they need one.

The term gaslighting comes from a 1938 play “Gas Light” (later on which was turned into a more widely known movie “Gaslight” in 1944), in which a criminal 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, and the film shows how scary it is, to not be able to trust your own sense of reality.

Dr Hina Ayesha from Hayati Health Center, Dubai provided further examples of situations parents might find relatable.

She said: “Imagine you are a child telling your parents that your left eye hurts and your parents act as if there is nothing wrong with your eye, and that you are just overreacting. It would be deeply confusing, undermine your belief, and trust in your own left eye as well as your reality.

crying child sad
"Imagine you are a child telling your parents that your left eye hurts and your parents act as if there is nothing wrong with your eye..." Image Credit:

“How would you feel when the most important person in your life told you that you shouldn’t feel sad when your toy car was broken or when you lost your favourite pencil box? Or, if you were told you couldn’t express frustration at being forced to sit with a child who is a bully.

“Children’s emotions are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who they are, and when their parents treat their feelings as invisible, irrelevant, or meaningless, they naturally feel their inner self erased or reversed. When their parents don't acknowledge or respond to their emotions, they are set up to doubt and ignore their deepest self. As they get older, hiding or burying their feelings becomes the automatic response. This can be extremely dangerous response because it can be used to mask serious issues or feelings like anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. Your kids won't know how to talk about the really hard things they are thinking or feeling if their tough feelings were always trivialised by the adults in their lives.”

Dr Salazar explained the three main types of gaslighting in family settings:

Narrative Gaslighting

For example, when a mother tells her son “Your father didn’t shout at you, you’re being dramatic.” When the parent changes the story of what has happened from the child’s understanding of the story. Parents will try to convince their children their understanding is the correct one and the child’s version is incorrect or untrue.

Emotional Gaslighting

For example, when a parent says, “You shouldn’t feel sad, you have a good life, and we give you everything you need.” When a parent dismisses or invalidates their child’s emotion, the parent might make the child feel as if their feelings do not make sense when they do.

Personal Gaslighting

When a parent doubts the child’s ability to trust himself or herself.

“In any of these cases, children will then start to believe that their own ideas, judgements; perceptions of the world are not valid or trustworthy and develop a low self- esteem which can lead to unhealthy and unfulfilled relationships as adults,” she added.

Some commonly used phrases:

Experts say that lecturing your kids on how rude, selfish, ungrateful, or dramatic they are, are also forms of gaslighting. Even seemingly harmless responses such as, "This isn't the end of the world,” or "stop being so sensitive,” sends across the message to your child that their feelings are not accurate or that they're too intense. Here are some other responses that could be identified as gaslighting.

1. It’s not a big deal. You’re overreacting.

2. That’s okay. It’s just a small cut. It doesn’t hurt.

3. The assignment is not too hard. You’re just being lazy.

4. No, you don’t need therapy. You just need a good sleep.

5. The keys don’t lose themselves. You’re being irresponsible.

What is the solution?

Dr Hina highlighted that the important step that parents seem to miss in such situations is validating a child’s feelings.

She said: “Parents need to listen to and validate their children’s feelings. The next time your child is upset, try to listen to what is upsetting them… be sure you are listening without judgment. First, validate how they are feeling, letting them know that you understand. Next, help them move on to finding a solution or to overcome the issue.

“If your child is throwing a tantrum, help them respond to their feelings in a healthy manner and avoid shaming the child in the process. Remember, you are acknowledging how they feel but you don't have to allow them to hurt other people or think of hurting other people, in the process.”

The other extreme

Children’s mental health experts also advise to avoid the other extreme where parents resort to excessive pampering or feel the need to rescue their child and stop them from feeling “bad”, in such situations.

In a 2020 research paper on validation in parenting, researchers from the UK-based Anglia Ruskin University said: “Validation reinforces the message that your child’s feelings are legitimate, regardless of whether or not the feeling makes sense to anyone else.

“We, as parents, often feel the need to rescue our children and ‘make better,’ by helping our children to stop feeling bad; we tend to put on our problem-solving hats. While we can help our children by teaching coping skills, it is important to remember that we do not want to fix the situation by getting rid of the feelings themselves. Instead, we should help manage the feeling.

“Remember, feelings are separate from actions. All feelings are valid, but actions taken in response to negative emotions may be inappropriate. For example, validating anger does not mean that parents validate the child’s action of yelling or throwing something in anger.”

To teach a child that they are allowed to feel angry is extremely healthy, but we also want to teach them not to respond inappropriately. Rather than teaching a child not to be angry, we can teach them how to manage the anger in effective ways, the article says.

Similarly, validating feelings does not equate to permissive parenting, the article adds. “For example, their anxiety and frustration at mum leaving for work is completely valid and should be acknowledged as such. However, that does not mean that mum should stay home from work. A quick validating statement, such as ‘I know it is really hard when I leave for work in the morning, and I know that you can be brave’ shows your child that you accept how they are feeling, as you simultaneously set expectations and boundaries.”

What is your experience with gas lighting in families? Share your thoughts with us on