Little kids lie, and it turns out that lying is developmentally normal. My kids lied to my face when they said that they didn’t know who broke our living room lamp. They were united in the fib, likely one of them protecting the other, and the whole farce was both predictable and weirdly charming, even if I miss that pretty lamp to this day. But my younger teen gaslighting me was something I didn’t see coming, and I panicked about it being a sign of something sinister.
I’ll say something super normal and parent-ish, like “Please do your homework,” and he’ll respond, “When you pressure me like that, I have too much anxiety to do homework.” Then I stop and think, “Am I a monster for requesting homework time?” I consulted with a friend who also has a high-school senior, and it turns out her son said the exact same thing to her. Where do teens learn this manipulation?
Yep, teen gaslighting is a thing.
Just because my friend and I have occasionally smart-mouthed near-adults doesn’t mean everyone does, so I began to ask around. Mark Joseph, a parenting coach in St. Louis who started parentalqueries.com with his wife (a midwife), assured me he’s seen it happen too — in his own house. “My daughter has tried to deflect our advice and requests by using language like, ‘You’re being too paranoid’ or ‘That doesn’t even make sense,'” he says. Suddenly, I remembered another friend’s daughter using those exact same words on her mom. OMG, these kids.
Psychologist (and mom) Deborah Vinall, PsyD, author of Gaslighting and the Trauma Recovery Workbook for Teens, lists some other classic examples of phrases that some teens pull out to win an argument. “A teenager may attempt to create confusion in order to gain the upper hand by saying things like, ‘You never told me I had to do that!’ or ‘You told me last week that I could go to the party,'” Vinall says.
Wait, that last one sounds like all my friends back in the late ’80s. Maybe teen gaslighting has been around for decades.
Gaslighting is a not-great path to independence.
I needed Joseph to put on his parenting-coach hat and explain why teens resort to these exhausting verbal tricks. “It took me time to realize this is just a part of the growing-up process. Teens are often eager to assert their independence and can resort to gaslighting,” Joseph says. “They may think they are in control if they can manipulate the situation and get their way. It all comes down to the fact that teens are very vulnerable when trying to navigate the world. Understanding that this behavior is rooted in their desire to become independent can make it easier to handle.”
Sure, but why can’t they trust that we are trying to help them grow up and thrive? That’s the most frustrating thing for me: I don’t ask my son not to skip gym class because I am a tyrant; I ask him to attend gym class because I want him to graduate high school. (“Listen to you, you’re being crazy,” he tells me.)
“Gaslighting is a power play to attempt to gain or regain control,” Vinall says. “Teens typically live with limited control over their lives at a stage where the primary developmental task is developing autonomy and independence. Gaslighting, therefore, serves as a maladaptive attempt to gain control over their own circumstances, and that control is a legitimate psychological need.” They’re just going at it badly.
Gaslighting can become learned behavior.
My firstborn never tried the “make Mom think she’s the problem” trick and so never seemed to learn it. But my son has stumbled upon it, and I did, in fact, drop arguments with him (especially over the last few years) because I wanted to have a peaceful evening instead of a showdown. That’s on me: I let him see that gaslighting can work.
Many psychologists say that gaslighting is something a kid can hit on accidentally and then keep using. “It’s a well-intentioned coping skill,” says psychologist Paul DePompo, PsyD, who specializes in treating youths and their families in Newport Beach, California. “If your teen puts blame on you and you accept it to not upset the applecart, then bang! — they have learned to gaslight.”
How to Turn Off the Gas(lighting)
Experts say that swiftly putting the kibosh on it, rather than letting it slide, is the way to handle gaslighting. Call kids on it. But at the same time, recognize what your teen is communicating when they resort to throwing all the blame on you — that they’re tired of being ordered around, they want some control and trust, and mostly you’re frustrating them. This is a normal and developmentally healthy milestone because it means they’re trying to get out from under your rule, which is ultimately something that you want, too.
But teens also need to learn that gaslighting is an ugly way to win an argument. It’s far better for them to acknowledge the validity of their parents’ requests and then make their own case for why they want something else. That’s pretty sophisticated for a kid, so you’re going to have to help them along.
“Spend most of your energy capitalizing off what your kid is doing well and reinforcing any positive behavior,” DePompo says. “If 80 percent of the time you focus on what they are doing right, then the 20 percent of the time when you address the negative, they will be able to better listen. Children need to think that you ‘get them.’ Otherwise, you’re not modeling that unconditional acceptance they long for, and in turn, they won’t show unconditional acceptance back.”
And when they disagree with your advice? Talk it out. Show them some respect. Acknowledge that they’re anxious, tired, overworked, and all those other teen things. Then tell them they still have to do their homework.