Can We Please Stop Gaslighting Our Kids?
Welcome to the holiday season – the time of year when we celebrate with family, food, commercialism, and putting young children in impossibly hard situations and then expecting them to act like little adults. Long car rides, breaks in routine, large family meals full of rich foods and new people, being forced to sit on a strange man’s lap in the mall, after waiting in line for two hours (did I mention in the mall?), sitting through three-hour ballets, which despite their inclusion of fairies and mice, are not really suitable for children. Then, add cranky relatives to the mix, demanding that children be seen and not heard, that they sit at the table until everyone is finished eating or give them kisses and hugs. Our poor little ones really don’t have a chance.
As bad as it is this time of year, I feel like we expect too much of young children all year round in our culture. And when they don’t meet those expectations? We often react with shame, punishment or dismissal. We tell them to calm down, be quiet, don’t react, don’t feel, and be happy. Why aren’t you smiling? Smile, dammit! Somehow, someone telling you to be happy rarely makes you feel happy, but after a while, you probably put on a smile to avoid feeling like you aren’t normal. Why do we expect our kids to feel happy or at the very least act happy, when things are happening in their lives that are stressful, sad, frustrating, scary, or disappointing?
How would you feel if the most important person in your life told you that you couldn’t feel sad when your car broke down or you lost your job? Or if you were told you couldn’t express frustration at being forced to wait in line at the DMV for eight hours or to eat your most hated food? Or that a thing that causes you real anxiety or fear is not a big deal? How would you feel if you were punished for not reacting the way that person wanted you to react? We constantly tell our kids that big disappointments, big changes, and big challenges are no big deal. Little freaking kids, for whom these events and emotions are huge and their desire to please us is great. I don’t think this is okay. In fact, I am going to call it a form of gaslighting.
What is gaslighting? I’m glad you asked. 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.
If you want a great overview of the unconscious gaslighting that happens to women in our culture, please read this piece from Yashar Ali. If you are a woman, you probably have experienced gaslighting in the context of a personal or professional relationship. It might have been subtle or overt, intentional or accidental, but the result is the same. As Mr. Ali writes, gaslighting renders a person emotionally mute or voiceless. 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.
In her song, Secrets, Mary Lambert writes, “they tell us from the time we’re young to hide the things that we don’t like about ourselves, inside ourselves. I know I’m not the only one who spent so long attempting to be someone else. Well I’m over it.” So true, but it goes further than that I think. They (our parents, teachers, family, friends) also tell us to be happy, to calm down, and to not feel sad or angry or afraid. I’m over it.
I am going to pause for a second to let you know that I don’t believe the majority of parents are intentionally inflicting abuse on their children. There are people like Michael and Debi Pearl, who advocate for emotional conditioning from an early age, using physical abuse to teach even young babies the limits of their small worlds. If you beat a baby every time they crawl off of a blanket, pretty soon, they will learn not to leave the blanket. I wish there was a special hell, so they could go there and suffer. I do believe that we need to set boundaries and teach our kids how to effectively calm down, react appropriately in situations and moderate their own emotions. But, I also believe that we can do this without subconsciously teaching our kids that it is wrong to feel any emotion other than happy and calm. And we shouldn’t teach them that we’ll punish them for leaving the blanket called “happy.”
So, how do we raise our children to not wreck every social gathering or holiday shopping trip with a tantrum? First, I advocate that we try not to put our kids into impossible situations. Let’s not give them more than they can handle with their big emotions and non-existent impulse control. A wise mom once taught me H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. What if I told you that you could prevent many tantrums from happening by bring snacks everywhere, engaging with your kids and making sure nap time happens? Sure, there’s still the “angry” wild card. And yes, “what is going to anger my toddler or kindergartener?” is one of life’s daily mysteries. But, in my experience, when a tantrum happens, nine times out of ten I have fucked up one of these things. I don’t expect my kids to act like little adults. They are great. They are really well-behaved, but seriously, they are five and two years old!
In the event of a less than desirable reaction or emotion (read: epic meltdown in the grocery store checkout), I don’t whip out the “calm down” card. Have you ever been told to calm down? How did it make you feel? Calm? No? Why the fuck not? Didn’t you hear my order? Does it make you feel calm to have someone order you to do something? /sarcasm.
I try to work with my kids to have skills around managing their own emotions – tools in their toolboxes. In addition to me staying calm, comforting them when they are sad, and commiserating with them when they are angry or frustrated, I have taught my kids some of the same calming techniques that I use as an adult. I practice with them, both when they are calm and when they are blowing up – counting, breathing, focusing, trying again. It really works. Again, not 100% of the time, but I am teaching my kids skills that they can use (and control), rather than conditioning them to respond a certain way out of fear of punishment. Sort of like how I do good things because I want to, not because of fear of eternal punishment. There are some great books, like Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton, and television programs, like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, that teach kids how to manage their emotions, as they learn, grow and navigate difficult situations.
What about if your kids feel anxious or scared around new people? Great Aunt Edna, Uncle Steve and creepy mall Santa might be new to your kids and they might not want to hang with them. That’s okay. Bring age appropriate activities to holiday gatherings to keep your kids occupied and to ensure that they aren’t forced to engage in “visiting.” Adult conversations ARE boring. Don’t blame your kids if they don’t feel stimulated talking about grandma’s hip pain or Aunt Sue’s trip to Branson or watching another game of Pinochle. And if they don’t want to hug Auntie or kiss Grandpa, don’t make them. I believe we should teach our kids that they are in control of their own bodies and affection. As for Santa, let your kids drive this decision. You are the best judge of their capacity to stand in line, navigate crowds and interact with mythological strangers.
Come meal time, make sure you bring/make kid-friendly items that are familiar to your kids. If you get flack from your relatives about not forcing your kids to eat foods that are strange or disliked, tell them that you’ve got it handled. If they continue to bother you, tell them that they are then responsible for cleaning up any resulting vomit or diarrhea. Stand up for yourself and your kids.
As you plan for a “fun” holiday season, try to think about those plans from your kid’s perspective. Are these activities really fun for your kids or things you think they should have fun doing? Are you prepared to miss a matinée for nap time or lunch time or leave the mall or party early when your kids get tired? What if Johnny really hates turkey or Becky thinks that ice skating sucks? If you find yourself wanting to create memories, stop and ask yourself, will this be a good memory for my child, or am I trying to live up to an expectation?
If your child gets mad or sad, let them be mad or sad. Let them know that you understand what it’s like to feel that way. That you are there for them. That they have a right to feel the way they do. Don’t take that away. I think you might find that when we don’t expect or try to force our kids to be happy and calm all of the time, that they actually feel happier and calmer more of the time.
Turkey dinner image: Lucas Richarz
Book image: from Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton
All other images: Steph, all rights reserved
It made me wonder: does the gaslighting of our kids contribute to the later gaslighting of women? If people have been told all their early life that negative emotions are bad and illegitimate, if microaggressions are provoking a negative emotion, that means that the person feeling the emotion is wrong. Why can’t you just be happy for the compliment? It’s very similar.
Absolutely. Our culture starts teaching kids that this is okay and then they don’t even realize they are doing it as adults. Which is why so many women will say that they know their husband is not an abusive asshole, but he still ignores her feelings or tells her to calm down.
It also leads to a rise in being passive-aggressive. If being upset isn’t allowed, you have to pretend it’s fine while still making the other person uncomfortable.
Why didn’t God create us with productive and helpful social skills, rather than crappy counter-productive ones!
Maybe because God didn’t create us at all. 😉
This is such the conversation I need to read tonight. Thank you for being grounded. I’m a new parent and this has been driving me crazy! I actually saw a grown woman freaking out because another adult asked her if her kid still believes. So crazy that we stress ourselves out in order to perpetuate an elaborate hoax upon all children. Why do we systematically program children to be effed up?
It’s such an odd thing that we expect so much from such little children, or even from ourselves. The expectation that we as adults handle sadness, overwhelming situations, fear, or disappointment with a smile or stiff upper lip is completely unreasonable–and yet we expect it of ourselves and our children and look down on people who do not. Your post left me with food for thought–I try to be respectful of my children’s emotions, but I don’t always model being respectful of my own emotions or those of other adults.
“I understand that you are angry/sad/upset” is a sentence that can work miracles. Since I was raised by the Queen of Gaslighting, my kids are allowed to voice their discomfort.
It is actually very hard for me to accept that my eldest sometimes needs to be told “stop it, or!”. She’s slightly non-neurotypical so the things that work well with other children sometimes have the opposite effect. For example, don’t try to find out a way to fix whatever just caused the meltdown. Remove offending object from sight, try again tomorrow. Her emotions are extreme and they can change quickly, in all directions. But we talk a lot about how it is OK to be sad and angry, to like and dislike things. We usually sit together in the evening and reflect on the day, what went well, what could be improved.
I also try to diffuse possible problems by giving them a fair warning shot, telling them well in advance what we’re going to do, what I expect from them, what they would like.
Also training plays a role. Not taht I’d take them to sit on Santa’s lap if that happened here, but really, pre-Christmas time is not the right time to introduce them to the concept of a mall. We have our rules and rituals for trips to the mall. Most important is that if they behave well we’ll get ice cream and sit around the fountain (they have a gorgeous fountain in our mall) in the end.
And what I find very important, especially with the holiday season: Tell people to go fuck themselves. Well, maybe not, but keep the sentiment. Yes, my kids are allowed to leave the table. No, my kids don’t have to kiss you or even shake your hand. They have to say hello and goodbye and please and thank you. No, we’re not coming on christmas eve, we’ll stay at home, just the 4 of us and have a nice dinner and a cocktail party (the little one’s idea. Crushed ice, fruit juices, sirups, amarena cherries and assorted canned fruit. Liquor for the grown-ups, everybody mix your stuff. Huge fun, try it!)
If your holidays are only fun for Aunty Myrtle and Granpa Jeff, you’re doing it wrong.
That’s a great article, thanks for the reminder. Especially when I put this in the context of some kids with special needs, who maybe can’t even process the phrase “calm down” because it’s so vague.
I agree wholeheartedly. The main example I have is interaction at the playground. I’m astounded how many parents/nannies/etc tell kids they have to share, they have to play nice with each other, blah blah blah. BULL! I never tell my daughter she has to share her toys. They are her toys and she has every right to play with them or have them lay on the sand next to her while the kids who want them stare and wonder why she isn’t sharing. She has no obligation to play with other kids if she doesn’t want to. If she gets upset she is allowed to be upset. I teach her it’s ok and to find a private place to let her emotions run their course. She will naturally calm down on her own and talk to me when she’s ready. Just like I want her to express her joy and excitement I want her to learn to express her sadness and frustration. When I’m upset I cry…and I mean I cry hard. So can I tell my child to not cry, to toughen up, to not feel? That’s cold and horrible in my mind. We are all human and feel a variety of emotions that are normal and important to our own health. It is our job as parents to teach kids how to express them appropriately and when to excuse themselves if they need time alone.