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