Gaslighting happens in families. Here’s how to spot and stop it.

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Many people flourish because of supportive family relationships, and many do not, especially when gaslighting is at play.

Gaslighting is psychological manipulation repeated over time, where one person, the gaslighter — who is more powerful — insists that the way they see things is the reality. The victim, the gaslightee, must accommodate, thereby leading them to second• guess their reality, character and sometimes sanity.

When gaslighting is a core dynamic in a relationship, there can be no psychological safety. In families, gaslighting is confusing and hard to accept. Why would people who love you want to drive you crazy or undermine your reality?

As therapists and research psychologists, we have heard about many instances of gaslighting in families. Here are a couple of them:

One woman often walked away from meeting her sister feeling “less than” since her sister had and flaunted a wealthier lifestyle. The woman, who admired her sister, shared that when her sister would say denigrating statements about the food she served, the clothes she wore or the friends she hung out with, she would begin to question her decision-making and believe that somehow she had not learned the “right way” to do things.

One man loved his father, who had brought up three kids as single parent after his wife had died of cancer. Growing up, the man played hockey and went to games with his dad. As a high school student, though, the man was certain he didn’t want to play college sports, but his dad would remind him how much he loved hockey and had always dreamed of being on a college team. The man started second guessing himself, thinking that maybe is father was right. Maybe he really did want to play hockey.

Gaslighting can come from your caring aunt who’s “just looking out for you” or your dad who is “just joking around.” As harmless as the comments may seem, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.


We tend to think about gaslighting as it relates to romantic relationships. The interpersonal dynamics we experience as adults, however, are largely influenced by the relationships we grew up with. Too many of us grow up pathologically accommodating others, leaving pieces of ourselves behind. Learning to disbelieve our own reality is often disguised as cooperating with our parents or guardians.

The very people who teach you about yourself, who love and care about you, can also be the same people that try to gain control in a moment or deflect responsibility by gaslighting you, even if some do it unintentionally.

What they tell — and don’t tell you — shapes what you tell yourself. We hear over and over: You’re too fat or skinny, too tall or short, too masculine or feminine. Soon, we believe it.

What gaslighting looks like in families

• It looks like power: “I am your mother, and I am telling you . . .”

• It looks like control: “Your friend isn’t allowed here. Have you ever thought maybe you’re just a deadbeat in the making like the rest of your friends?”

• It looks like certainty: “Excuse me! I think I have a few more years of experience here.”

• It looks like repetition: “How many times do I have to say how lazy you are before you finally make a change?”

What gaslighting feels like

• It feels like humiliation: “Why do you want the car so bad? You know no one at school cares if you show up.”

• It feels destabilizing: “I never said that. You’re making it up like the liar you are.”

• It feels minimizing: “What’s your problem? You need to stop being so sensitive and get over it.”

• It feels like an attack: “You just don’t know how to think, do you? You can’t even make a simple decision.”

How to stop being a victim of gaslighting

Most of the time there is no easy exit from a family or the price of leaving is too high. Often, we are conflicted. We love our family member and even enjoy time with them, but have had it with the gaslighting.

If you don’t want to leave the relationship or even the family holiday dinner, here are some things you can do:

• Check in with and honor your feelings. They are more important than who is right or wrong.

• Name the gaslighting — even if just to yourself.

• Identify the triggers. Keep track of when gaslighting comes up (for example, over money or your lifestyle) and avoid the topic. For example, you could say: “I’d rather not have this conversation right now.”

• Opt out of the power struggle. Say: “We’ll have to agree to disagree” or “This is not the kind of conversation I want to have right now.”


• If you can and feel safe, talk with your gaslighter. Write down the last few conversations and notice when they begin to pivot to blaming you or undermining your reality. Say: “I think what happens between us is gaslighting. When I look back at our conversations, I notice they pivot to . . .” and provide an example.

• Think about what you would advise your best friend to do about leaving or limiting a gaslighting interaction and apply that caring strategy to yourself.

• Be proactive about limiting time together even if their behavior improves.

• Be kind but firm when your gaslighter crosses a boundary. For example: “I appreciate that you care about me, but I don’t want to talk about this.”

• Remember you cannot change anyone’s mind or behavior except your own, and you may have to walk away if they continue gaslighting.

How to tell if you are the gaslighter

In our work, we never hear healthy parents telling us that they want to manipulate their child’s reality and lead them to think there is something wrong with them. That said, it happens often and sometimes inadvertently.

If you are a parent, ask yourself: Are you defining your child’s reality for them? To recognize, prevent or put an end to your own gaslighting behavior, start with the following steps:

• Understand the power dynamic. As a parent, you are in an authority position. Recognize the power you wield and think about how you might use that power to control others.


• Try to be more reflective. If a family member says they are uncomfortable in response to something you have said, believe them. Play back the conversation in your head to find a point of understanding.

• Identify your triggers and don’t act on them. Identify the behaviors or events that activate you. Remind yourself that you don’t have to react immediately.

• Regulate your emotions. If you’re angry, agitated or feeling another unpleasant emotion, take a few deep breaths. Create the space to think more carefully about the situation — before responding to others in a potentially harmful way. If necessary, walk away or use another helpful regulation strategy that works for you like self-talk or asking others for advice or support.

Robin Stern, PhD, is the co-founder and senior adviser to the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice, the author of “The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide” and the host of The Gaslight Effect Podcast.

Marc Brackett, PhD, is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale, lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning, and the author of “Permission to Feel.”