Gaslighting has become a buzzword among teens and young adults lately. With more young people talking about mental health in recent years, the term is used frequently. While teen gaslighting is real, the word isn’t always used correctly, which may leave parents confused about what their teen is really experiencing.
In general, teens tend to use mental health vocabulary in ways that aren’t completely accurate. They might refer to themselves as OCD because they like to be organized, or describe themselves as being “addicted” to a TV show or a particular flavor of ice cream. While teens usually don’t have negative intentions when they talk this way, using such terms casually can perpetuate stigma and misunderstanding.
However, if a teen is actually being gaslit, it can have a significant negative impact on their mental health. That’s why it’s so important for parents and teens to understand what gaslighting really means and learn how to identify signs of gaslighting in a relationship, whether it’s romantic or platonic. Gaslighting is associated with various types of emotional and physical abuse, including bullying, cyberbullying, and mean girl behaviors.
- Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to doubt their own perception of reality.
- Teen gaslighting can take place within romantic relationships, friendships, or peer groups.
- An example of teen gaslighting is lying about something and then refusing to admit the lie even when they are shown proof.
- Parents can help prevent teen gaslighting by teaching their children strategies to cope with these behaviors and enlisting support from school and mental health professionals.
What Is Teen Gaslighting Abuse?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser attempts to doubt their own perception of reality. Typically, gaslighters are seeking to gain power and control over the other person. They do this by distorting reality and forcing them to question their own judgment and intuition.
Where does the word gaslighting come from? The term derives from the 1938 play Angel Street, which Alfred Hitchock later adapted into the film Gaslight. In the movie, a man tries to convince his wife that she is going insane so he can steal from her.
When he turns on the lights in the attic to search for her jewelry collection, and the gas lights dim downstairs, he tells her it’s all in her imagination. Gradually she begins to question her own memories and perceptions.
Teen gaslighting doesn’t have the same sinister associations. Teenagers who gaslight their peers aren’t evil or scheming. Rather, they are struggling with low self-esteem and a lack of trust in their relationships. As a result, they use this form of manipulation as a form of control, to gain the upper hand.
What Does Gaslighting Abuse Look Like Among Teens?
For adults and young adults, this issue typically takes place within an intimate romantic partnership or close friendship. In general, adults are more likely to perpetrate gaslighting abuse secretly, where they can’t be observed by witnesses who might confront them on their behavior.
Teen gaslighting also takes place in one-on-one relationships, particularly when it involves older teens who are in more serious relationships. However, teen gaslighting can also take place within the context of peer groups. Teenagers tend to be more hesitant in standing up for victims of bullying or other forms of abuse, due to peer pressure and fear of being targeted themselves.
Here are some of the contexts in which this can take place:
Teen Cancel Culture
Cancelling someone refers to boycotting and publicly shaming them in response to a perceived or actual transgression. In some cases, peers may gaslight a victim by insisting they said or did something terrible and deserve to be cancelled. Even if the victim did make a mistake, they aren’t given a chance to learn or express remorse.
Mean Girl Behaviors
Mean girl behaviors include exclusion, backstabbing, and manipulation, used to gain control and status within a peer group. Gaslighting can be part of these behaviors. For example, a teen may intentionally exclude someone from an event, and then insist that they were invited and just didn’t want to come.
Bullying and Cyberbullying
Teen use thise a weapon used in both IRL and online bullying. Most of the teen gaslighting examples below be perpetrated on social media, in text messages, or in person.
10 Teen Gaslighting Examples
Parents can teach their teens how to tell if someone is gaslighting you, whether it’s happening with a friend group or with someone they’re dating. Here are some examples:
- Lying about or denying something and refusing to admit the lie even when they are shown proof
- Insisting that an event or behavior never happened and that the other person is remembering it wrong
- Spreading rumors and gossip, or telling the victim that other people are gossiping about them
- Changing the subject or refusing to listen when confronted about a lie or other similar behaviors
- Telling the other person that their goals and the things that matter to them are “stupid”
- Trying to smooth things over with nice words that don’t match their actions
- Twisting the truth so they are always right and the other person is always wrong
- Minimizing their hurtful behaviors or words by saying something like, “It was just a joke” or “You’re way too sensitive”
- Acting jealous and blaming the other person for flirting with someone else, even when it isn’t true
- Separating victims from friends and other peers who might recognize their gaslighting abuse symptoms
Any of these signs of gaslighting in a relationship or peer group are cause for concern. If parents observe teen gaslighting behavior, they need to intervene in the situation to support and educate their child—whether they are the victim or the perpetrator.
The Impact of Gaslighting Abuse on Teen Mental Health
Being consistently told that you are wrong, confused, or even “crazy” can have devastating effects on mental health. Along with questioning their own reality and beliefs, teen gaslighting victims often feel isolated and powerless. Gaslighting abuse symptoms also include low self-esteem, disorientation, self-doubt, and difficulty functioning in school or in social situations.
As a result, teens who experience gaslighting are at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Teens who struggled with these conditions prior to the abuse may be more vulnerable to gaslighting, making mental health issues worse. Moreover, teens who have been gaslit often struggle with PTSD. As they grow up, they may have difficulty trusting peers as well as trusting themselves. Hence, they are more likely to engage in codependent relationships and have trouble building authentic connections. Because teen gaslighters usually don’t apologize or admit they were in the wrong, it’s harder for their victims to move on from the experience.
In addition, perpetrators of gaslighting typically suffer from mental health issues as well. They may have developed these controlling behaviors as a response to childhood trauma. If they are not addressed, these issues can continue to impact their mental health as they age. A study of 250 young adults found that abusers who gaslit their partners also exhibited high levels of emotional detachment, impulsivity, and risk-taking and anti-social behaviors.
How to Tell If Someone Is Gaslighting Your Teen and Eroding Their Mental Health
The most damaging gaslighting abuse symptoms are the ones that take root in a victim’s mind and begin to wear away at their self-worth and trust in themselves. Here are some of the mental health consequences of teen gaslighting.
- Having trouble making even simple decisions
- Constantly second-guessing and doubting themselves
- Blaming themselves for the way they’re being treated
- Walking on eggshells around the other person
- Believing that they are too sensitive
- Questioning their own feelings, judgments, and observations
- Feeling lonely and trapped
- Staying silent rather than speaking up about what they think or believe
- Being on edge and feeling threatened all the time
- Starting to believe what the gaslighter tells them, that they are “crazy” or “stupid”
- Thinking they can’t do anything right
- Spending a lot of time apologizing for their actions.
If you’re noticing these symptoms in your teen, dig deeper into what’s going on. Is this the typical awkwardness or uncertainty that can accompany adolescence? Or is there an underlying cause, such as gaslighting, another form of bullying, or a mental health condition?
5 Ways to Stop Teen Gaslighting Abuse
Parents can help take steps to help teens avoid gaslighting. Of course, encouraging them to choose healthier, more supportive friendships is the first step. Here are some additional ways to protect your teen from gaslighting and support their well-being as they recover.
Talk to your teen’s teachers and the school guidance counselor.
Because most in-person gaslighting happens in the school environment, teachers and other school professionals need to know what’s going on. Chances are, your teen is not the only one being victimized. Schools need to offer students and parents information and education about gaslighting and other forms of bullying. Stepping up supervision and establishing zero-tolerance policies can also help in limiting teen gaslighting behaviors on the school grounds.
Keep a close eye on your teen’s social media activity.
In addition to real-life interactions, social media is the most common forum for gaslighting behaviors. Parents should pay close attention to what teens are doing on their phones. Consider limiting their screen time, including setting a digital curfew when all devices need to be turned off and plugged in to charge for the night—outside your teen’s bedroom.
Remind your teen that they are not the reason for a gaslighter’s abuse.
There is nothing your teen could or should have done differently to avoid being gaslit. The abusive behavior was not their fault. It was about the gaslighter’s attempts to control and manipulate them. You may need to repeat this message a number of times as your teen heals from the gaslighting abuse.
Teach them to walk away from gaslighting.
Gaslighting is not a rational behavior and hence gaslighters will not respond to logic or admit their true motivation. In fact, most teens are not able to articulate their motivation or explain why they are driven to bully others in this way. The best thing your teen can do is to step away from the interaction—and from the relationship.
Get support from a mental health professional.
After being in a relationship, friendship, or peer group with someone who was gaslighting them, adolescents may need additional support to deal with teen gaslighting abuse symptoms. Treatment and support groups can help teens who have been gaslit to heal the self-doubt, self-esteem issues, lack of trust, depression, and/or PTSD resulting from this painful experience.
Treatment for the Mental Health Consequences of Teen Gaslighting
Residential or outpatient treatment with compassionate mental health professionals, within a caring community of peers, can make all the difference. Through participating in clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities, teens can safely process the trauma of gaslighting abuse and address other underlying issues contributing to their symptoms.
With the right care, adolescents are able to move forward with greater trust in themselves and in others. They learn to find their voice again and to feel confident in who they are. By learning and practicing communication and relationship skills, teens gain essential tools they can use for the rest of their life.
Frequently Asked Questions
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