When Covert Narcissists Gaslight Children

As parents, covert narcissists gaslight their children often. Narcissists always have to be right. And they hate it when others challenge them. They also hate it when the truth challenges them. As I’ve written about before, for many narcissists, the truth is merely what they say it is. They want reality itself to conform to their way of seeing things. To respect a more objective reality is to bow to a higher power. And that’s something narcissists resist doing. (See also: Narcissists Can’t Recognize a Higher Power.)

How Covert Narcissists Gaslight their Children

It’s natural for children to question things. It’s a big part of how they learn. And most kids actually want parental guidance. At some level, they know they need it. But they have to be able to trust those guiding them. They need to know their parents only have their best interest in mind. And trusting their parents’ guidance eventually helps them come to trust themselves.

Good parenting requires humility. Sure, parents know more than their kids. But they’re not perfect. They don’t know everything. And they’re not always right. Sadly, for narcissists, it’s all about looking great and being right. Children need to reality test. And they need to know the truth. But narcissists will insist they’re right even when every part of the child’s being tells them they’re wrong. This causes a crisis of trust. And depending on how insistent the parent is, and how skilled they are at manipulation tactics, it can cause a child to question their very sanity. That, in a nutshell, is the gaslighting effect.

Covert narcissists gaslight their children in many ways. Catch them in what seems an outright lie and they’ll guilt you for doubting them. Question their greatness and they’ll make you feel small. Sometimes, they directly challenge your sanity. But most of the time it’s their barrage of tactics that makes you feel crazy. In your gut, you know there’s something not right. But you can’t objectively prove it. That’s the crazy-making effect of the tactics. And it does great psychological damage. (It’s also why I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing.)

Adult Children of the Gaslight

As adults, children of covert narcissists can struggle with chronic self-doubt. As children, they were made to question their intuitive sensibilities. So, as adults, they struggle with trusting their instincts. And sadly, this makes them vulnerable in relationships. Lacking self-esteem, they might too easily place their trust in someone who at least appears more capable. This breeds emotional dependency. And it also leaves them ripe for exploitation by a disturbed character.

I’ll have more to say about this next week.


8 thoughts on “When Covert Narcissists Gaslight Children

  1. You could never question my the mother/grandmother. It was always ;

    “There’s the door” or ” Pay a few bills will you”

  2. I had to stand by and watch my granddaughter be bullied by her mother. How was I going to prove she was a narcissist? I would have had to take her to court and gain custody. That granddaughter is now engaged to a very nice guy and his family is very nice-I feel incredibly grateful for that-an answer to my prayers. She barely talks to her mother now.
    She carries the scars-she has a huge anxiety problem and full of self-doubts. I am praying for recovery for her. Its tragic in my opinion, a terrible situation to be in. When I try to explain narcissism to people and talk about my experience with my ex and now my daughter they seem to think narcissism is just someone who only focuses on themselves, and the word gets tossed around so half-hazardly. They don’t know that a true narcissist is out to destroy others and thinks of others as prey for their sick behaviors. Its so frustrating to try to explain this to others who have no knowledge. I go to a 12 step recovery group and everyone is familiar with the manipulative, lying addict, but when I try to explain the basis for most of my pain, I get confused looks. Nobody can understand except those whose lives have been affected.

    1. This is so very true. I thank God daily because He knows what it means.
      I am sure my children have been impacted by their father. I am familiar with gas lighting in my relationship with him but I am not certain he used the same tactics with them . He certainly undermined their confidence by insisting they were having certain negative feelings and consequences from their relationship with me, i.e. ” but mom won’t let you feel them and that’s why you don’t know you have these feelings towards her” (yikes!) . I realized the impact of this , behind my back, nonsense when one of my children (as a young adult) shared he beat himself up for a number of years (as a young child) for not standing up to his father when he dictated these ideas to him . Apparently this attempt to convince the children I was a problem was a projection of his own maternal relationship. I tell you the sorrow and guilt my son displayed when he told me this history between the two of them was gut wrenching to witness. This child(ren) of mine so mixed up over his adult father’s selfishness and determination to destroy love between mother and child all for the purpose of avoiding his own shame . It is a certain kind of gaslighting I suppose … undermining a child’s trust and confidence. It is a crazy making that leaves scars. Praying always for the healing power of God in Jesus for my children and even yet for their father.

      1. Peggy,
        Yes behind your back is where it all happens with the children. I had no idea until years after I left the ex it came up casually in a conversation that he was making me look bad to the kids in an effort to turn them against me. To this day I don’t think they realize how it affected them-he did it when they were so young so how would they know. I have asked them many times – are you angry with me, lets talk about it-but I get the same answer of no, but yet their behavior toward me tells me different. He tried to destroy the bond with me and I didn’t even realize it was happening. You state it was for the purpose of avoiding his own shame, that’s a good insight. My ex used it as an excuse to do as he pleased – he had to get out of the house because – me- all my fault why he was gone so much-actually he was also an addict and using so handy excuse to fault me and make himself look good.

  3. Dr. Simon,

    Thank you for this post. As I read it I can see much of my relationship with my CDN mother. She definitely uses gaslighting, and I see the patterns you describe in my own life now. In a 12 step program, I listed my enemies as self-doubt and self recrimination/guilt. Like the saying goes, “Guilt is heredity, you get it from mother.”

    My CDN mother also uses stuff like “you don’t know God.” Or when I was sixteen, she was going to church and being sixteen and flip, I said, “say hi to God for me.” And her comment was “I wouldn’t want to shock him.” A friend was sitting at the table with me at the time, and did a double take. To me, this was standard fare. Imagine doing steps 2 and 3 (Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity….and made a decision to turn out will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him) with a sponsor who I felt was at every turn I left feeling criticized because “you didn’t go to God.” When I have a CDN mother who was constantly telling me to pray about it, etc. (when as a narcissist she will NEVER get a spiritual concept). I’ll stick to the short version.

    I would be talking to my sponsor about steps 2 and 3, and her feedback was a trigger. And it didn’t end well. It seems whenever I deal with anyone at all who takes a maternal role with me, I see red. And I cannot handle it. It’s been destructive and problematic for many years.

    On the other hand, whenever someone says “I don’t understand what you mean…” I feel a sense of panic in the pit of my stomach and often have to walk away from the interaction-because I just can’t handle it. That my CDN mother turned me against my father from a very early age, parents who do that, in my opinion have a special place in hell.

  4. Dr. Simon, thank you for bringing up this important topic. My whole life with my parent boils down to her insisting she was right when everything in my truth-loving soul was telling me she was wrong. This is indeed crazy-making, and when I finally got to the point where I began doubting her instead of doubting myself, she pulled the actual “you are crazy” card and increased her lying about me to the point where I ran for my own safety. The fact that I tolerated this for over five decades shows how much power this can have over a child, even an adult child. I wish I’d read your book sooner, but after I did, I made some major changes in my life, and life is definitely better now. I appreciate your work.

    1. Hey Kat, Thanks for confirming my experience by sharing your win.It is deeply sad that this is how it works for the children, for us. I do pray the kids will look deeply into the impact of it all . I have and just this weekend I was struck by how much healing has taken place in me from all the gaslighting. It was not easy .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *