Are We Gaslighting Our Sensitive Kids?

In my work as a parent coach, I often hear parents describe their children as “too sensitive” or “overly sensitive”. Okay, I’ve even called my own youngest child this many times in the past and still catch myself doing it. I finally stopped to examine the meaning of these words one day while listening to a dad retell a story of a fight he’d gotten into with his daughter. The dad had reprimanded her for some small thing and she’d almost instantly burst into tears and yelled at him, “You’re so mean!” She ran to her room and slammed her bedroom door. Understandably, this reaction upset him. He took it personally and got defensive; “I am not mean!” he yelled back. Because he had interpreted her words as disrespectful and a disproportionate response to his original request, he got into a “You can’t talk to me that way, missy” mindset. His focus was on the surface behavior which of course was problematic. He never stopped to ask himself, what is this behavior trying to communicate? His basic understanding of the situation was this: Child was rude and unreasonable and I can’t allow that. You can guess the power struggle that ensued…

This dad was completely perplexed by what happened. He told me his daughter often “over-reacts” to situations. Listening to him talk about it, I knew what was coming next; “I can’t say anything without her getting upset…she’s just so sensitive…”

A light bulb went off for me in that moment and several new questions came to mind:

  • What if we take the child’s word for it – that she really did experience her father’s reprimand as mean?
  • How would she be feeling and likely to react if we take her experience of the event as valid?
  • How might taking her experience as real and valid change the way the parent responds next?

When we don’t trust another person’s experience as real and valid, that’s a tactic of gaslighting.* When we tell a person they shouldn’t feel a certain way about something, or that their feeling is unreasonable, that’s a form of gaslighting. When we deny another person’s version of reality…Yup, gaslighting. When we make a person doubt themselves and question the validity of their emotions, again, gaslighting.

Gaslighting can also take the form of policing someone’s emotions. It probably happens more often to women than men because culturally the ‘fairer sex’ has a reputatuion for you know, getting all hysterical about things. In relationships and at work, certain reactions by women like crying or ‘getting emotional’ are labelled as irrational and dramatic by others (usually men). These emotion cops want to set the parameters of the exchange; anything falling outside their comfort zone is dismissed as inappropriate, unnecessary, invalid. Gaslighting is a shitty manipulative thing to do to a person. And you know what, I think we parents are guilty of using it on our sensitive kids.

I’m curious, if we’re calling our kids “too sensitive” and approaching them from that framework, is that a form gaslighting? As I said, I often describe my youngest this way due to her penchant for running from the room in tears over the slightest negative feedback. Her feelings get hurt easily; she empathizes with people, animals, and even inanimate objects; she experiences her emotions in BIG, often intense ways, and she needs frequent physical closeness and affection to feel balanced. It is often difficult and exhausting to be her parent. It can feel like I’m walking on egg shells or waiting for a grenade to go off. Although it often feels to me like something might be wrong with her, having a sensitive temperament isn’t a disorder or an illness. In fact, her sensitivity brings many gifts such as creativity, empathy, and spunk!

We give ourselves permission for policing our children’s emotional landscape because we are older and supposedly wiser. We are the authority. Yes, we do know better about many many things. And yes, it is our job to make sure they learn to behave in prosocial ways which means teaching them to regulate their emotions. It’s probably not great for sensitive kids to break down crying in the classroom every day, for instance. However it is not our job, nor is it in the child’s best interests, for us to be telling them how they should feel or how they should experience our treatment of them.

Let’s go back to that example of the dad’s fight with his daughter. As soon as he asked her not to do something, she called him mean. He deemed that to be an over-reaction. A rude and disrespectful way to speak, rather than as a true expression of her emotional reality in that moment. He focused on the words she used, rather than the pain behind them. What if those words, “You’re so mean” had signaled to him a need to connect with his daughter before charging ahead with teaching her a lesson?

It seems to me that labeling someone as ‘too sensitive’ puts the burden of managing a relationship’s ups and downs on them; as in, “It’s not my fault your feelings are hurt, you’re just too sensitive!” We never have to reflect on our own behavior or make changes when we have the excuse of calling our friend/partner/child too sensitive. It becomes their problem. They should learn to deal with it; to not take things so personally.

I’m a parent. A parent of a sensitive kid; so I have to make decisions about how I will raise her and help her work with her temperament. Am I responsible for somehow putting a thicker skin on my sensitive child? Is it my job to toughen her up? No – I don’t really feel good about that. It is my job to teach and model for her emotional regulation, but it’s not my job, nor even my right I would argue, to take my sensitive kid and harden her against the world – to do so would be asking her to feel less; to be less than she is…

Too sensitive. Overly sensitive. There is such judgment in that. The implicit meaning being, the child is “too much” – their feelings and responses to situations are disproportionate to what we, ‘the authorities,’ feel is appropriate, normal, or warranted. When we make such statements, we put ourselves in the position of arbitrator over someone else’s experience, as if we get to tell people how they should or shouldn’t feel. And you know, we don’t get to do that. Not even as parents. We do not have the right to tell our kids how to feel. Of course we have a right and responsibility to guide their behavior, but that is something very different from emotions and we must be able to teach our kids the difference. So I am waiting for the day my sensitive child has an outburst and calls me mean or screams “I hate you!” Hopefully I’ll be able to take a breath in that moment; to catch myself before I give in to my own overwhelm. I want to be able to ask her with genuine curiosity and acceptance for her feelings to please tell me more about that….

“Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” Stephanie Sarkis, PhD.

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