Gaslighting: Children Learn it Young, Adults Carry It On

Gaslighting, Child Version

I once had a client who was Vice-Principal at an elementary school. In the course of house hunting, I found out what her work was like. She cheerfully told me a story that went something like this.

She says, “I spend some time, almost every day, having a conversation like this”:

Situation: Child A kicked Child B and Child B is crying. Four other children saw Child A kick Child B. Child A says he didn’t kick her. Child B, C, D, E, F saw Child A kick Child B.

The conversation goes something like this:

Child A: I didn’t kick Child B.

VP: Child B, C, D, E, and F all say you did.

Child A: I didn’t.


Child A: I didn’t.


Child A: I didn’t!

VP: Then why did they say you did?

Child A: Because they hate me.

VP: They all hate you?

Child A: No, Child D is my best friend.

VP: What do you think Child B, C, D, E or F saw that would make them say you kicked Child B?

Child A: I don’t know.

VP: They all say you kicked her, and there is a scuff on her pants.

Child A: I didn’t make that scuff! It doesn’t match my sneakers… see! That’s Child E’s sneaker print. Someone else kicked her and is blaming me.


VP: Did your foot go anywhere near Child B?

Child A: No. Um, maybe.

VP: Did your foot touch Child B?

Child A: No. Um, maybe.

VP: Did your foot touch her hard enough to startle her?

Child: No. I barely touched her! No! I didn’t touch her at all.

VP: Can you promise me that you will never touch Child B with your foot, ever again?

Child: But, what about if we are playing soccer?

VP: You may touch her foot with your foot when you are playing soccer, but not anywhere on her leg more than halfway up the calf. OK?

Child B: OK.

Gaslighting, Teenage version:

I had a (short-term) boyfriend who gave me advice that went something like this: “If you do something wrong, just keep denying it. Over and over. Eventually, they will get tired of arguing with you and leave you alone.” He thought that was helpful advice.

When I heard the story from the Vice-Principal, I pictured that boyfriend at seven or eight years old.

That boyfriend didn’t know me very well. When someone digs in — when it is obvious that they did something they shouldn’t have done — I am not likely to leave them alone. In many cases, it makes me more determined to not let the harm go unrevealed. I fully lost respect for him in a fairly short time.

Gaslighting by Grown-ups:

I’ve been thinking about this “Deny, deny, deny, no matter how improbable your innocence is” tactic. It is related to propaganda. On an interpersonal level, it can cause a good bit of harm. When this tactic is used on a public scale, the consequences are greater.

That seven- or eight-year-old reminds me of Bill “I didn’t have sex with that woman” Clinton and Donald “the election was rigged” Trump. It is that same, immature tactic of “deny, deny, deny, no matter how improbable your innocence is.”

National leaders deny what they are doing, then create cover stories (like the child who says the sneaker print on Child B’s pants don’t match his sneakers). This is the next stage, “I didn’t do it, look over there; someone else did it.” When it comes to nation-states, the stakes are deadly.

The Russian War on Ukraine

Russia is doing something wrong. International law is very clear that a country must not invade another country on the grounds that some of their citizens live there. That’s what Russia did when they annexed Crimea in 2014. I wrote about those parallels to Nazi Germany taking the Sudetenland in 1938. That 1938 act was the beginning of Nazi invasion of Europe.

In 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine under the pretext that Ukraine’s government were Nazis and therefore were a military threat to Russia. Understanding history helps here. To Russians, the big enemy is fascism, Nazis in particular. Remember that 24 million people from the Soviet Union died during the war against the Nazis. (418,500 Americans died in that war). The Russians people do not want Nazis in a country bordering theirs.

However, in 2022, the international community did not stand with Russia against non-existent Nazi leadership in Ukraine. There are Nazis in Ukraine, but they are out of power. The fascist elements in Ukraine are more aligned with Russia than the current Ukrainian government.

When yelling “Nazi!” didn’t work as propaganda, they moved on to claiming there were bio-labs in Ukraine that were making illegal biological weapons. That story got more traction with the American far right, as well as international right wing movements and Communist China. WNYC (NPR) radio covered how the social media story grew.  Now, the US and Russia are in a propaganda war about who has, and who does not have, biological weapons. (More from NBC about the posturing on both sides of this propaganda battle.)

This is much more dangerous than when children and teenagers engage in gaslighting. It’s important for us all to be aware of these denial and misdirection tactics.

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