I have a confession to make. For the last year or so of my life, I’ve been mentally and emotionally abused by a man I love.
The first two years our relationship were great – blissful and full of love and admiration. Then, something changed, almost out of nowhere. Suddenly, the man I loved was criticizing my every move, bursting into tantrums out of nowhere, and constantly having me question my self-worth and sanity.
No, this man isn’t a husband or lover. He is my 3-year-old son and if you don’t think toddlers are capable of gaslighting, then you have never been a parent. Toddlers are the worst gaslighters and masters of manipulation because they trick you with their adorable smiles, huge pleading eyes, and innocent baby talk.
But don’t be fooled by the packaging. Deep down, they are all calculating jerks that will go to any means necessary to get their way. Sometimes, they don’t even KNOW what they want… but they’ll cry about it anyway.
The term “gaslighting” has been around since the 1930s and is based on a play about a woman who slowly goes insane as the hands of her manipulative husband.
In present-day textbook jargon, gaslighting is the practice of carrying out harmful, reckless, mean, (and sometimes downright bizarre) actions or verbal attacks toward a loved one and then twisting it around to make the recipient think these things never occurred or were the fault of the victim. It’s a form of psychological warfare and is usually insidious because the victim rarely recognizes what’s happening until they are already deeply entwined in these behavioral patterns.
For those who haven’t experienced gaslighting first hand, it seems almost inconceivable that an intelligent, self-aware person could ever get caught up in such an abusive relationship. But if you can empathize with its unrelenting grip, then you have been on the receiving end of it – whether from a 200-pound adult or a 20-pound toddler.
My son was a pretty good, even-keeled child the first two years of his life (largely because he couldn’t talk back for most of that time) I began to notice subtle changes when he turned two. If I put his juice in the wrong sippy cup, he might throw it across the kitchen. If he said, he liked a shirt at the store, as soon as we got home he would scream that he hated it. If I told him it was time for bed, he would retort “I’m not tired. You’re tired.”
Then he turned three and, let me tell you… ain’t NO relationship in the world that fucks with your grasp of reality and sanity than the relationship between a parent and their 3-year-old kid.
I’m a grown-ass woman, and a person not even 2 feet off the ground has me walking around my place like its rigged with trip-wires and explosives – a place (I might add) that I PAY FOR so that this freeloading squatter can complain about things I have no control over. Things like gravity or ice being too cold or the noise the air conditioner makes when it kicks on.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m no pushover. It’s not like I cave in or even entertain the majority of his ridiculous commands or conniptions. I’m not saying I relent or give in to his random outbursts or unattainable demands. What I’m saying is, this little turd is gaslighting me.
Yesterday, he asked for a snack in the car and I explained I didn’t have any snacks, so he screamed “I hate mommy” to which I snapped back, “Well I’m not too fond of you either and I don’t appreciate the manipulation tactics!” (And then I cried because apparently, my maturity level is par course with that of a toddler’s.)
I dread meal time because there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll suddenly decide he doesn’t like the same food group he’s gladly eaten many nights prior. I have to mentally prepare myself for bedtime because I know one book will turn into three books which will inevitably turn into him insisting he has to go to the bathroom 8 times. Mornings generally are smooth unless he decides he wants to boycott underwear that day or he’s pissed his blueberries are touching his oatmeal.
Of course, I realize all of these behaviors are totally normal for a toddler. He’s not ACTUALLY the spawn of satan; he’s simply trying to navigate his emotions and express what he wants and/or needs. Unfortunately, learning to do all of these things in a controlled and patient manner takes time and practice. In the meantime, I’m walking around like some victim of domestic abuse and PTSD.
Virtually ALL parents of toddlers are. So, the next time you see a mom or dad in public with a screaming toddler and you catch that deer-in-headlights look on the parent’s face… maybe give them a hug, an army blanket, and a beer.