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Toddlers: The Real Masters Of Gaslighting

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.

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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.

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About Mcclain W.


  1. All Mothers that have raised a child for their second to fourth year have earned a purple heart.I went through this as a father and I agree it is a mindbuckling time of a parents life. There is one worse time. Don’t believe it?? Think about this If you have worked several hours and finally had success with getting your child at their most Ogreish age to actually do what you want, here comes daddy or grandma home, and hugs the child and unravels every thing you have done by hugging and kissing your devil.s spawn and asking them why they are crying. Little Godzilla sells you down the river in an instant, and gets comforted so they can recover from you torturing them.

    When they start being the ogre, have a talk with mom and hubby and tell them not to ever, ever, comfort a child being punished, or you will be back after dinner, and mean it.Grandma or Grandpa will remember you at that age, laugh and remember not to do it. Hubby will be harder as we try to make up for being away at work for hours.

  2. Sounds like you don’t believe in spanking a child when they get out of line. My Dad did and it worked 100% of the time when it came to adjusting my attitude. In fact, just the THOUGHT of getting a whoopin’ prevented me from doing something I knew I shouldn’t do most of the time.

  3. Gosh, it’s hard to fathom what life must be like for you. I raised two children–a boy and a girl–pretty much without the help of their father, who preferred reading newspapers to parenting and ducked out unless told specifically what to do and when. And I really never had the kind of experience you describe. There were early-on rebellious incidents–most particularly around being asked to stop one thing to do another. But the raw capriciousness you describe never went beyond a first try. I simply did not allow it. The first time one of mine pitched a fit, threw food or burst into a storm over a situation, he/she was met with “We don’t ________” and was immediately whisked into timeout without another word spoken–in a playpen, on a chair, on my lap as the circumstances dictated. I didn’t argue or plead or even explain. My statement was enough. And ONCE was enough. Next time he/she was winding up to pull a trick, I did my level best to cut it off at the knees BEFORE the explosion, using those same words: “We don’t ___________.” Most of the time, after one or two tries, my son/daughter gave up the unacceptable behavior. But there was more to the story. I always gave the kids the acceptable solution to their challenge–AFTER I’d short-circuited the bad behavior and the initial intervention had settled them down enough for me to talk to them. “Listen, Josh, we don’t throw things. We say ‘Mom, I want apple juice.’ I will give you what you ASK for if I can. I love you.” You talk about a toddler sorting out feelings, wreaking havoc as he does. How on Earth is he supposed to figure out what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t if you allow him to just do whatever he feels like doing without applying consequences? Egad! Poor kid–he’s a-toss on a sea with no guidance if that’s what’s happening when he behaves like a loon. It ISN’T good for a child to just blow his top–it’s frightening and it sets patterns in his mind that will never be erased. SHOW him how to behave.TEACH him acceptable behavior with kind firmness and love, or you’ll end up with a household in chaos where no one can thrive. I’ve heard the mantra “It’s normal for toddlers to have tantrums.” Yes, it is. And no one has to teach them how–their perversity is in their DNA. But tantrums and capricious demands are not ACCEPTABLE. Unless, of course, you enjoy being a puppet and a terrified zombie. And if you think a toddler is problematic, keep raising him this way and just WAIT until he’s a teenager. His 3-year-old emotions are NOTHING compared to what his hormone-driven 13-year-old feelings will be like. You’d best TEACH him to deal acceptably with feelings while he’s physically manageable because in a few years he may well be too big, too strong and too out-of-control for anyone to handle who is not armed. Just a friendly warning. Give up the notion of being a child’s buddy or an adored mommy–you’re first and last a teacher. So teach. All the other gooey stuff is dessert–you don’t expect that until the end.

  4. You have got to be a total WHIMP! God put a gluti-maximus (butt cheeks to you) on a nasty little BRAT for just one real reason. Roll’em over your knee and smack their butt about three times. NEXT, make a diamond shape spot on the wall about two inches higher than his nose right smack in the corner. When he, 1.doesn’t obey instantly; nose on the spot 5 minutes. 2. backtalk, nose on the spot, 10 minutes. 3 complains about any of your actions, for ANY REASON, nose on the spot 15 minutes. 4. doesn’t like what you make for any meal, doesn’t get to EAT, spends the next hour laying on his back, head in the corner. /that is just for starters, use your imagination, get creative. Lawn needs mowing, beds need to be made, front sidewalk needs to be washed, WITH A USED TOOTHBRUSH.

  5. Welcome to Parenthood.
    We have five, so I know the feeling.

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