Gaslighting and Bullying

Gaslighting and Bullying

“Don’t let someone who did you wrong make you think there’s something wrong with you.” –Trent Shelton.

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sews the seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement. It often evokes in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem.  Gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviors with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.

As bullying is an exploitation of a power imbalance with the intent to harm, gaslighting is a method the aggressor can choose to bully someone else. These tactics are sometimes difficult to identify, especially in relation to a bully and his or her target.  Highly successful bullies are crafty at manipulating and can be masters of gaslighting.  Additionally, gaslighting can be employed not only by the bully and his or her henchmen, but also by school officials who want to deny bullying.

Gaslighting techniques and examples of them are as follows:

Withholding – The abuser feigns a lack of understanding or refuses to listen or share their emotions.  Bullies will use this as negative peer pressure and bait the target into believing they are a friend and asking the target to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.  The target will refuse to listen to rational thoughts or reason why the target is unwilling to do the act for their friendship.

  • “I’m not going to listen to that.”
  • “You’re trying to confuse me!”

Countering – The bully will call into question the target’s memory in spite of them having remembered it correctly.  Countering also includes blaming or scapegoating. The tormentor will twist the words of the target and can actually change the narrative so that they now become the wronged party.

  • “You said that last time and you were wrong.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “You remember that wrong.”

Blocking and Diverting – The perpetrator changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the target’s thoughts and controlling the conversation.  Many times, the bully will belittle the target, especially in front of others.

  • “Quit complaining.”
  • “Where did you get a dumb idea like that?”
  • “You’re paranoid!”

Trivializing – The bully attempts to make the target believe that his or her thoughts aren’t important.  Name calling and shaming in front of others often occurs as well.

  • “It’s not a big deal!”
  • “You’re a crybaby!”
  • “You’re too sensitive!”

Forgetting and denial – This is when the bully pretends to forget things that really occurred.

  • “You’re making that up.”
  • “I don’t remember that.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “Where did you get that idea? You’re lying.”

Gaslighting is emotional abuse and can create deep and lasting scars.  It can cause the bullying target to begin to doubt their own thoughts, memories and actions.  Gaslighting left unabated can cause children to feel confused, hopeless, second-guess themselves constantly and have their sense of self-esteem torn down.

This form of manipulation can ultimately blame the target of bullying for the actual act.  When gaslighting is perfected, especially by a high-status, social bully, the target can be the child who is ultimately punished for being bullied.  A child who has high-status in the school with his or her peers and also with teachers and administrators can gaslight their target and ultimately have others believing that the bullying was caused by the target, or even worse, that somehow, they deserved to be bullied.

This form of bullying is not just dispensed by children in schools, but also by adult school officials and administrators.  Putting a stop to bullying takes much work, effort, and time.  When schools don’t want the stigma of bullying identified with them or the trouble and work of dealing with it, they will often turn bullying into conflict to avoid issuing effective consequences.  Conflict occurs with two equal parties where bullying always involves in imbalance of power and is dealt with entirely differently. Schools that don’t properly investigate, issue effective consequences and blame the target are in actuality gaslighting the target.  Furthermore, school officials and administration can also do this to families of bullied children as well.  We have witnessed school officials and administration relying on their credentials and experience in lieu of proper investigation and putting a stop to the bullying.

Gaslighting is insidious and was implemented by the children and the school administrators that bullied my son and our family years ago.  Being gaslit by a group of people with more power and status caused almost an entire community to turn on our family.  We are not the only ones.  Many of our families that we have helped over the years through BRRC have been subjected to gaslighting as well.  This type of psychological warfare can further harm the bullied child and tear a family apart.

Another group who are frequently gaslit are upstanders to bullying.  (An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of a person being bullied.)  Upstanders are frequently told that they don’t understand what they witnessed and are making a bid deal out of nothing.  One of the children who defended my son and attempted to report the bullying was later told he was mis-informed and what had happened to my son wasn’t what he thought it was.

Gaslighting can be extinguished and recovered from.  If a target realizes they are being manipulated in this way and that they are not misinformed or crazy, that can begin the healing as the manipulation will no longer have the same effect on them.  It is important to note that bullies who employ gaslighting techniques successfully will likely not change their behavior.  Putting time and distance between the bully and the target will help as well as working on self-esteem and finding a safe, trustworthy adult and friend.  Sometimes professional help is warranted.  When gaslighting has torn away a strong sense of self and brought on feelings of hopelessness and depression, a professional is needed to help rebuild and rebound.

Understanding and realizing that you or your child has been subject from this form of manipulation by a bully is the first step at getting away from it.  When a child realizes they didn’t deserve to be bullied, and they have been harmed, they are not wrong or crazy then they can begin to heal.  Bullying of children in any form should not be tolerated and needs to be stopped by adults.

Does Your Child’s School Take Bullying Seriously?

Does Your Child’s School Take Bullying Seriously?

Look for the three P’s

“Prepare and prevent, don’t repair and repent.” – author unknown

There are several pieces of information that I share immediately with almost any parent who contacts BRRC.  One of my recommendations is that parents read the student handbook cover to cover and pay special attention to information regarding harassment and bullying. A treasure trove of information is contained in those pages as well as what is missing from the handbook.  A school that takes bullying seriously will lean on a community-based approach in regard to bullying and will include policies, procedures and programs embedded in the school culture and curriculum.

Three important pieces need to be present at your child’s school in relation to bullying.  The three P’s are: Anti-Bullying Policy, Procedures and Programs.  The following information is adapted from Barbara Coloroso’s book, “The Bully, The Bullied and the Not so Innocent Bystander.”  The descriptions of the three Ps follow, and why they are so darn important to you, your child, and your child’s school.

Anti-Bullying Policy:
Having a bullying policy is absolutely necessary.  It must have depth and not simply an inspirational saying or a “we don’t tolerate bullying” statement.  The policy must be clearly articulated, consistently enforced and broadly communicated.  The entire staff, (custodians, teachers, receptionists, administrations, etc.), should have a clear understanding of the anti-bullying policy.  It must include a clear definition of bullying, the ways bullying occurs and an understanding of the impact of bullying on the school environment.  The policy should include a statement of responsibility of those who are witnesses to bullying incidents and try to stop it by intervening, helping the targeted student escape and a way to make it safe to tell a caring adult.

In my opinion, this is where the rubber meets the road.  Having a written policy has absolutely no teeth unless there are specific procedures in place to deal with bullying.  As with so much in life, the procedures to deal with school bullying should have some latitude and common sense in play.  A one size fits all approach is not optimal and lacks common sense.

Consequences for the bully and any active bystanders who played a role in the bullying event should be clearly outlined.  Procedures should include measures that hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions.  Ideally, some form of restorative justice is ideal that involves restitution, resolution, and if possible, an attempt at reconciliation (only if the targeted student is agreeable to that). Lastly, the parents or guardians of the bully need to be notified of the bullying and asked to take measures at home to aid in the restorative justice process.

Procedures also need to include what measures will be taken to keep targeted students safe at school.  These procedures should include tools to aid them in standing up to the perpetrators, offering support, and tools to effectively deal with any new bullying situations they may face.  Safe, caring and trustworthy adults at school should be identified to whom they can safely report any further bullying to.  You, as a parent or guardian should be told of this plan and offered the appropriate protocol to follow up and also to report any further targeting of your child.  A school that takes action, comes up with an appropriate plan to end the bullying, and follows up with you and your child is a school that takes bullying seriously.

An appropriate program for a school that takes bullying seriously is one that back’s up and reinforces the anti-bullying policy and works to create a safe, caring, and welcoming environment for all students.

A program that will have the greatest success is one that is embedded in the curriculum and culture of the school.  The once a year anti-bullying rally, or posters that claim this is a “no-bully zone” that does not reinforce those ideals the entire school year will not succeed.  Bullying and becoming an upstander can be taught through literature and character education lessons.  Empathy and feelings can be part of writing assignments.  Some schools offer mentorship programs to aid students new to a school or new to a grade, so they have a companion to turn to.  A “no one sits alone” lunch policy will curb bullying behavior and create a caring environment.  There are many creative ideas that the staff and students can come up with to create a culture of inclusivity and caring.

Every member of the school staff needs to be properly trained in bullying.  They need to know what bullying is and what it isn’t. They need to know the definition of bullying and what measures they should take when they witness it or when it is reported to them.   Conflict-resolution tactics will not work with bullying and can cause even greater harm. It is the adult’s job to STOP bullying.  Finally, there should be a standard way communicated to all the school’s stakeholders of how to report bullying, and what the target and their caregivers can expect with the school following up with them.

Vigilance and knowledge are key.  Here are some questions you may want to ask your child’s school:

  • What is your school’s definition of bullying?
  • How does bullying get reported at your school?
  • What is the best way to report bullying?
  • How quickly does the school respond after bullying has been reported?
  • If a child has been found to be a perpetrator of bullying, what kinds of consequences can he or she be subject to?
  • What types of programs does the school offer to teach the students about bullying?
  • How is bullying taught/discussed in the classroom? How often?
  • How long are your school employees trained about bullying? Is there a special program they participate in?

And, my personal favorite question:

  • Does bullying happen at this school?

If the answer is “no”, you may need to pull up a chair and prepare for a long conversation with the school employee.  Unfortunately, bullying happens at every school and the real key is how effectively and quickly it is dealt with.  If a school has proper policies, procedures and programs in place, and adheres to those, the bullying can be stopped, and the target can be properly cared for.

Bullying Recovery Resource Center can also help you navigate the bullying your child is enduring.  We provide education, materials and advocacy services to help stop bullying.  If you have any questions, or if your child’s school fails to stop the bullying of your child, we are here to help.