Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kids on Fire: How Gaslighting is Fueling Bullying

In 1940, and again in 1944, playwright Patrick Hamilton’s masterpiece Gas Light (1938) was adapted into a whirlwind film, first by British director, Thorold Dickinson (1940), and then in America by MGM (1944). The plot is filled with the psychological abuses propagated against Paul’s wife, Bella; and thus today, we have the psychological term gaslighting which means: the psychological abuse of another which causes them to doubt their own sanity.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to talk about the growing phenomenon of gaslighting in all its nefarious forms. We’re going to start today with a subject that is dear to my heart: bullying in school.

One of the first recorded cases of school violence was in Bethel, Alaska in 1997, where sixteen year old Evan Ramsey entered the school with a loaded Mossberg 500 12 gauge shotgun. But, how did that happen? What led to the tragic day of February 19, 1997?

Evan was a frequent target of bullying. That’s what all the newspapers said, but what did that even mean? Kids can be mean; right? It should have been fine. He should have grown out of it. He should have been able to handle it and move on with his life.

The key phrase is “frequent target of bullying”. Prolonged exposure to abuse leads to toxic stress, and toxic stress leads to fight or flight – otherwise known as violence or suicide.

Gaslighting itself is mostly associated with domestic abuse. However, it applies to any relationship – including friends and schoolmates. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something that grows so subtly it’s hard to pinpoint just when it began in any individual situation.

Signs (adapted from the National Domestic Abuse Hotline):

Withholding: The bully pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. For example: Holding the relationship hostage. This is a form of negative peer pressure. The bully baits the victim into believing they are their friend and wants them in their circle, but in reality is attempting to control the victim by forcing them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do; except for a deep-seated desire to be included. The bully feeds on the victim’s desire to be cool or included. The bully pretends they don’t understand, or refuses to listen to the victim’s rational thoughts behind not wanting to do the things the bully wants them to.

Countering: The bully questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. For example: Countering is blaming or scapegoating. When things get hot, the bully is one step ahead of the victim. The bully will twist the words of the victim in an attempt to make the victim (and others) believe it was the victim's fault. In the bully’s telling of the events, the bully becomes the victim.

Blocking/Diverting: The bully changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. For example: The victim questions the bully’s story of events, and the bully either changes the subject – nullifying the victim’s point of view, or engages in belittling the victim – most often in front of others. The bully oftentimes in blocking or diverting will tell the victim they are paranoid or imagining things. This is often related to the victim’s questioning of the relationship between the bully and themselves, when the victim realizes that something is wrong.

Trivializing: The bully makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. For example: When the victim questions the bully, the bully retaliates with name calling and shaming – again, usually in front of others. When trivializing starts, this is where it becomes dangerous for the victim in respect to toxic stress. They are already questioning what is happening, and second-guessing their thoughts and feelings.

Forgetting/Denial: The bully pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. For example: The bully promised to hang-out with the victim at a specified place and time, and then pretends to have forgotten, or denies ever making the promise.

In gaslighting, the narratives above are not isolated incidents. They go on every day, sometimes for months or years. The prolonged exposure to them causes the victim to become confused, anxious, isolated and depressed. At the point of no-return, the victim will lose all sense of what is really happening to them.

Contrary to adult victims of gaslighting, kids generally won’t reach out for help until the ambulance shows up – either at the school after an act of violence, or to take them to the hospital after a failed suicide attempt.


As parents, grandparents, teachers and other trusted adults in the world, it is our responsibility to understand what gaslighting is and how it plays a role in school bullying; to recognize the signs and then to do something constructive about it. Our kids are involved in a game of psychological warfare that they have no idea how high the stakes really are – until it’s too late.