Gaslighting and How Your Child with Substance Use Disorder Can Make You Believe You’re Crazy with Brenda Zane

Hopestream for parenting kids through drug use and addiction
Hopestream for parenting kids through drug use and addiction
Gaslighting and How Your Child with Substance Use Disorder Can Make You Believe You're Crazy with Brenda Zane

"It didn't happen that way"
"You're way too sensitive, get over it"
"You're confused, I didn't say that"
and 10,000 other ways our teen and young adult kids twist and turn reality until we wonder if maybe we're the ones who need psychotherapy and treatment. It's called gaslighting and it's something you may be all too familiar with if your child is misusing substances. It's their way of manipulating and controlling conversations, diverting attention away from their actions and making you doubt your own common sense and perspective. 

This is an important episode to listen to if gaslighting is going on in your home because you can't be functioning from a whole and healthy place if you're getting wrapped up and sucked into a distorted sense of reality. You'll learn a lot in 33 minutes that could change the game when it comes to maintaining your sanity:

  • what exactly is gaslighting?
  • where did the term come from?
  • how do I recognize if someone is gaslighting me?
  • how will I feel if someone is gaslighting me?
  • Plus 6 actionable things you can do to get control over the situation and regain your footing


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Welcome my friends, I am going to be tackling a topic today that I’m guessing many of you deal with if you have a teenager or a young adult in your life who is misusing drugs or alcohol. If you have one who is in active addiction. It’s something that I hear all the time from the mamas in our community in The Stream. And that is, am I the crazy one? Sometimes, I get so confused because what my son or daughter is saying is actually kind of starting to seem like it might make sense. And maybe I am the one that’s being unreasonable or illogical. But I know that that can’t be true. And I am telling you, I hear this all the time. And you know for certain, with 100% clarity that they’re using, or selling, or stealing or whatever in. But they are so sneaky and so good at hiding it and denying it and rationalizing it, and turning it around onto you that you think that you are going to lose your mind. 
This is an exasperating place to be because you’re so exhausted mentally and physically to begin with, that you wonder if maybe you really are the one who has it all wrong. So then what happens is you get into these conversations, which actually, I would call them more arguments, because nothing really seems very conversational about these interactions. But you get into these interactions where you then become hesitant and unsure, which then gives your son or daughter the upper hand, because they can sniff out any amount of weakness in you. And then things just go from bad to worse because you can’t be strong in your perspective or in your response. This phenomenon is called gaslighting, and it’s probably one of the most common and most frustrating and confusing parts of having an adolescent or young adult who is struggling with addiction. 
You start to feel guilty for doing things that you know are the right things to do. And they are telling you that you are hysterical, obsessed, overly suspicious, wrong. You’re wrong about what you’re seeing or what you’re hearing. They’re telling you that you’re defensive that you’re sneaky, that you’re overreacting, and all kinds of other things that then you then start to actually believe about yourself. So if you are nodding your head, you are not alone. That’s one good piece of news. And we’ll dive in to this what I call crazy making behavior because it really really does make you feel like you’re going crazy. 
So gaslighting is defined officially as a form of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation, involving distorting the truth in order to come confuse or instill doubt in another person to the point they question their sanity or reality. Can you relate to this, someone trying to Gaslight you typically wants to confuse you and make you doubt yourself to make it more likely that you’re going to go along with what they want. And they generally want you to depend on their version of reality, which if they’re misusing drugs and or alcohol, that is not the reality that you want to be believing in or buying into. 
And I’m a little nerdy, so I always kind of wanted to know where this term gaslighting came from, because it sounded pretty interesting. And it really originates from a 1938 play called Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. And it was eventually it was adapted into a film from a play into a film in 1944. And it starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. And in this film, the husband who Boyer plays, his name is Gregory, he manipulates his adoring and trusting wife Paula into believing that she can no longer trust her own perceptions of reality. He makes her go crazy and steal valuable jewels that her family’s hidden away. And in one pivotal scene, Gregory causes the gas lights in the house to flicker by turning them on and off in the attic of the house. And so then when Paula asks why the gas lights are flickering, he insists that is not really happening. And it’s all in her mind, causing her to doubt her own self perception. Hence, the term gaslighting was born. If you’re nodding your head right now and thinking, Oh my gosh, this happens to me, trust me, this is the podcast for you. And there’s also a lot of information, obviously, in the shownotes that I’ll put there on this, but you’re going to want to listen in and just learn a) what this kind of sounds like looks like how to recognize it and then I have six ways for you to deal with this if it’s happening in your life. 
And literally almost every single parent I work with says this exact same thing, and they think they’re going crazy. So again, I just want to let you know you’re not alone, even though it can feel like it and you think maybe I’m the one that needs to go get treatment. You’re not, this is, there are ways to deal with this. 
So first of all, how do you recognize when someone is gaslighting you? What you might hear are things like, “you must be going crazy. That’s not what happened.” Or “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or “you’re imagining things, that didn’t happen.” Or “you don’t need to be so sensitive. I was just joking.” They can even get really elaborate with this and make up just incredible stories and scenarios. So here’s one that is super typical. “You always exaggerate things. You even told the therapist that I stole $20 from you. And it was like five, like you totally lied to me about the therapist, how are they going to trust us now when you’re lying to them?” Right? So this is what happens and we start feeling like we’re going bananas because they’re so so good at this and you’re also functioning from a not completely whole place to begin with. So this is very, very common. 
And there’s a lot of ways that your kiddo will go about gaslighting you and you might recognize some of these I’m going to read off some that you might recognize from a conversation with your son or daughter or a text message, a Facebook message. We get them in all kinds of formats. They’ve really perfected all forms of gaslighting. 
And one of the ways that they will go about this is by trivializing feelings and experiences so they’ll minimize your feelings or accuse you of overreacting. This is really common from teenagers saying something like “Oh, Mom, seriously, you’re making way too big of a deal about this. It’s nothing.” Okay, so they’re going to really try to trivialize what you’re feeling, then the next one is countering. So they’re going to question your memory and make up new details about something or deny that something even happened at all. And then they might actually blame you for the situation after they’ve made up new details about it. So this one’s a very confusing one. Because you’re you’re a you’re confused about what you may or may not have said and then all of a sudden it gets blamed on you. 
Another one is withholding so they will brush off your attempt to have a discussion, sort of walkaway make it so that you can’t have that conversation or they’ll here’s a good one they’ll accuse you of trying to confuse them. Very, very good. Common, a big one is diversion. So a lot of the reason why they’re going to be doing these things is they want to divert the attention away from themselves onto you, or onto someone else like in the therapist conversation, they want to as long effort as long as they can divert that attention away from them. Because what that does is it allows them more time to think about how they’re going to navigate or negotiate or manipulate their way out of the situation. So if you bring up a concern about their behavior, they will change the subject or turn it back on you. And they may suggest like that you’re making that up. 
There’s also the forgetting or denying trick. So when you mention a specific event or something that they said, you know, you said this, you said you were going to be home at this time, they might say that they can’t remember saying that at all that they never said that. And they’ll completely forget or deny it. And then another one is discrediting, so they will suggest to other people that you can remember things correctly, that you get confused, or that you are the one that makes things up. And a very common place that this happens is between parents who are divorced or separated. And so if you are going on this journey that you’re on with an ex spouse, or you’re separated from from your partner, whoever is involved in your child’s life, this is one to really watch out for because they will find that discord between you that’s that’s already existing, and just play on it. So the discrediting one is very, very important to watch out for. 
And I want to be sure to point out that there is a big difference between a friend or colleague or family member who’s being genuinely interested in what you’re going through and genuinely concerned, and they may say something like, do you think you might be overreacting, and that is very different than your 18 year old, who’s using it on a regular basis in response to you talking about her pot smoking or something like that. So if this turns into a pattern of repeated manipulation, versus just occasional genuine concern, that’s how you know that you’re dealing with gaslighting. 
Of course, you’re already emotionally wiped out, you’re scared of what what might be happening to your son or daughter, you’re also dealing with the rest of life. A lot of you I know are caring for your parents, you are caring for a spouse or partner who’s ill or going through some sort of difficulties of their own. During COVID, right now, many people are dealing with unemployment and trying to find jobs or trying to navigate the whole world of unemployment and getting benefits. So this is just one aspect of your very, very crazy life. And so this really adds up to you not knowing what end is up. 
And what you want to think about, to kind of start to unpack that as to think about how you’re feeling. And if you’re doubting and questioning yourself, or if you’re wondering constantly, whether you’re too sensitive, if you’re struggling with making decisions, or you might be avoiding certain people because you don’t know how to explain what’s going on. That’s a good sign that you’re experiencing gaslighting, and this might sound really obvious, maybe you’re listening to this podcast, because you have a friend or family member who’s going through this and you have seen the gaslighting going on. And from the outside, you’re saying how could this person not know what is happening, but looking at it from the outside is a completely different picture than if you’re experiencing it yourself. And so when you are the one who’s experiencing it, and you love the person who’s doing it to you, beyond all reason, right? This is your child is your son or daughter, maybe it’s a niece or nephew or a grandchild, when you love that person desperately. But they’re, they’re doing these things and saying these things, it is just impossibly confusing to sort out. 
Now that you can sort of recognize what gaslighting is, what it sounds like, and how it starts to make you feel. I want to just walk through six things that you can try when this is happening to you. And by the way, this also happens with people at work this will happen with spouses sometimes. So this doesn’t only apply to your your son or daughter who might be you know, struggling with substance use disorder. So just if you recognize any of these in other areas of your life, they completely apply there. So you might need to share some of this information. 
The first thing that you can do, if this is going on, is to stay calm and get some space. I feel like that should be on a coffee mug. Stay calm. Get space. That could be the Hopestream podcast official mug. So the tendency that we have, when one of these situations is happening is we get really upset, our voices get louder, our hearts start to race, our stomach, it’s all turned into knots because we know what is coming, we know. And we’ve been there before, and we desperately want to avoid it. We’re on total high alert, all of our sensitive, all of our sensors are up and firing on full throttle. And this is exactly what your son or daughter wants. Because when you’re in this heightened emotional state, they know that you’re less likely to respond rationally, and you are much more likely to get sucked into their story. Don’t get sucked in. This is where it’s 100%, okay to say, wow, I need to take a break from this right now I’m starting to feel like I’m going to either lose it, say whatever it is that you’re feeling. And then try to get some physical space away from them. If you can go on a walk, get yourself in a different room, turn off your phone or your notifications. If this is happening through text message or messenger, just try and get some actual distance between you and the person who’s doing this to you. 
And if you can’t get away, physically, you can’t move away from them. Let’s say you’re driving in your car, you can do things like deep breathing exercises, you know, do some really deep breaths, repeat a mantra in your head, maybe you need to think of something specifically a special mantra for when when this is going on, that really helps to kind of ground you and give you a little bit of call mean. Or you could even just count sometimes, that’s all you can do, you’re so frazzled, and you’re you feel like you’re gonna lose your mind, all you can do is count just count, maybe you need to go from one to 100 and backwards, just tell your person, I just need a few minutes. But do whatever you need to do to just slow the moment down and not engage. 
Then the second thing you can do is to keep track of things and document what you can. So if this is going on with your child, it’s likely that there is a lot going on in your life. Again, like I said, I know there’s so much going on in so many of your lives. And this is just kind of how life works. It throws us multiple challenges all at once. I don’t know why, just because so you have a lot going on. And then you have somebody who’s intentionally trying to confuse you. And you’re trying to keep track of what’s actually happening versus what is not happening. And it is enough to make you legitimately crazy. And when I say keep track and document things, this isn’t because you’re going to then use these things as evidence with your child and prove them wrong and pull it out and you know, put it in their face. Because if you do that, they’ll just twist it around and turn it around on you anyway. And that’s it’s probably just not worth going there. The reason why you want to do some documentation is because it’s really good for your own sanity. And for you to recall and reflect on what you have said what you have done, what you’ve seen what you’ve experienced. So it’s kind of like a fact checker for your own life. Which again, will sound crazy to anybody who’s not dealing with this. But if you are, you know what I mean? 
Help yourself out by doing what you can to keep track of things that are actually happening, which means that you may want to take some screenshots of text interactions or Facebook messages that are flying back and forth. And a quick note about texts and messages. This is actually not a bad way to communicate if somebody is gaslighting, because it gives you time to stop and it puts you in control of your response. So you don’t react emotionally you can actually respond thoughtfully. So if you are getting the incessant text after text after text or the messenger thing from Facebook is just dinging left and right. You can a turn off your phone, turn off your notifications, take a deep breath. Really think about what’s going on, think about what’s being said. And then you can respond with confidence because you’ve taken the time to really be thoughtful about what you’re going to say. So screenshots are a good thing again, it’s not the ever going to show them to your son or daughter. I really probably would not recommend that. It’s probably not gonna go very far, but you have them for your own sanity, so that you know what you did or didn’t say. And you can also do this with conversations. If things are getting heated, and you’re starting to feel the confusion, kick in, get your space, take a timeout, just write down what’s going on and what’s being said in that moment. So, not only does it give you your fat checking for later, it just also will let you process what’s going on. And it kind of gives you a minute to think about how you want to proceed. So really, really good to take that time to do that. 
The third thing that you can do, if somebody is is gaslighting you is to find your voice, and speak up about what’s going on. gaslighting works. And it works because it confuses you, and it shakes your confidence. But if you can show your son or daughter that this behavior doesn’t bother you. And you can do that over a sustained period of time, they may actually decide it isn’t worth the struggle, or at least they may do it less often. And it’s all about you being willing to address it and not let it affect you. Or at least don’t let them see that it’s affecting you. In addition to lies and misdirection gaslighting also usually involves criticism and insults. And I know you have likely been called a lot of things from You’re the worst mom, to if you loved me, you would pay for insert objects there, too. You can’t even do XYZ in your own life. So it gets really personal, it gets really ugly, and it goes on and on and on. And you can call these out. The key is you need to do it calmly and politely, which is very difficult. But if you can do that, it shows your child that you aren’t going to accept that behavior. And if you’ve built up your strength and confidence, and you’re ready to speak up, be sure that you do it when you’re calm when you’re collected. When you have had enough sleep, you’re not hungry, and you’re not short on time, right. 
So set yourself up for a good time to do this. You want to be at your absolute best and clearest, and communist when you find your voice and let your child know that their tactics are not going to work on you anymore. The next thing that you can do in this situation is to be confident in your memory. And this sounds so simple to anyone who hasn’t experienced the insanity of gaslighting. But if you’re going through it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Suddenly your child can make you actually believe that something did or didn’t happen, or that it happened completely different than you remember it and no, it did. And all of a sudden you as a fully functioning or mostly functioning adult is saying what if what if well, wait, what if it did actually happen the way that they said and not the way I remember it. And this is so maddening because you’re probably not having this happen at work with friends, or anywhere else in your life. Which is one way actually that you can know for sure that it’s gaslighting. So if your boss or your sister or your best friend never make you question whether you did or didn’t say something or do something, there you go. That is that is your key to knowing. 
And when something comes up with your child, and you start getting into it, you know what happened. So just repeat it calmly and with confidence, showing them any proof could help, again, like I was talking about with the screenshots. But it may not have an impact. And again, it may actually backfire. So just use that documentation with caution. But if you know and you’re confident, and you can state that calmly, that will go a long way. And if they continue to challenge you don’t get drawn in, just don’t get drawn into the crazy and the conflict. Because the more you argue it’s just going to lead to more tension and put you in a position where you’re even more vulnerable to their manipulation. Whereas if you refuse to argue, you can protect yourself and maintain control over that situation. It is so hard. Trust me, I know how hard this is. But you might be able to say something like, hmm, seems like we remember things a little differently. But I don’t want to argue about it and then move on. 
And what they’re wanting you to do is engage they want you to start getting into the specifics. They want you to start recalling whether it happened at one o’clock or two o’clock or if it was $5 or $20, or, if you were 10 minutes late or if they were an hour late with their curfew, they want you to get into the details again, because that diverts the attention away from the real issue. So, to the best of your ability, don’t get sucked in to that detail and that level of manipulation. 
And we’re going to talk now about taking care of yourself. And you may wonder, why would self care be important for dealing with gaslighting? But let me tell you, it is huge. And is obviously not because it’s going to cause your child to stop, you know, using substances, but it is a game changer in the way that you are able to deal with them. So it can really improve your state of mind, which makes you more able to a recognize when the gaslighting is happening, because you’re going to be more alert and more grounded. And it can also give you the physical strength and stamina that you need to handle this amount of stress and strain that’s going on in your life. It is physically exhausting, you really do need that physical output of movement and exercise. And you need that strength in addition to your mental fitness. Because if you’re going through this, you know this is true, it can be relentless. And sometimes your son or daughter just knows that they can be physically wearing you down. And when you’re physically worn out, sister, you are not going to be good at handling the ins and outs and the confusion and the twists of mind that get thrown your way. You’re just not. So you need to be taking care of yourself. If you are practicing with boundaries, that will definitely help. And there’s other podcast episodes on boundaries that I will link to in the show notes. And that will help with this sort of relentlessness because you’re going to learn how to deflect a lot of this. But if you’re just starting out and you’re getting this barrage of craziness, taking care of yourself is incredibly important. And I won’t go into a lot of detail on self care, because you probably already know that you need to do it, you’re probably very well aware of that.
And you probably already know what works best for you personally. And so whatever that is go and do it as much as you possibly can. Because you really need your strength and you need to be in a good mental space for this roller coaster that you’re on. 
And the last thing that I will talk about that will help with this situation of gaslighting is to get your tribe around you. One of the worst parts about gaslighting is that you start to feel really alone and isolated and confused about whether you are crazy or not. So it’s really really critical to get other people involved. So that you have a sort some sort of grounding and a safe place to talk about how you’re feeling. And it can be really validating to recount an experience and have somebody else say well, of course that’s not true or Yep, that is 100% gaslighting. Sometimes you just need somebody else to look at things from the normal world, not from the world that you’re currently living in. Because that is not the normal world. You need somebody to look at things and confirm for you that you are not losing your mind or going crazy. Another benefit of having a tribe around you is that it’s much harder for your child to successfully gaslight you when there are other people around, because it’s a lot harder to convince two people that they’re crazy than it is to convince just one especially if that one happens to be your mother or your father. 
So if it’s at all possible, and this kind of depends on whether your child lives with you or not. You may want to try and plan to have a friend or a family member who isn’t as emotionally involved with your kid as you are to be around when you know you’re going to have a physical interaction with your son or daughter. Right? So backup is a good thing. And if you’re nodding your head and thinking, I have got to get on top of this. Just please don’t expect that you’re immediately going to stop your son or daughter’s behavior and everything is just going to get better with this information. Starting with something that seems manageable to you, and, and going slow is going to give you a better success. So maybe where you start is you say, Okay, I need to ramp up my sleep and my movement and get some good endorphins going and then get mentally stronger because I’ve had some rest, then I’m going to be in a better place to be more mindful about what’s being said and I’m going to be able to document some things and then you’ll be able to do some of the fact checking on yourself and and on various situations. And that will then start to build up your confidence. Right. So don’t just jump into calling your son or daughter out on what they’re doing, that’s likely not going to go well start with something that you are 100% in control of which are things like your self care, your confidence, your documentation, things like that, just sort of build up those reserves within you so that when you start feeling more full, and you start feeling more confident, that might be the time to then go on and start to bring up the you know, talking about it, and just letting them know that this behavior isn’t cool with you anymore, and it’s not going to work. 
And this is such an important topic for you to really be aware of, and to try to get a handle on. Because it’s not just about your child’s health and wellness, this whole issue that’s going on, isn’t just about their health and wellness, you need to know that you are saying and that you are doing the right things. And if you get this twisted messaging, and you get turned around every day, until you don’t know what end is up, it’s going to take a lot longer for you to be able to help your son or daughter. I hope that makes sense. Basically, what I’m saying is, you need to be feeling good and confident about yourself and your actions in order to help them and so if you’re getting the runaround, you’re not going to be in that healthy, confident place. 
I can tell you for sure, if you are experiencing this and you need some other moms to touch base with and keep your sanity in check, you will want to join us in The Stream its our online community. It is not on Facebook, it is just a quiet space on the internet where us moms have a place to connect with each other. We’re all working on ourselves to be healthier, to be more mentally present and strong and aligned. When we have a kid who’s struggling with substance use disorder, so we’re all at different stages of the journey. 
Some have kids in active addiction, some have kids in treatment, some are in the walking on eggshells mode as their kids transition out of treatment in into the real world. And it’s just a beautiful community. And it this is a membership where it’s kind of unique. It’s a membership where you pay what you can. So if you have been listening and you are wondering who else is walking their dog right now listening to this podcast or driving their car two hours to a treatment center with their son or daughter, this is the space for you. 
So go to either my website, or you can go to and you will learn all about it. And if you’re also a reader and you’d like to read more, you will want to check out a free ebook that I wrote. It’s called HINDSIGHT: 3 things I wish I knew when my son was addicted to drugs. It’s very short but packed with lots of information that may be helpful to you that you can take advantage of my learnings that I went through with my son and you can download that also from my website,, and you can get it from there. Thank you so much for listening. I hope this was helpful. leave me some comments on the show notes and the show notes will be there always on my website and I will meet you back here next week.

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