Gaslighting in Homes with Parental Addiction and Abuse

Gaslighting in Homes with Parental Addiction and Abuse : Children who grow up with addiction or abuse in their homes often struggle to cut through the lies and discern what’s “true.”

When parents are abusive or in active addiction, the dynamics in the home are chaotic. This was certainly true in our childhood. It left us second-guessing ourselves and wondering what was wrong with us well into adulthood.

Gaslighting: Denial, fear and lies

The hallmark of families with addiction and abuse is living in denial of the proverbial “elephant in the living room.” It’s a well-used metaphor because it is so vivid and so accurate — there’s a huge, crazy thing at the center of your life that no one ever talks about. It takes up space and oxygen, and makes an enormous mess, but we all agree that we will ignore it.

In our home, we not only ignored these serious problems, we told ourselves a fairy tale — that we were a “close, warm, loving family” — even though our parents continued to cause us pain and we were often afraid of them.

These are all examples of “gaslighting,” which is really a euphemism for lying. Parents lie to their children, and often themselves, about what’s really going on in the home.

Putting on a show for others

When survivors of trauma look back on their childhoods, they’re often amazed that no one outside the family seemed to know what was going on in their home. This is extremely common. Anyone who met our parents would see them as highly intelligent, even charismatic. Many abusive people are. They’re very good at putting on a front for someone else, and then doing whatever they want behind closed doors.

Our parents didn’t berate or beat us in public. They projected the “close, warm, loving family” myth out into the world. Even as young children, we participated in that show because we got the message early on that we should never tell the truth about what was happening at home — so our parents were gaslighting the people around us, too. When we disclosed details of our childhood later in life, friends typically responded, “I never knew.”

How to unravel the lies and live in truth

In our late twenties, we started to break through the denial about the abuse we’d endured. We were both married, and we each had a young daughter. Our children were the driving force behind our desire to examine our upbringing, understand what had happened to us, and chart a healthier path forward. This was easier said than done.

Growing up with fear and lies had left us unable to trust ourselves. We often wondered if we were reading people and situations accurately, or if we were overreacting to the circumstances around us. We knew we had to figure out what was “true” or “real” so we could break the cycle of dysfunction and create stable, loving homes for ourselves and our children. Here is how we did it:

  1. Educated ourselves on addiction and abuse
    We had to educate ourselves on the dynamics in addictive and abusive homes. We read everything we could find on these subjects. This gave us an intellectual understanding of what happened to us, and helped us to see that the abuse was not our fault.
  1. Looked backward to go forward
    We used this new knowledge to view our childhood through a new lens. We shared memories and validated them for each other. This allowed us to sort out truth from lies.
  1. Processed our emotions
    In the early days of our recovery work, we often felt angry about how we’d been treated. We were also afraid that we were irreparably damaged and that we’d never be “okay.” These are all common emotions. We sought individual counseling and support groups, such as Al-Anon or ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics). These helped us process our emotions — to see that what we were experiencing was normal, that we weren’t crazy, and that gaslighting was a common dynamic in homes like ours.

All this work paved the way for us to reconnect with our intuition, or inner guidance. We all have an inner voice that can help us decide what’s true, and what will serve our best interests, but the gaslighting that occurs in abusive homes leaves children second-guessing themselves continually. Learning to connect with and trust our inner voice was central to our healing process. We had to deliberately take time to slow down and listen. Once we did, that guidance led us to pursue many other avenues of healing, such as yoga and meditation, and to make many other decisions which have enriched our lives tremendously.

If you’re trying to break out of patterns defined by gaslighting and lies, we advise you to start slowly. Try connecting with yourself on small things, and act on your inner guidance. When you see how well that works for you, your confidence and trust in yourself will grow. We know the effort is worth it, because living in truth is the only way to live in peace.




Ronni Tichenor has a PhD in sociology, specializing in family studies, from the University of Michigan. Jennie Weaver received her degree from the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with over 25 years of experience in family practice and mental health. Their new book, Healing Begins with Us: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Abuse and Rebuilding the Sibling Bond (HeartWisdom LLC, April 5, 2022), shares their inspiring and hopeful story of healing from their painful upbringing. Learn more at


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Gaslighting in Homes with Parental Addiction and Abuse