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How Caregivers Can Counter Family Gaslighting

Recognize the intentional deception and learn ways to stop it

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Imagine a 52-year-old woman, the youngest of three siblings, whose two brothers encourage her to spend time with their aging father. “Dad is so lonely,” the brothers tell her. “He says you are the only one who makes him feel better, because you resemble Mom.” The sister can hardly believe it; her father is always gruff with her. Her brothers also remind her she had promised their mother she would take care of their father. But the sister can’t seem to remember making that promise during the long conversations she and her mother had before her mother’s cancer death three years before.

Are the brothers telling her what they truly believe and the sister is misperceiving and misremembering things? Or are her big brothers, the little sister considers with alarm, purposely misleading her to make her feel obligated to be her father’s primary caregiver — thereby lessening their share of the burden of their father’s care? 

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Intentionally misleading someone to believe something that isn’t true is often called gaslighting, named for the Alfred Hitchcock–directed 1944 movie Gaslight, in which a devious husband uses trickery and deception to manipulate his gullible wife into thinking she’s losing her mind. The term has become part of common parlance in our polarized age of decreased trust in institutions and one another. People may feel gaslit by friends who are warm and supportive to their faces but bad-mouth them behind their backs; when caught, the gaslighter will say the person is crazy that they thought the comments were about them. An employee may complain of being gaslit by a boss who promises an increased bonus for working longer hours and then reneges, denying having made such a claim. And caregivers may feel gaslit by other family members who deliberately twist the truth about a care receiver’s needs or the caregiver’s responsibilities, to increase that caregiver’s sense of duty and guilt

Gaslighting pertaining to caregiving violates the ingrained assumption that family members care for and support one another. Caregivers who feel gaslit by family members are often too angry to even be in the same room with them, let alone enjoy holiday gatherings together. How can family caregivers protect themselves from gaslighting and still maintain at least cordial relationships with deceptive relatives? Here are some ideas.

Start with recognition

Many caregivers will choose to give family members the benefit of the doubt rather than suffer the realization that loved ones may be trying to manipulate them. But countering gaslighting must start with recognizing it as it’s occurring. After all, not all family members are willing to participate in caregiving, and if they can induce a primary caregiver to do more, gaslighters are able to do less. If others’ contentions about the caregiving situation don’t ring true, then they probably aren’t. By exercising healthy skepticism about her brothers’ assertions, for instance, the sister can make her own judgments about the caregiving responsibilities she should take on.

Trust your gut

Caregivers who are unsure of themselves tend to rely too much on others’ opinions about a care receiver’s wants and needs, and what the caregiving plan should be. That makes those caregivers more vulnerable to gaslighting. It’s far better for caregivers to trust their own knowledge of the care receiver and determine for themselves what’s right, or they risk feeling pressured by others’ questionable motives. 

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Use assertiveness, not anger

Gaslighting can be considered an underhanded form of betrayal, to which nearly everyone would react with anger. But getting very angry rarely rights the wrong of gaslighting nor helps the care receiver or caregiving effort. A more tactical response of calmness and assertiveness is necessary.  

For example, if the sister confronts her brothers by telling them they’re full of baloney and are trying to make her feel guilty, they’re not likely to back down; they’ll continue to argue that she has special responsibilities she can’t evade. The result will be a sibling standoff at a time when their father needs them to work together to assist him. It’s preferrable for the sister to recognize her brothers’ contentions as self-serving, yet neither challenge nor confirm them and instead calmly and firmly state her own perspective. “I have my own relationship with Dad,” she might say. “More than anything, he wants us to get along. I am willing and able right now to do X for him. What are you willing and able to do to help him as part of a coordinated plan?”

The brothers may blanch and protest at first, but the sister’s message will be clear: Gaslighting won’t work, guys. You have responsibilities too. We’re in this together.

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