Toxic Cocktails: Stonewalling and Gaslighting

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Health Assured team

03 April 2017

Of all the pernicious relational patterns, two stand out: stonewalling and gaslighting.

These unhealthy forms of manipulation show up in relationships between adults but also in adult-child connections where they do long-lasting damage. Unfortunately, children who experience either or both grow up to be adults who often have trouble recognizing those patterns in action because they are so familiar. Both are abusive, reflect an imbalance of power in the relationship (and the fact that one partner wants to take advantage of this power), and highly destructive. According to marital expert John Gottman, stonewalling is one of the four behaviours which are signposts that the marriage will fail and end in divorce. Needless to say, while these behaviours are emotionally hurtful in adulthood, they have a long-lasting effect on children and their emotional and psychological development.


Understanding stonewalling

This pattern has been the subject of so much study that it has a formal name along with an acronym: Demand/Withdraw or DM/W. It describes the situation when one person wants to initiate a discussion about something important and the person to whom she is speaking reacts by withdrawing—refusing to answer, saying nothing or displaying derision, or perhaps even leaving the room. This is a classic power play guaranteed to make the person making the demand feel belittled, ignored, and enormously frustrated which, in turn, is likely to turn up the emotional volume if it’s an adult doing the demanding. Unfortunately, that escalation is likely only to produce further withdrawal, because now the stonewalling person feels truly put upon and angry. It will surprise no one that in relationships where one person has an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment and the other has an avoidant style, the pattern of stonewalling can become a familiar fixture and a death knell for the relationship.


About Gaslighting

This term doesn’t come out of psychological literature but out of popular culture, derived from a 1930s play and then a movie Gaslight from the 1940s starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. It describes behaviour orchestrated by one person to make another doubt her own perceptions and, ultimately, her view of reality. Generally, for gaslighting to be a success, the person doing the gaslighting must have some kind of power over the other person—the victim might love or trust the perpetrator or need him or her—and the victim must have insecurities that the gaslighter can exploit. People with an anxious/preoccupied style of attachment, who worry and fret about signs and signals that they’re about to be left or betrayed, present ideal candidates for gaslighting.   Excerpt from Psych Central, read the full report here.


Child bullying Bullying

Bullying is not just a problem for a minority of children; it is a widespread problem that can affect the culture and climate of a whole school. According to Bullying UK’s 2006 National Bullying Survey (the largest, most comprehensive survey of its kind at the time):

  • 69% of children in the UK report being bullied
  • 87% of parents report that their child had been bullied in the past 12 months
  • 20% report bullying others
  • 85% had witnessed bullying (admirably, 82% of them tried to intervene). Source:

Bullying includes:

  • Teasing and name-calling
  • Spreading nasty rumours
  • Abusive or threatening texts or emails, or posts (and even websites) on the internet
  • Intimidation and violence
  • There are often differences of interpretation with some of this behaviour – what’s considered gentle teasing by one child might appear as intimidation to another.


How to spot the signs

If you feel your child may be the victim of bullying, look out for the following signs:

  • They come home from school with cuts, bruises or torn clothing
  • They are hungry or have walked home, having had bus fare or lunch money stolen
  • They are unusually moody or withdrawn or are picking fights at home
  • Their work and grades at school start to slide
  • They are reluctant to go to school, insist on being driven there, or pretend to be unwell
  • Their eating habits change, or they aren’t sleeping well recommends asking a few simple questions to find out whether your child is being bullied:

For a younger child:

  • What did they do at school today?
  • Did they do anything they liked?
  • Did they do anything they didn’t like?
  • Who did they play with?
  • Are they looking forward to going to school tomorrow?
  • What sort of games did they play?
  • Did they enjoy them?
  • Would they have liked to play different games with someone else?
  • How are their friends?

For an older child:

  • What did they do at lunchtime today?
  • Is there anyone they’d like to invite home?
  • Is there any lesson at school they don’t like and why?
  • Is there anyone at school they don’t like and why?
  • Are they looking forward to going to school tomorrow?


What to do if your child is being bullied

If your child is being bullied, don’t ignore it. At the most extreme level, bullying can on rare occasions lead to suicide or attempted suicide, so it must always be taken seriously. Of course, children have to learn to accept and even ignore a certain level of teasing, and parents need to provide support so the child can deal with this. But physical threats or continual taunting is distressing and should never be tolerated.


Helping your child

  • Encourage them to talk to you about their experiences, but don’t pressurise them. Suggest someone else they can talk to – not all children want to talk to parents, so think of someone else they trust, such as a grandparent, other relative or close friend.
  • Reassure them: tell your child that it’s not their fault and they shouldn’t feel afraid or ashamed that they’re being targeted.
  • Raise their self-esteem: bullying hits a child’s self-confidence, so praise and encourage them at every possible opportunity.


Taking action

It is important to stay calm. Don’t lose your temper or react angrily towards your child’s teacher, as you could end up getting banned from entering the school or even facing legal action. Make an appointment or have a quiet chat with them to explain your concerns or fears. The teacher will know all the children well and will be able to help you decide the best way of sorting out the problem. If you feel that the situation is not being resolved following the meeting, ask to see the school’s anti-bullying policy. All schools are legally required to have one. Study it and note points that you feel are not being met Make an appointment to see the Head Teacher and refer to the school's anti-bullying policy. Leave the meeting with an action plan and ask for a follow-up by a phone call. Keep a record of any meeting you have. If you still feel that the issue has not been dealt with then ask the school for the contact details of the Board of Governors or Local Educational Authority. Write to the Board expressing your concerns and why you feel that there has been no resolve. Make a list of all the questions you want to ask and take someone along with you, so you don’t miss anything that they may say.


What if my child is a bully?

If you find out that your child is bullying others, it’s likely to be a shock. Do try to stay calm though, so you can get to the bottom of what’s going on. Discuss what has been going on with your child and find out his side of the story. Children bully for a number of reasons. It may be that he is being bullied himself, or he may be trying to get attention or become popular with a group. Help your child to understand how his actions are affecting other children. You may need to talk about this over a period of time. He needs to know that bullying is totally unacceptable. If the bullying is happening at school, talk to your child’s teacher or form tutor to get a better picture of what is going on and what can be done. If there are other children involved in the bullying, they may be putting pressure on each other. It may help to speak to their parents – they will probably be as anxious as you are to put an end to the problem.  

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