Child Abuse and Parental Denial

Parental refusal to admit to their adult children about past abuse only worsens the situation for the survivor of that abuse.

Child Abuse and Parental Denial


I recently had the opportunity of revisiting a question that I have struggled to find answers to for many years. The question is, why faced with a parent sexually, physically, or verbally abusing a child, does the other parent remain silent?

In my psychotherapy practice, I am experiencing an increase where one parent said nothing. In contrast, the other parent abused their children. The abuse came as constant shouting at the child and hitting and punching the child most times. There is also child neglect and, sometimes, sexual abuse.

The adult survivors of abuse also report experiencing gaslighting. In addition, they recall the abuse and the fact that the other parent offered no safety.

Gaslighting is extremely serious. Here is a psychological definition of gaslighting:

“Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation and psychological control. Victims of gaslighting are deliberately and systematically fed false information that leads them to question what they know to be true, often about themselves. They may end up doubting their memory, their perception, and even their sanity. Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.” Part of the strategy of parents and families who use gaslighting is to convince abuse survivors of mental health problems.

Some parents behave like blame victims when their adult children confront them with the abuse.

Child abuse, gaslighting, and denial form part of a family pattern in which grandparents, uncles, and aunts join in the disclaimer and gaslighting. Most times, siblings join this pattern of disclaiming abuse even though they are survivors of abuse.

The question others have asked me and that I ask myself is, how or why would a parent remain silent in the while, the abuse of the children is happening. Here are a few hypotheses.

1. Denial is a powerful and primitive defense mechanism. Someone dependent, frightened, and themselves the victim of abuse, can remain silent and not even see or hear the abuse to maintain the desperately needed relationship with the abuser. It is a variation of the old saying, “Hear no evil, see no evil.” Well, people hear it and see it and cannot act.

2. Both abuser and spouse can be mentally ill people who collude out of mutually shared sadism. A few people can get a sense of pleasure out of treating children abusively.

3. Over the years, I have known a few cases in which the wife has such a deep need to avoid sexual relations that they prefer their husband engage in Oedipal relations with a daughter, which is usually unconscious, with a complete denial in operation.

4. Chronic and severe drug and alcohol abuse loosen inhibitions that otherwise sober and sensible people do things that would shock them if they were not under the influence of certain types of drugs.

5. Parents who come from abusive environments repeat the pattern once they are parents. The vicious cycle of abuse is probably the primary cause of domestic violence in the United States.

It is natural to ask why an adult would now confront their parents about abusive acts that happened during childhood? The answer is that these survivors seek an apology and an affirmative statement admitting their wrongdoing. Parental failure to apologize to the survivor further adds to the despair. The despair results not simply by the refusal of an apology but the complete denial that anything happened.

It is the responsibility of neighbors, family, friends, teachers, and school officials to report suspected abuse to the authorities, who will then investigate.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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