Over the years, I’ve worked with clients who have been abused by their parents, either physically, emotionally or sexually. This ill-treatment has affected both their physical and emotional health, as well as relationships with people round them. They might have grown up since the abuse happened, however, mentally and emotionally they are still very damaged.
People who were abused by their parents want to understand why it happened. They want to know why these people who were supposed to love and protect them, hurt them instead. Their parents would refuse to answer their questions and instead they would flatly deny that abuse had ever taken place or they would have tried to minimize it. Many of them became offended that their children would dare to question their behaviour. So why do many abusive parents react this way when their children accuse them of such a despicable thing as abusing a child?
Before I attempt to answer this question, I think it’s important to explain that denial and minimization are defense mechanisms that their parents use to protect themselves from their emotions and from something that happened to them when they were children. Many of those parents might have been subjected to abuse and neglect that they haven’t dealt with and it has consequently turned them into frustrated, hopeless and angry people who couldn’t deal with their painful feelings.
This unprocessed trauma caused them to treat their children in a way that helped them regulate what was going on internally for them. It might sound shocking when I say that they were trying to deal with their painful emotions and unresolved trauma through their children and they used abuse to do so. Treating their children in such a way helped them regain control and helped them deal with the terrible treatment they experienced from their own parents.
For that reason, when their children ask them about the abuse they would deny or minimize it. Admitting that they have caused harm to their own children would mean getting back in touch with their unprocessed feelings and they would do whatever they could to avoid that from happening. Therefore, in order to protect themselves from their painful emotions and their intensity they turn to defense mechanisms and deny the facts and evidence presented by their children. Some of them might blame their children, spouses and other people for their behaviour. Parents who abuse substances, such as drugs and alcohol, might claim that they couldn’t remember what they did when they were under the influence of those substances.
Some of them might admit that some abuse did take place. However, they would insist that it did not cause much harm or they might say that they didn’t behave nowhere as badly as their neighbours who used to beat their children on a daily basis.
Others would ignore the evidence and provide, in their eyes, a plausible explanation to their children of how they ‘fell’ against the wall. They may be aware that their behaviour was wrong and they will hide it from other people, nevertheless, they will justify it without feeling guilty or remorseful. They would not acknowledge that they did anything wrong.
Clients sometimes ask me whether they have to forgive their parents for their past behaviours. The truth is that they don’t have to. However, they need to ask themselves what will help them process their emotions and move on from the abuse. Some of them might be seeking an apology, validation or acknowledgement of the abuse, only to be faced with the realization that gaining it, is more or less impossible. Subsequently, they might find it difficult to forgive their parents and might choose to cut their parents out of their lives. Others might stop hoping to receive what their parents are not capable of giving and accept them for who they are. Some might realize that they can feel validated and acknowledged through a friend or a therapist who can help them come to terms with the past and focus on the future.
Some professionals and the general public are reluctant to acknowledge the crucial role that parents play in the development of their children’s emotional difficulties. In my opinion, we should not be afraid to recognize it. However, it is important to stress that it is not about assigning blame. It is about helping parents understand how their parenting approach has contributed to their children’s issues. Since their children will only be able to change the effects the abuse has on them and repair their relationship, when their parents can honestly look at how their behaviour has contributed to their children’s problems.