This section is designed to help you understand the dynamics of denial. It is hoped it will help you to address any on-going fears you may have about the thoughts and behaviour of the person you care about and empower you to reflect on some difficult decisions you are likely to have to make. It is anticipated it will assist you in moving forward from what may feel an isolated position, where either you think you should have recognised the warning signs sooner or others may be implying that you must have known something.

Coming to terms with the reality that a person close to you has been having sexual thoughts about children and/or abusing a child can be a very difficult process. It may be that when you first found out about or suspected the behaviour you thought, “I don’t believe it!”, “It can’t be true!”. This kind of thinking is a normal defence mechanism. It helps you to initially protect yourself, because the reality might be too painful to bear. As one non-offending partner said “the river boat of denial is a more comfortable place to be”. Denial is a common defence against fearful or unwanted information. It allows individuals to act as though the thing that has caused so much pain and turmoil has not happened. Denial is activated when people are afraid.

How can someone try and understand denial from the perspective of the person close to them who has sexual thoughts about children and/or has sexually abused a child?

Remember it is likely that they will have been actively keeping the behaviour a secret from you because they realise that what they were doing was wrong. In addition they are likely to have denied aspects of their thinking and offending at the time they were engaging in them. E.g. ‘it’s just thoughts in my head – I won’t act on them’ or ‘I am not hurting anyone’ it is therefore to be expected that similar types of denial will be present when the offending is known about. For a person who has sexually abused a child, it is likely to be very difficult to admit the behaviour and that they would have had thoughts and feelings that would have influenced how they acted.

Denial may be partial or total. It may be short lived or persistent. It may be public or private. These three areas of denial can be experienced not just by yourself but also by the person close to you who has been offending and other family members as the behaviour is being discovered. However if you are struggling to come to terms with the fact that your partner or other family member has been having sexual thoughts about children and/or has sexually abused a child it will be even more of a challenge to accept the facts if others around you are finding it more comforting to minimise and or justify the behaviour.

Understanding denial

To further understand how difficult it would be for this person you care about to fully admit their behaviour, think about something you have done in your life that you are not proud of and imagine having to tell either a person you are emotionally intimate with, or a stranger, the full version of the incident. Consider the following:

  • What would you fears be?
  • How would you be feeling during the disclosure?
  • How does it make you feel about yourself?
  • How does it make you feel about yourself compared to others?

Now, imagine that everyone you know knew exactly what you have done…

  • How long would you want to dwell on this?
  • How would you feel?
  • What would you be afraid of?
  • What would you want to do?
  • What would you want to say if challenged or criticised about it?

If asked about it, would you be tempted to do any of the following….

  • Omit to mention certain bits of what happened?
  • Play down the consequences of what you did?
  • Lie about some of the details?
  • Deny it was as bad as claimed?
  • Deny that it happened?

Thinking about the behaviour you had in mind, what would be the main reason you would want to deny doing it?

Types of denial

  • Denial of the fact: e.g. “I didn’t do it”/ “He didn’t do it”
  • Denial of awareness: e.g. “I was drunk and I didn’t know what I was doing”/ “He was drunk/stressed and didn’t know what he was doing”
  • Denial of responsibility: “I had no part in harming a child”/ “He wasn’t the person responsible for the images being on-line”
  • Denial of impact: “She was smiling; she seemed to be enjoying it”/ “He told me she was fine with it.”
  • Denial of the need for treatment: “I’ve learnt my lesson and I won’t do it again/ “He was under a lot of pressure at the time”

Reasons why an individual might deny

  • Loss of relationships: You/my wife/my parents will reject me if I admit
  • Fear of Punishment: I’ll go to Jail/get beaten up/ have to do a group if I admit
  • Fear of Stigma: I’ll be in the newspaper, I’ll be seen as a ‘pervert’ if I admit
  • Loss of esteem: If I admit, it means I did it
  • Fear of losing his family
  • Fear of custody
  • Shame
  • Wants to continue offending
  • Wants to stop but doesn’t know how
  • Acknowledgement of causing harm to the children online and family is too painful

Reasons why family/friends might deny

  • Loss of relationships: I love him, he will have to leave; the kids need him
  • Fear of Stigma: People will blame me; they will think I should have known and done something about it
  • Fear of Punishment/consequences: they will think I am a bad mother, Children’s Services will take the kids away, I want things to stay the same
  • Loss of esteem: I should have known, it’s my fault because we were arguing all the time.

The Continuum of Denial (Taylor, 1996)

The Continuum of Denial (Taylor 1996) represented below shows the different levels of denial that can be present, especially when the behaviour first comes to light. It shows how denial is often linked with feelings of hopelessness in the person who has engaged in the inappropriate behaviour and how acceptance of responsibility tends to lead to more positive feelings including motivation for change. Talking about what has happened in a non-judgemental, confidential environment may help you to understand what has happened and to begin to move forward. You can do this with someone on the Stop it Now! Helpline.


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