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Should I let the brother who abused me back into my life?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I was sexually abused by my older brother when I was about 4. It continued until 3rd grade. He is five years older than me. The authorities were involved and he was sent to live in foster care. As an adult I am trying to understand if I should allow him into my life in a small capacity.  My family has never talked about it, ever. I keep this frustration inside, and I don't know what to do. I'm not exactly sure what help I need, but I'm torn between feeling safe in my life I've developed as an adult and the guilt of him not being given the chance to even be a small part of the family.

Response: 
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Dear Divided Survivor,

It sounds like you’ve facing a very difficult decision. I can imagine how much more difficult this may be when your family hasn’t spoken about what happened, and may not feel available for support in this situation.

Finding Support
It’s okay not to know what help you need right now - there are others who can help you figure that out. You may benefit from some professional support, like a counselor, if you aren’t receiving some already. A counselor can help you weigh your concerns about feeling safe with your desire to reconnect, and can guide you in how to do so in a way that’s healthiest for you.

There are many counselors out there with experience working with adult survivors of sexual abuse, including sexual harm by another child. Our Adult Survivor Resources can help you find this kind of professional support. These resources also include message boards and support groups run by other survivors, rather than professionals, who can share their own experiences and offer support. Our resources for Finding and Choosing Professional Treatment also include some additional referral resources, as well as information about treatment.

Reasons to Reconnect
It may also help you to think about why you want to connect with your brother. Are you hoping to reunite your family or build a stronger sibling bond? Are you curious about the kind of person your brother became? Do you want to know more about what happened when you were young? Or is it mostly because of the guilt that you mention in your email?

If your main reason for reaching out to your brother is in fact guilt, please know that what happened – including your brother’s out-of-home placement – was not your fault. Maybe it’s important to you that your brother know that as much as you do. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean letting him back into your life if you don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so. You are not obligated to take any steps on your healing journey that you aren’t ready for, especially if those steps may jeopardize the hard work you’ve already done.

You may also want to try talking to your parents about how you’re feeling. Maybe if they know how frustrating it is to keep this to yourself, they may be more willing to talk about it with you.

Children’s Sexual Behaviors
You mention concerns about your sense of safety, but it may help you to know that children’s sexual behaviors are very different from those of adults. They happen for very different reasons, and can often be addressed successfully with treatment. This doesn’t in any way invalidate what happened to you as a child, but it may mean that as an adult, your brother may not be harmful.

Much of your brother’s current risk may depend on what kind of treatment he’s received for his behavior, which is another reason it may be helpful to talk to your parents. Many children with sexual behavior problems are able to change their behavior and learn how to be safe around others when they receive help from a specialized professional. Maybe your brother received this treatment in his placement and is more able to control his behaviors.

Honor Your Feelings
Even if your brother did receive treatment and is now safe, that may not mean you feel safe. Maybe you’re worried that seeing him again may trigger feelings from when you were a child, and you’re not sure whether that’s something you’re ready, or will ever be ready, to face. That’s a completely understandable feeling, and an important one to listen to as you make your decision.

The decisions that were made about your brother’s placement when you were young were made for everyone’s safety and well-being, including his. You are not in any way responsible for what happened. The decision to invite him back into your life, even in a limited way, is yours – and you don’t have to face the decision alone.

I hope that you can find support to do what’s best for your own recovery, and that you continue to heal.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: March 20th, 2017