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I harmed a child when I was kid, how do I heal?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

When I was a child I was sexually abused by a teen cousin of mine. We would perform hand jobs on each other and he would perform oral sex on me. We also dry jumped each other, but I eventually discontinued this activity with him when he wanted to have anal sex with me.

Then when I turned 11 I started acting out on my 3 year old cousin. He was pressuring me to kiss him and even though I was heavily reluctant, I eventually gave in. Well for the next 4 years or so we would ever so often kiss and cuddle. The furthest I took it was when I pulled out my genitalia and I think I touched his hand with it, before I stopped myself and left him alone. Eventually when he grew older, he no longer wanted to do this with me, which actually made me ihappy, because I was no longer going to do something I was very ashamed of.

Years went by and when I apologized to him for "the way that I treated him, and that I love him" to which he replied "I love you too cuz, got to forget about the past, and make new ones." Well more years went by and just recently I was invited to my aunt's wedding, but I had a complete meltdown on that day and was unable to attend it, because my younger cousin's girlfriend was acting really cold towards me and it made me feel deeply ashamed of my past actions. And now ever since that wedding day, I simply cannot let my mind let go of the past.

Now I'm truly worrying if I'm a danger to children in this depressed and anxious state of mind. Worrying, am I a pedophile? Worrying if my family wonders why I was unable to make it to the wedding. Worrying if my life is truly doomed and I have no chance of making it through all of these terrifying thoughts in my head.

I'm constantly anxious and fearful but most especially when children are around me.

Response: 
Please share your feedback

Dear Brave Survivor,

It can be so very difficult to think about your own sexual behaviors as a child - and I want you to know that you're not alone in your concerns. Many other adults reach out to us with similar questions, struggling with their own actions from years ago. It was very courageous of you to reach out to us and be so candid with your story. I want you to know that yes it is possible to heal.

I'm so sorry to hear that you were sexually abused as a child. Ideally loving adults would have intervened, made sure you were safe, and found you a therapist to help you heal – and I’m sorry that no one was able to do that for you.

You were exposed to some very adult-like and explicit sexual behaviors at a very young age, and that’s not okay. It sounds like you may even be making the emotional connection that since you think of what this older teen did to you as abusive, your younger cousin may also feel similarly. I think it was very brave of you to have a conversation with him to apologize, and I’m glad that he’s working to put the past behind him. Each child’s reaction to events like these may be a little bit different, as no two children, scenario or surrounding details may be the same. The way you interpret what happened to you may be vastly different than how your cousin thinks of what went on between you both. Similarly, each person’s journey to healing is an individual experience that they get to define. 

Children's Sexual Behaviors
Often it can be helpful to start by debunking some myths around children’s sexual behaviors – including inappropriate, harmful, and even abusive ones. First, it’s important to understand that children’s sexual behaviors are very different than those of adults. Similarly, the reasons why a child or teen may engage in inappropriate behavior can also be very different: sometimes a youth may act out harmful behaviors because they’ve been exposed to mature and adult-like sexual behaviors through pornography or by their own sexual abuse (as you describe), but there are yet many other factors in their life that can play a role. I’ve left some additional resources below that may help you start to make sense of your own actions as a youth: 

I'm not looking to excuse your behavior - what you did was inappropriate; instead it's important to see your actions from the age and level of understanding by which you performed them. It sounds like you knew what you were doing was not okay, but you were also very confused about safe boundaries. When you describe your 3 year-old cousin trying to kiss you, it seems like you were misinterpreting typical gestures of affection as sexual – a sign you needed some additional help in understanding how to play safely, not that you were a bad kid. Sometimes after a child is introduced to mature and adult-like sexual acts at a young age, that child then becomes confused about how to play safely with peers and other younger children. Although I'm not a therapist and I can't tell you what your motivations were, I would encourage you to think of the full picture when considering your actions. It’s also important to know that most children and teens who engage in sexually harmful behaviors with other youths do grow up into sexually safe adults.

Healing with Professional Support
I’m wondering if you’ve ever been able to talk to someone about the sexual abuse you experienced as a child and your own behaviors as a youth. An important part of your own journey to healing and recovery may be to find a trauma-informed therapist who works with adult survivors. This person may help you start to unravel all these memories you have – as you’re ready – and help you understand your actions, and feel in control. If you did have any lingering emotions from your own abuse, this person would also be able to help you process your feelings and work through whatever may be affecting your life currently. You absolutely deserve to heal. I’ve included some additional helpful resources below.

I know that part of this seems to have stemmed from your cousin’s girlfriend’s interaction with you. Guilt and shame are some very heavy and sometimes debilitating feelings to carry around with you, and I would encourage you to talk about these things with your therapist. We can’t control what other people think of us, but we can control our own thoughts, feelings, and emotions – and how we interact with the outside world. 

You can also think about having a conversation with your cousin, adult to adult, if that feels like a step you’d like to take. This may be a choice you decide to make after you have the ongoing involvement and support of a therapist. Then, if there are any difficult or lingering feelings your cousin wants to talk about, you both would have the chance to converse in a safe and neutral space. 

Again, please do what feels right for you, but no matter what, I do hope that you’re able to find a counselor who you feel comfortable working with. You don’t need to carry around these difficult memories around on your own any longer.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: November 9th, 2018