Is it innocent exploring and ‘child’s play’, or a set up for devastating behaviour patterns and a life of guilt and shame for one or both parties?
Depending on your life experience, your answer may be different than mine. Each story is unique, each journey personal. But, in any case, silence does not bring hope to others, so, for this reason, we’ll dive right in to yet another taboo ‘talk’.
As the injustice of abuse impacted our Mennonite community in negative ways, back in the early 1980’s, a keen sense of right and wrong developed in me. Not right and wrong in the ‘religious’ sense, based on cultural beliefs and norms, but based on hearing God speak in personal ways, on topics that parents, and the Christian culture in general, failed to speak. God began to teach me through that deep inner sense that warns me the enemy is trying to bring destruction, and the gentle nudging that God has a better plan…
One of the curses of being sexually abused as children is that it frequently results in exploring and experimenting sexually. At a very young age it can trigger behaviours that go way beyond natural curiosity, to re-enacting abuse experiences. This is particularly likely when healthy sexuality is not taught, and the only frame of reference, for what is normal or appropriate, is their own abuse.
I’ve heard every excuse in the book for this ‘exploring’ and curiosity…. “It’s just our fallen, sinful nature… It’s natural curiosity… It’s generational”… and so on. While some of these reasons are true, some of the time, all of them are not true all the time. If we take the easy way out and chalk everything up to this, without looking deeper, we could leave our children vulnerable and struggling through life, hiding memories they don’t know what to do with.
On the other extreme, some adults react in anger, rather than casually writing it off as innocent child’s play. I’ve had many broken adults describe the beatings and anger they experienced when their parents or some adult caught them. This is the most damaging response I have seen to date, causing life-long devastation to the child. It destroys parent-child relationships, as trust in adults and authority figures is broken, and creates a warped sense of sexuality. These kids grow up to believe sex is dreadfully evil. And, for some, suffering violence for something done in innocence with no appropriate teaching or awareness, causes extreme sexual confusion.
We need the balance of recognizing the children are innocent, but acknowledging that they need to be taught and guided, rather than punished, shamed or ignored.
When certain sexual behaviours seem normal, because of life experience, it’s easy for kids to spontaneously get into mischief and instigate exploring, to no fault of their own. Shame and punishment further silence them.
Twice, when I was the instigator as a young child, the Holy Spirit gently let me know, through a quiet ‘sense’ that it made God sad, that it wasn’t good. The first time I was six. I didn’t fully understand it until many years later, in my twenties, when the memory returned.
Shortly after I turned twelve, I recalled an incident where I was the instigator. I wrote a note to the other child saying I didn’t understand why it was wrong, or what it meant, and how sorry I was. I asked for forgiveness, knowing it was my fault, and then it was history.
Before sharing this story I asked permission from my friend, now an adult, to make sure it would not create unnecessary trauma. We remain friends, knowing that God’s grace is bigger than any sin, let alone things that happen in the innocence of childhood. I received more than permission yesterday. When we spoke I was strongly encouraged to share, if it would give hope to other adults who carry similar childhood stories of guilt that haunts, if hidden. I hear confessions frequently from adults struggling now with guilt over what happened in early childhood. It is time to set the children free.
I cannot help but wonder what would have happened, had I ignored that still small voice in those preteen years. Would I have become a perpetrator? Would I be ‘Dan’ in yesterday’s story? I don’t know the answers, but I thank God for His grace.
When I sit across the table from an adult who tells me that they victimized children or instigated inappropriate experimenting as children, I remember that grace. It could have been any one of us.
Children experimenting with children may be innocent, but it still creates struggles for both parties. I hear the stories often, and I know from personal experience the damage it does. The ‘victim’ is prematurely introduced to sexual awareness and some instigators carry intense guilt and shame, knowing it was wrong, but not fully grasping why. Years later, with awareness and understanding, this guilt and shame threatens to destroy lives, ministry and purpose.
However, I don’t feel the other children ‘victimized’ me. How could they? They didn’t know what they were doing any more than I knew what I was doing. Their intent was innocent, having no understanding of sexuality. My intent, as a child, was not to wound my friend, because I was completely innocent of any sexual understanding, but it scarred us both. Because of our innocence, and me taking ownership, our friendship was not destroyed.
When an adult wounds a child, the dynamics change. Adult perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse must face the consequences of knowingly harming the innocent. It has to be that way. But when I sit across from the perpetrator, my first thought is not judgement, it is, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”
When I remember the exploring of early childhood, I feel sad that, when it was prevalent, no one guided us and taught healthy sexuality. I wonder, would my life story be different if someone had empowered us, taught us the right to say ‘no’? Would it have been different if we had known the truth about our bodies, about sexuality (at age appropriate levels) and if we had been told that it is important to respect other people’s bodies? I think it so.
I ask those questions not to live in regret, but to encourage you to positively impact the children in your lives. Parents, teach your children well. Adults, protect all children in your care. They need to be safe with you.
God is a Redeemer. I don’t regret my story. All of those things shaped me and taught me. Much of life’s wisdom comes from inviting God into our experience and finding His truth in the tragedies of life. It is a never-ending learning experience. It is to this that I attribute my healing. When He spoke, even in childhood, I took ownership for my sins.
And, somewhere in that trauma of childhood, the ‘truth warrior’ developed in me, and that has served me well.
Having taken ownership for my wrongs, I was able to take a strong stand, several years later at age fourteen, in the face of violence in the school room…. But, that will be tomorrow’s post…
© Trudy Metzger
Return to 1st post in Sexual Abuse Series
This is a very courageous post, Trudy. Thank you for talking about something that isn’t discussed very often. My only concern is that the ones who are victimized by older children do not have their experiences minimized. I.e. the 3-5 year old who is molested by their 12/14 year old cousin. That gap of time between their ages greatly increases the power held by the older child. To a little one, that older child seems to be an adult.
I have had many clients whose experienced were minimized because they were the younger child and “it was just your cousins playing around. No big deal.” It WAS a big deal to those younger children.
If only …. healthy sexual education could have been a part of your norm, or of that of every child. To learn to respect our own bodies and the privacy of others. My friend who counsels children gives every child a hula hoop – heaven only knows where she finds them now! – and asks the child to sit inside it, saying to them “everywhere inside this hoop is YOUR private space and no one has the right to come into it unless you give it to them.” It is so empowering for those little ones who have been abused.
I look forward to your posts. I believe we share the same heart 😉
Thank you Morven. I agree with you completely, and definitely don’t mean to downplay that scenario! (I read the post again and am not sure what makes it come across that way, but welcome more explicit feedback. I am comfortable being corrected.) 🙂
I spent several hours on the phone with someone this week who, as an adult, has struggled intensely because of what happened when a young teen (or preteen–they were uncertain of the exact age) violated them at age seven or eight.
It is terribly, horribly wrong.
I was the victim of that kind of thing numerous times, by numerous older kids. With the lack of education, how do we hold them to such a high level of responsible? If these kids–even at thirteen or older–have been taught nothing, how can we punish them, or blame them? We need to deal with the victims as victims, but what do we do with the other side? I’m sure my suggestion to put the parents on trial would fly like a lead balloon… A vicious cycle isn’t it? Parents need to start teaching their children, and teaching them well, the truth about our sexuality. (And the ‘innocence’ of a child in a closed culture is much higher, because of private schools, no sexual education etc. This is why I say, ‘put the parents on trial, not the kids’. If they have taught their kids, then deal with the kids.) ….not that I really think it would work, but I do think it’s putting responsibility where it belongs.
On the ‘perpetrator’ side I’m seeing is defeated Christians, both male and female, who carry incredible guilt because of childhood ‘sins’. It keeps their minds focused and trapped in a place of inappropriate sexuality and feeling as though they have nothing to offer. There is depression and anxiety because of a crime they committed in childhood, not knowing *what* it was. I encourage them to take full ownership, get counselling and apologize if they still know where the person is. I have also mediated between a victim and the ‘perpetrator’, for lack of better word, in a case like this and can only conclude that both sides need freedom.
I welcome more feedback and correction, Morven.
Oh Trudy, please do not hear any correction! I am on the same page. Re-reading my post, I should have said, “My only concern is WHEN the ones who are victimized by older children HAVE their experiences minimized.” I’m afraid I wrote it pre-Starbucks this morning!
We have a dilemma when the victimizer is just a child as well. The victim has to have their feelings validated, but needs also to understand that their victimizer is most probably a victim as well. What has seemed to help for most people who are able to do so, is to write or face to face speak to the older child (as an adult) and hope that their feelings are honored. In most cases, I have found that the older child is SO relieved to finally own the abuse and apologize. Of course, that is not always the happy scenario.
The one who is responsible is the adult perpetrator, and the parents need educating on how to respond to children ‘experimenting’ with sex. We all have a natural curiosity when, as children, we see someone whose body is different from our own so some investigating is normal. “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.” But when a child imitates a sexual act, they have obviously been exposed to it by pornography, witnessing adults in their life have sex, or are victims of sexual abuse. No child should ever be punished when “caught” checking another child out. It perpetuates the lie that our bodies are dirty.
I appreciate your blog so much!
Thanks of clarifying and no offence taken! I was concerned that I was communicating that message somehow, and that is the last thing I want to do.
I agree whole heartedly with what you write! Personal experience, I confronted an ‘older child’ as an adult. He had no memory of the offence HOWEVER he did the honourable thing and said, “I believe you. I was so messed up. I am so sorry for hurting you!” Wow! That brought so much freedom! I made a vow not to leave anything hidden in my life and to always give others opportunity for the same freedom. I have no regrets there!
When it comes to kids and normal curiosity, it needs to be a ‘teachable’ moment. Even those incidents are less likely if you’ve already taught your kids and not been all secretive as though it is dirty. It will still happen, but you’re right that it is a very different thing!
Thank you for being gracious. Looking forward to sharing Starbucks with you one of these months!
October, God willing, it will happen. 🙂
so agree here! I was one of these 7 year old girls being victimized by a much older child. It resulted in both of us being whipped. It wasn’t exploration as I see it, it was abuse on a number of different levels.