I Feel Guilty about Childhood Games of ‘Abductor/Victim’

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Reader’s Question

When I was nine my family and I stayed with my aunt and her two daughters. I’m female as well.

One cousin is my age and the other is a few years younger. We used to lock the bedroom door and role-play as abductor and victim. The abductor would pretend to feel the victim’s nonexistent breasts and then take them away while they screamed (part of the game). After we found a plastic bra mold, we used that instead.

Was this wrong, and could you help me with my guilt? I’m still a child, but I come from a religious family that wouldn’t understand if I told them about this.

Psychologist’s Reply

So you are feeling worried and guilty about this game that you played. I do not know what is considered acceptable within your culture or religion, but I wonder if your guilt is stemming from an idea that you have done something that would be considered wrong by your religious community. I cannot make suggestions about how you would go about seeking to relieve guilt within your particular belief system. Your religious practices may have some ideas about that. What I can do, though, is tell you a bit about what is considered ‘typical’ or ‘normal’ play among children.

The game you described sounds like it could have included both sexual elements (e.g. feeling the victim’s chest) as well as elements of fear and danger (abduction, screaming). I imagine that because it was something that your parents would not have allowed, it felt forbidden and wrong. You did not say how your cousins were feeling about it all, so I will assume they were having fun, as you were.

Many children engage in sexual behaviors and even games, according to an article titled, “Sexual play: When should you be concerned?” (Essa & Murray, 1999). It is important to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. Essa and Murray describe natural, healthy sexual play that is spontaneous, done in the spirit of fun, and includes the voluntary participation of all the children involved. This is based in curiosity, as children are curious about lots of things. Natural, healthy curiosity about sex can lead to experimentation and play that has a sexual element, as your game seems to have done.

Quite different is inappropriate sexual behavior, which can occur when children have witnessed sexual behavior or have been sexually abused themselves. This is behavior that is aggressive or coercive, which means forcing others to participate. In your case, you implied that you and your cousins were playing together willingly. I would be very concerned if you were describing sexual behavior as your primary interest or activity, or if you were approaching unfamiliar children or adults, or if you were engaging in sexual acts with other children.

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You did not share whether you have had someone approach you or behave inappropriately with you in the past. I think it is worth saying here that if something had happened to you in which an adult or older child had persuaded or forced you to engage in sexual acts or behavior, this would be considered sexual abuse. It is important to remember that when an adult sexually abuses a child, it is never the child’s fault, no matter what. And although it can be difficult to disclose that abuse happened, a trusted adult should be notified if this occurs.

Now again, as you described it, the game you played with your cousins was one in which all three of you were willingly participating and having fun, despite the fact that there were some sexual or ‘forbidden’ aspects. Although I cannot speak to how this would be viewed within your culture, religion, or family, I can say that from a psychological perspective, this would not be considered abnormal or harmful behavior.

Essa, E. L. & Murray, C. I. (1999). Sexual play: When should you be concerned? Childhood Education, 7,4, 231-234.

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