Why Is Your Teen Sexually Acting Out

Did you just find out that your child has sexually abused a sibling, family member, or another child? This is a nightmare scenario for any parent and one that no parent is prepared to handle on their own. In this episode, therapist Tiffany Silva Herlin, LCSW, and Shawn Brooks, the executive director of Oxbow Academy, discuss:

  • How to navigate some common reactions parents may have in this situation.
  • How to navigate some common emotions parents may have in this situation.
  • The importance of getting therapy for yourself and your kids as you all strive to heal from childhood sexual abuse.
  • Why is your teen sexually acting out? What led your teen to develop inappropriate sexual behaviors?

National Sexual Assault Hotline

If you are a victim of rape or sexual abuse and need assistance please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).

* Please remember that this podcast is not a replacement for therapy, nor do we provide legal advice. Please always seek a mental health professional and lawyer for your personal situation.

Trigger Warning - This podcast contains an in-depth discussion about Child-on-Child Sexual Abuse (COCSA) and may be triggering for people who've experienced a sexual assault.

Podcast Topics
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents


    Welcome! This is the transcript for our podcast for parents of teenage boys struggling with problematic sexual behaviors. My name is Tiffany Herlin, and I'm a licensed clinical social worker, and former therapist at Oxbow Academy. Shawn Brooks is also with us and he is the executive director at Oxbow Academy, which is a sex-specific residential treatment center for teenage boys.

    While Oxbow Academy treats a variety of problematic sexual behavioral issues in teenage boys, this series of podcast episodes is specifically to address child-on-child sexual abuse or COCSA.

    If you are a parent who just found out that your son sexually acted out with another child, this podcast episode will help you understand what led to this situation and help you navigate some of the common emotions, reactions, and reactions you may be having right now.

    Please keep in mind that this podcast is not a replacement for therapy nor do we provide legal advice. Please always seek out a mental health professional and lawyer for your specific situation. All mentions of a clinical polygraph are used for therapeutic purposes only and are never intended or designed for legal use.

    Common Reactions Parents May Have in This Situation

    Tiffany: So let's start with, what are some common reactions parents may have in this situation? And how do you navigate that? We've talked about a lot of these in our previous episode already.

    So let's just touch on some of them. First of all, again, we're going to reiterate, and I think it's important to come back to this, because when you are in this situation, you are in crisis, and you're not processing things the way you normally would, your brain is in fight, flight, or freeze. So it's important to recognize that you're going to have your own traumas and triggers that are going to cloud your judgments like we talked about.

    I don't know if I can say that enough. You are not in a normal state. Your world just got turned upside down. You're in a "nightmare", and you're hoping to wake up, and it all goes away. And your brain is in, what do I do to survive?

    Shawn: And I would say this. It really depends on the history that the parent has. Their own trauma or their own experience plays a role, and you'll have parents that are, like you're saying, they're in crisis, they're feeling such profound shame and worry, and the future now is uncertain for them. Then you'll also have parents that are like, it's no big deal. Like, it really depends on their perspective and the way that they view sexuality and sexual development.

    If some parents are, especially if there's a scenario where you have a divorce situation where now you have two sets of couples. One might be really, really anxious and really nervous about what the implications are. And another couple might be like, oh, it's not a big deal. They'll grow out of it.

    We hear that all the time. One of the common statements is, "Hey, boys will be boys."

    Tiffany: Oh, I hate that phrase. It needs to go away.

    Shawn: It used to be a thing in the seventies. It's not a thing now.  There are multiple levels of why that should never be said. Boys will be boys. Number one is it's allowing us to take a position of diminishing what's really happening, diminishing the possibility that this is lifelong, and it could cause some trouble.

    Tiffany: There's no accountability either.

    Shawn: You just kinda oh, "Boys will be boys."

    Tiffany: It's dismissive.

    Shawn: I think there's more that we need to get into of that. But a parent's personal perspective will absolutely play out. For example, and as a therapist, you've had multiple experiences with a mom who just feels like the end of the world has just happened.

    Tiffany: Can I just say it's often a stepmom?

    Shawn: A lot of times you bet.

    Tiffany: Because they feel, and not always, but sometimes they may have their own trauma around this.

    Shawn: Because a lot of times it's their child that has been abused.

    So they are thinking worst case scenarios.

    Tiffany: And they feel unsafe. All their alarms are going off in their head. And rightfully so.

    Shawn: So a parent, what they bring to the table is their own perception, their own past, and sometimes there's trauma involved in that. And that plays a role in their perception of what's going on in their home.

    I've had calls from mothers that "I just caught my kid looking at pornography. I want to put him in a treatment program right now" and it's like, hold on. Probably not. There are four or five different steps you can look into before you consider residential treatment.

    Residential treatment for this issue is a very specific set of criteria. When you've reached the point of these other interventions are no longer been effective.

    Tiffany: You've exhausted all your options.

    Shawn: You don't jump over those right to residential treatment. You've got to say, I get it. You're very anxious and you're very nervous, but gotta take a step back and let's just work the problem.

    Tiffany: Well, and it's important, sorry, to point out that when you have your own traumas and your own issues, you're going to perceive this threat sometimes as bigger than it is.

    Shawn: Or smaller than it is. And that builds your own perspective.

    Getting Professional Help

    Shawn: And so to have insight to yourself is going to be key. Know, and it's okay that you feel what you feel scared, anxious, absolutely heartbroken, scared. And fearful and knowing that there are now a million variables in your home that you never thought you'd have to deal with. And maybe you can't control all those.

    It creates anxiety off the chart, anxiety. Be aware of that.

    Tiffany: It's trauma. You're in a traumatic situation.

    Shawn: Be aware and be okay. It's okay. It's okay that you're feeling that way, but your cognitive brain has to kick in and just for just a minute has to override your emotional brain. Where you're like, I gotta think through this.

    I've gotta assess this. And sometimes, families get into a position where we cannot assess this. The information that we have gotten is so overwhelming that we don't know what the next step is supposed to be. And if you feel that way, it's important to bring in professionals that can come in, and they're not emotionally involved, and they can really start dissecting what's going on. And determine, okay, what the level of risk is in your home.

    Tiffany: And that's why including a therapist for yourself as well is so important to work through so many of these feelings that you're having. Like you said, there's guilt, shame, immense anger. You have mixed emotions, because you have this love and attachment to the "perpetrator."

    And then also you have this pain in anguish for the sibling or family member who's been victimized, And it's like, how can I love both? And at the same time, I've had parents say, well, I hate this kid now. Or they're a monster. They all of a sudden shift into this black-or-white thinking, which is so normal when you're in trauma.

    Because your brain wants to make sense of this really complicated, gray, muddy, dark world that you found yourself in, it's easy to be like black and white. Oh, bad person, good person. Well, it's not that way. And your brain's like, no, I love this kid. But at the same time, I never want to see him again. I've had, especially if they're your stepchild. I mean, the anger towards them.

    And then, We've already touched on triggers from your own past and your own shame. The grief that comes from this, grieving the loss of now we've lost this part of our family and my ideals and dreams of what our family's going to look like.

    Shawn: Can I bring a perspective that I talked to parents quite often about when they're in that conflict and they're like, how do I navigate through these feelings? I'm so angry, and I'm filled with... just this hurt.

    Tiffany: And I don't want my kid to know. Let me shield them from it.

    Love vs Trust

    Shawn: So here's the clarification. There's a big difference between love and trust.

    It's not that they don't love them, it's just that they don't trust them anymore. And to be in a home where trust is lost is almost unbearable.

    Because now it's like, I gotta go to the grocery store, should I load up everybody and take them? I used to be able to just go to the grocery store and leave my kids at home. And now that trust has been violated to the point where you're in conflict. So you need to be okay with this, but you also need to put it in perspective. You still love your child. And when we finally break that down with parents, they recognize it's not about love at all. It's about trust.

    And trust is a powerful thing to lose and a difficult thing to get back. And so it's one thing you can't lie about like it's really easy to love people and not trust them. You could say I love that person to death, but I just don't trust them. I wouldn't want them to babysit my kids.

    Or I wouldn't want them to be responsible for my financial planning. I love them. I just don't trust them. But, in my opinion, it's impossible to trust somebody and not love them.

    Trust, of the two, carries the most weight and has the most value. So when it's lost, it creates the deepest cut.

    Tiffany: And it creates a sense that things aren't safe. I don't want to dive too deep into a personal experience, but I think it's important to share in my own life, in my family, that there has been actual sexual abuse in our family history.

    And I've had to come to that place of, "I love this person, and yet, I don't trust them to be alone with my children."

    Yet I love them and I know they've worked hard to change and now they've changed, and they've gone through this process, but it's a very muddy and hard world to work through that.

    For me, I'll just say, I needed a therapist to guide me through that. I needed someone to coach me through, "No, they're not this monster. They actually are someone I love with depth and dynamics," because we all are. We all have these dark sides, and we all have these good sides. And then we have these in the middle sides.

    And we're all trying to work through who we are through that all. It's so dynamic.

    Shawn: The human being is a very complicated thing. It's like love and trust. Okay? I've had mothers come in and say, "I know my child. I love him so much," and yet she's bringing him to treatment. Well, if you love him so much, and if all you need is the love, why are you bringing him into treatment? And then she pauses and says, "I just love my child, we have such a great relationship. I just love, love, love."

    I get that. I totally do. You're bringing them to treatment because you don't trust him. Then there's that pause of, "Okay. That's right."

    At the same time, when that trust is violated through the process, you could probably speak to this, leaning back into trust is a painful thing. Because now you're risking pain. You didn't have to risk before you had it, but now it requires risk on your end.

    These are the complexities of a family and parents that are going through this, how can I lean back into the trust, which is absolutely essential for relationship development?

    Really, this is just my personal opinion. Relationships don't advance in love. Relationships advance in trust. But it's fragile. And once you've established trust, it gets stronger and stronger, and your relationship has progressed through that. But one thing, I had a I had a student who explained it perfectly. He said love or trust is gained in drops but lost in buckets. So everything that's done is a little drop of trust here, a little drop of trust there. And pretty soon that bucket starts to fill up, one bad decision, and it all gets dumped out.

    So that's the pain of it. That's the risk of it. And so that's the complexity that we're dealing with within families is there's love that is abounding and has tons of love and that's the easy part. It's dealing with the loss of trust. That's the hard part.

    Tiffany: Which is such a vulnerable place to be and such a scary place to be. But I do want to point out that it's important that as a parent or if you are married to someone who's struggling with sexual addiction as an adult, It is going to affect how they view the situation with their child.

    And typically, what I've seen is that they often downplay it, because they have their own shame, and their own monsters and their demons they are trying to face as well. So if their child has it and they recognize it in their child, then they as well have to deal with it themselves.

    Shawn: So I'll give an example of that in a case. A young man is in treatment for some problematic sexual behavioral issues.

    Dad happens to be also struggling with very similar things. Dad, while the boy is with us, dad checks himself into sex-addict-type residential treatment, and then three days later checks himself out.

    And yet, here's the son who's in our residential treatment center, and they're putting pressure on him to advance clinically. But Dad couldn't make it three days. So that creates a complexity here, "Do as I say, don't do as I do."

    And then the boy's like, wait a minute. I mean, I'm being asked to do all this hard work, and you have the same problem I got. And yet you couldn't do more than three days of hard work. What am I supposed to take from that?

    Tiffany: Sometimes you have the opposite of that. Parents who have gone through recovery and are in recovery and doing well and sober with whatever addiction, especially if it's a sexual addiction. Those are my favorite parents to work with. Because do they hold their kid accountable and hold them to the fire.

    Shawn: Right, because it's about understanding thinking errors. Someone that's gone through that as an adult, they absolutely understand the thinking errors that got them there, and they recognize it in their son or their daughter, and they're just like, nope, that's a thinking error. And it's a beauty that's like we're not going to take that one.

    Parents are not versed in the way thinking errors are used to avoid accountability. They just kinda let her roll. And our kids, at least the boys that I work with, are professionals at thinking errors and skirting accountability. And parents that don't see it, let it happen. Because they love them. And rightly so, but remember, it's not about love.

    If you have a son that needs residential treatment, it's all about trust. And re-establishing that trust so that your family can advance. Because I'm just telling you without it, you're stuck. You can love all you want, but without that trust, your family is stuck where it's at.

    Therapy Can Help Parents Find Peace and Rebuild Trust With Their Son

    Shawn: Well, you're it's really, again, it's timing. Like, if your house is on fire, you don't run down the street and talk to someone about the fact that your house is on fire. You've gotta get your house off a fire which means creating safety, getting through that moment where you now can you feel like, okay. I could take a breath.

    I've got systems in place, I can take a breath, but I need help. I can feel it. I know. I need help. At that moment in time, you seek out and find some help.

    Tiffany: And that's where you do things like self-care, allowing yourself to finally grieve. When the fire's put out, and you've managed these situations, that's when you also need to address your own issues around this. Because you're going to have a lot of grief around this issue. How could you not?

    Taking a break, getting space from this. I've had some parents who have put their son at Oxbow Academy to do the evaluation, which will be addressed. But then they're like "We feel guilty because we're going to go on this fun cruise or trip." And I'm like, please go on the trip.

    Your family deserves this trip like, "Well, our son's stuck at this residential treatment center, he doesn't get to do these fun things." I'm like, good. That's a that's a natural consequence of the action.

    Shawn: I've also had parents that feel this massive sense of relief. I finally can sleep at night. I finally can walk. I'm not walking on eggshells around my own home now that my son is getting help. He's in a safe place. He's getting the help he needs. It's like this huge relief, and that's generally when is the perfect time to start getting your own your own help.

    Because now the fire is out. Your son's in a safe place, and in getting the help that he needs, you can now get the help that you need. But it's such a relief because they recognize, here's an interesting dynamic is, they didn't recognize how much stress and anxiety they were in while their son was in their home.

    Tiffany: Because you're running on adrenaline.

    Shawn: And they become accustomed to that level of emotional dysregulation. They become used to it.

    Tiffany: It's become chronic stress at that point. And then when all of a sudden it's lifted, you see parents go, "Oh, my gosh. I had no idea how much pain I was in, in my own home." And then but then here's the key. Then things like anger and frustration start to build up, and that's where the self-care is necessary.

    Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

    Tiffany: Let's talk about that. Because parents are going to go through these natural stages of grief. And then some parents...we touched on this earlier, but I want to make sure we hit on this because parents will want to shield their son from the anger that they feel. And as a therapist, I'm going to say, don't.

    Get your son in therapy, get him in a safe place, and get yourself a safe place. And then express your true feelings. If you're mad at your son, it's okay to let him know.

    These are, again, the natural cost sequences and help him understand what his action did to your relationship with him. And because what will happen is, when a boy is so enmeshed in pornography, they have taken themselves out of the real world out of reality. And put themselves in this fantasy world and justify so many things in their head of why what they are doing is okay.

    That when they can finally see the pain that it has caused their family and how it's damaged their emotional relationship, with someone that they actually do care about, that is going to have the most impact. On your son to want to change.

    Shawn: Well, accountability is a huge piece. And so I've met with and worked with many families or many parents that just don't want that language of accountability to cause their son to be uncomfortable.

    Like, it's uncomfortable for them to see their son uncomfortable. So I've worked with parents that can't do it. They just simply cannot allow their son to be in a situation where they're uncomfortable. The problem with that is this, is real treatment, real change is uncomfortable.

    It's messy, it's difficult and it requires having bad days. And so a parent's grief will say, I can't allow my son to feel that level of discomfort, and they're doing a huge disservice to them because there is no getting over what's happened without wading through discomfort.

    Tiffany: There's no healing.

    Shawn: There isn't. It's not possible. All it is is putting a band-aid over a gaping wound and saying, okay, we'll be okay, it will heal on its own.

    Tiffany: Rather than going in and getting it disinfected, taking out what's in it.

    Shawn: Scrubbing it down, getting to the pain that's required to heal that.

    Tiffany: Stitching it up.

    Shawn: So a big thing at Oxbow is we work just as much with parents as we do with the students. So it's not like treatment is, we've got your son, you go do what you're going to do and we'll talk to you in six months, or we'll talk to you when they are evaluated.

    No, they're hip-deep with us, But also, they need to do their own work. So one of the most beautiful groups I've ever been in is when parents are in the same room together finally, we love talking to people to understand what they're what they're going through. And finally, feeling that emotional release that I'm not alone, and it's okay to be super pissed right now. I am super super angry and I have guilt over that anger.

    Tiffany: And I feel so sad, it makes this heavy intense, painful sadness. It's physical and it's heavy.

    Shawn: And it's compounded by your desire not to witness your child go through grief.

    Tiffany: We have a parent, and I'm thinking of who comes to our parent seminars to talk to our current parents. He's an alumnus who will just he'll beat this drum of how important it is to let your kid know how you honestly feel.

    And he is just such an advocate of that. And it's I've seen how much it has helped his son grow and become the man he is today.

    Shawn: And another aspect of that is really going back to trust is that you can't fake trust. You can't. And so accountability is a huge aspect of gaining trust. You can trust someone who's willing to take accountability. But you can't trust someone who is not willing.

    You talked about thinking errors, if you are talking to your son or anybody else in a relationship, and you're trying to get to a place where there's accountability or a starting point, and all they have is thinking errors and excuses for you. No matter how good they are, you're still left empty of, okay, we spent three hours and my trust level didn't even bounce a single degree. Matter of fact, I trust less now.

    And so the treatment aspect of it is in order to get a foothold into some trust in and it's gotta be legitimate, there's gotta be accountability that's being taken. Once someone takes accountability, you have hope. That okay. They're going to take the steps to heal, and they're also going to take steps and never do that again.

    Because they recognized the pain that they've caused not only in themselves but in others. And it's actually...

    Tiffany: We want them to get that connection again.

    Shawn: But It's empty without it. There is no...I'm going to tell you, there is no connection. It's all a fabrication.

    It's just as bad as pornography: Love without trust. You think that, oh, it's okay because we'll just love our way through this. Okay. No, you won't.

    You can you can love. I'm not saying don't love, but man, the truth is you have to trust and trust comes from accountability and trust is a slow, painful, difficult process. And you may never get back to the trust level you had before at the end, and accept that.

    As long as you feel like it's advancing. Then you have something to work with and you feel the relationship is moving. It may never get back to the way that it was.

    And like you said, it's okay. But as long as you have it to some degree and it's moving moving forward, you can do that. You can fill that peace in your home. You can feel at peace in your soul because someone you love is now moving into trust with you.

    But if you don't, you can fabricate that because look, it's work on both ends. It's work on forgiveness. And sometimes you're like, oh, I forgive. Well, you're probably not ready to forgive, especially if it's like the event just happened and you immediately moved to forgiveness.

    It's like, okay, you want to forgive, but let's be honest.

    Tiffany: We're all human.

    Shawn: And it's a process. Forgiveness is a process. And you have to have a level of trust in order to get there. Does that make sense?

    Why is this happening? What led my teen to sexually act out with another child?

    Tiffany: I think to wrap up this episode, I think it's important to address parents who are going to then ask themselves. Once all this has happened, why is this happening? And what's led up to this?

    So let's address some of the reasons why you and I see boys come to Oxbow Academy for this issue in particular. I think we've talked about a few. Obviously, you've talked about thinking errors and how they've justified things and haven't taken accountability. That again, blurs the line between reality and fantasy for them to be able to take these high risks.

    There's also sometimes a lack of healthy sexual education and accountability as well. A common trend that I see is that a lot of parents haven't talked to their kids about what is healthy sex. They assume the school's taking care of it, and schools are going to be teaching a variety of different things depending on where you live. And they're not having these conversations, or they have that one conversation where they take them out to ice cream, have the talk, and they're like, we're good.

    You understand? Cool.

    Shawn: Here's a book.

    Tiffany: But the thing they don't understand is that your child's ability to understand the abstractness and dynamics of a healthy sexual relationship changes over time.

    This conversation needs to happen multiple times and be casual and open to your family. And there are times when I've had parents who come to me, unfortunately, are like, we don't know how to talk to him about this.

    Shawn: And he's sixteen.

    Tiffany: And he's sixteen! So give a scenario. He's gone on the Internet and is like, what is sex? And he gets on to pornography, which I'm going to say in my own personal opinion is not reality. It's fantasy. That's why we have it. It's for people to play out their wildest fantasies and so it's not healthy. It's not creating an attachment and a healthy relationship that's consensual. It's graphic. It's instantaneous. And it's objectifying.

    Shawn: And there is absolutely no character or relationship development through the process. It's just simply the act.

    Parents have to talk way, way sooner with about sexuality with their children than they ever wanted to. Yes. And I'm saying, you don't wait till junior high. Trust me, that's a mistake.

    You have to start breaching the topic, And how you approach it is going to be key. If you approach it with fear or you use it as a shaming approach, it's not going to work. It's going to bounce back. So you have to approach it on two levels.

    Number one is just the biological truth. About maturation. This is what your body is going to do. So let's talk about it and it's okay because it happens to everybody.

    And then there is, how is it relational? What is the sexuality piece? How does it relate to how you do the relationships in your life? And you're having this with a third grader.

    Because that's about the time you better start talking. And it's not sixth grade like it was. Everybody remembers going to maturation class. And they had that video, which was in hindsight horrible. But parents are like yep, let the school system, educate my my child. I'm telling you, they can't. It used to be okay, but now it is absolutely not okay.

    Tiffany: And thank goodness though, again, I just started some of these conversations with my own kids. There are books out there now that you can find that not only talk about the sexual piece but also how your body's changing and how to just even take care of your emotions and your hormones and physical things that happen. That can guide you as a parent. Thank goodness that they have some of these things. So there are resources out there that make it so much easier to have a more open casual conversation.

    Shawn: But it has to happen way sooner than you think. And it's very uncomfortable. Parents are like I don't want to really talk about this until, like, sixth or seventh grade and that used to be okay. Now, it's elementary school.

    Because this is what's going to happen. We are giving cell phones, smartphones, to our elementary-age kids. And I guarantee you your child will be exposed to pornography way sooner than you think he is, and this is what it's going to look like. "Hey, look at that." And they're going to look at that and there's their first exposure and they're in second grade, or they're even in first grade.

    Tiffany: Let's talk about the average age of viewing or being exposed to pornography. Statistically is nine years old.

    Shawn: It's coming down. It used to be eleven was the average and now it's around ten to nine with the boys that I treat.

    Tiffany: That's average. That means younger kids.

    Shawn: The boys that are in treatment, it's actually four to six. Four to six years old was their first exposure to pornography.

    Tiffany: They're more of the outliers at that point.

    Shawn: They are well, I mean, they represent a very very small portion of the population of their same age group. But parents need to really educate themselves on the reality that their child is going to be exposed to sexuality way, way sooner than they think.

    And they are going to be educated by somebody. It's going to be a classmate. It's going to be a high school, a locker room.

    Tiffany: Something on the web.

    Shawn: Yeah, something on the web. And really the worst possible place is where they're going to get their education. You as a parent want to be the the one that says, okay, we're going to bridge this, and we're going to talk about it right now. So that I want to prepare you for when it happens.

    And I would use the language like this. Not if you see pornography, but when you see pornography. Here's what we're going to do. You're going to come talk to me about it, and you're not going to be ashamed. You're going to be confused about what you see. Come talk to me about it because we're going to establish this.

    Tiffany: And it's okay that you have questions.

    Shawn: We're going to establish just a relationship that we don't keep stuff like that secret. That alone will hedge against ninety percent of the problems that our youth are going to be facing with regard to sexuality.

    Tiffany: And let's talk about what type of kid you may have who might be struggling with other mental health issues. Or maybe neurodiverse students. So oftentimes, we actually have a house specifically for students who have autism spectrum disorder, ASD, we'll dive more into that down the road. But just to point out, a student who is on the spectrum, who doesn't understand relationships, doesn't understand boundaries, social cues, and then is curious about their sexuality because they're hitting puberty. They're having these feelings. And so, they go on the Internet and type up things.

    I've had students in my office who we've talked about how they learned about some of these things. And all of a sudden, they're trying to figure out where the boundaries are. So they often end up in the dark web. They're trying to figure out what's okay and what's not okay, and they take this issue as concrete. Like, oh, I saw this on pornography, therefore, that must be healthy. Therefore, I'm going to go do that.

    Shawn: Or normative. This is normal.

    Tiffany: This is normal. And now I'm going apply this as, oh, this is what we do.

    Shawn: Or, this is what's expected.

    Tiffany: And then they get in trouble.

    And so that's something we often see as kids who are on the spectrum or just kids who are neurodiverse and super hyper-sexual. And then get exposed to some of these things that they're seeing on the internet.

    Shawn: So as parents in this world right now, raising children, and as for my situation, watching my children raise their children, the conversation needs to be had way sooner than you think, but it needs to be had from his position of, look, this is the way we're going to approach this, and what we're going to avoid is the secrecy.

    Because what really starts the shame cycle is that secret moment where they see something they know is wrong, or they feel is wrong, or they feel they just don't understand, and they don't want to talk to anybody about it. So they hold on to that. And then it builds and then it builds and then it builds and pretty soon they have a closet full of secrets, and they don't even know where to start to clean their own closet.

    And treatment becomes pretty messy because that's a pretty messy closet. By the time we get there and we're helping them unpack this thing, Oh my goodness. It could've been dealt with way sooner if there wasn't that secrecy.

    Now, I'll add this though, a lot of our students are dealing with trauma. And it's not even sexual trauma. It's just trauma. It could be adoption issues. It could be violence. A leading indicator that a child is going to sexually act out or a young person who acts out with a child, is not that he's been sexually abused. That's not the leading indicator.

    Tiffany: What is it?

    Shawn: The leading indicator is he's been emotionally abused or physically abused, and he's not connected.

    Tiffany: There's that attachment piece that is missing. That attachment piece. Because often what we see is sex is used as a way to attach to someone. It's a path of least resistance. You don't have to create this big, complicated, risky relationship.

    I can coerce someone into having sex with me, feel connected to them, and don't have to do a whole lot of work.

    Shawn: Well, their connection is based on my needs being met. I don't really care about what happening to you. My needs are being met. There's my connection. It's very surface and it's very fragile and it does not there's nothing you can build in the relationship onto it.

    It's complicated. Every case we've ever worked on, no matter how simple it seems, never stays that way. So what the process of treatment, whether it's individual treatment, whether it's outpatient treatment, whether it's inpatient treatment, start with the closet and how much you got packed away in there in the form of secrets.

    So it's messy. And a lot of times, you're pulling stuff out of that closet, the same time they're putting stuff back in it. And it's that process of, okay, eventually, this whole thing needs to be cleaned up. So you could move on. And some of the stuff that's in that closet is going to be a lifelong struggle. It's not going to be a couple of sessions and oh, you're cured. No.

    It's lifelong. So accept it that you're going to carry this stuff with you and down the road, it'll have less and less and less weight upon you. But right now, let's deal with the stuff we can deal with, unpack it, get it off, get that heaviness off you, and then we'll move down the road to dealing with some of these other bigger stones that we have.

    Tiffany: And a lot of that too is helping them go through the muddy waters of trying to figure out what's fantasy versus reality because of their exposure to pornography.

    A lot of times people ask me, well, are a lot of these kids because they've been abused I would say, actually, no. A lot of this is because they've been exposed to pornography, and they don't understand what is healthy, or what's reality.

    And so and there's a safe connection with pornography. It's easier for me as a teenage boy to click a button, have someone on the other screen, and do something I want. Feel safe, connected, and love to them. If I'm masturbating to an orgasm, I'm going to be releasing oxytocin in my brain, which is the attachment hormone.

    So now I'm feeling attached and loved by this person. Versus me being a fourteen-year-old boy going and talking to a fourteen-year-old girl and having to read her social cues, maybe she's going to reject me. How do I even form a relationship with her that leads to a sexual relationship?

    Pornography's so much easier. So helping them reconstruct their reality of what is a healthy relationship and separating it from attachment having to be sexual. Does that make sense?

    Shawn: It does. And I will add to this that the attachment is a fabrication, just like pornography is a fabrication. So they may get, they may feel for a moment that there is a possible connection, but it's not real. So at the end of the day, there is no connection.

    How can you connect to a computer? It's a counterfeit measure.

    I would also like to talk about the question I get asked all the time, "How many of the boys at Oxbow were sexually abused first?" And it's a really good question. And I answer it this way, if you take a four-year-old child or a six-year-old child, and you expose them to pornography, not 1970's pornography, you expose them to internet pornography, is that child being abused?

    If you say no, then I'd like to talk to you. The truth is, absolutely. And it's answered by people saying, well, yeah, that's abuse, then all of them have been abused.

    Tiffany: That makes sense.

    Shawn: If you say, well, okay, how many of them have been sexually abused, like physically sexually abused? Not that many. That's not the leading indicator. It's really, like I said, it's the emotional trauma and the physical trauma and the lack of social or lack of connection and relationships.

    We work with a lot of boys who struggle with that connection, or that have adoption issues. We worked with a lot of boys who were adopted, and there was no real knowledge of their previous history, and they were adopted at two, or even at birth, where there's still trauma. And trauma is what it is. It's really the unresolved trauma that we're most concerned about. Because they have to resolve it. They have to figure out how they're going to move past it.

    And so as an adjunct of those feelings of trauma, of that trauma, then you have the introduction of pornography, which is an outlet. With the introduction of drugs and alcohol, which is an outlet for just a moment, they can escape the pain that they're in because they're not connected.

    And it does work. It truly does. It works for a small second. But then when they're when that experience is over just like with all addiction, you recoil and get actually feel more profoundly in pain than you were before. And it's a vicious, vicious cycle. You're trying to get out of pain, you're using methods that for a moment alleviate that pain, but then it actually pushes you further down the shame hole and you're just in more pain.

    So what do you do? You want to escape again. And it's a vicious cycle and a difficult one to break.

    Tiffany: It's emotional mismanagement. It really comes down to an attachment piece and a connection piece that is missing.

    I wish that when we got a boy who needed to come to Oxbow or was struggling with this specific issue, it was just a clean-cut, they just struggled with sexual issues. But other things that we see with a lot of these boys is, that we're also seeing kids who have really bad ADHD, bipolar, mania, or OCD. And like you said, attachment issues and trauma. I mean, these kids come with a lot of complex issues.

    Shawn: There is no uncomplicated case. There's not a single case in my thirty years of doing this that was not complicated. Like I said, even if it starts out like, oh, this doesn't seem that complicated. It gets really complicated as soon as the truth starts to come out.

    It's messy and it's difficult, but parents have to be willing. Look, you're going to spend energy one way or the other. Either you're going to spend your energy up front or you're going to spend your energy at the back end. And upfront is the way better way to do it.

    Tiffany: Well, it's the hard easy rule. Let's do the hard first so we can get to the easier part.

    That's right. Let's end this episode by letting our listeners know what's coming next because, again, if you're in this situation, I bet your next big question is -
    Do I call the authorities? And what does reporting look like? And I'm scared to report. What does that mean for my son, for my family?

    So that's what we're going to see next. So please stay tuned because it's a pretty important topic. No, it's not pretty important. It's really important. Sure. And a very scary road to walk. So we're going to help you walk through that.

    You Have Questions, We Have Answers. Your Call is Confidential.

    Contact us if you need help with treatment for sexual addiction, sexual abuse, pornography abuse, and other compulsive behavior issues.