[Editors’ note: We recognize that for a parent regretting circumcision, reading this guide can bring upsetting emotions to the surface. We also recognize that relating to our children with empathy and compassion is key to healthy family relationships, and it is important to see what being circumcised feels like through the eyes of a child. If you’re finding that negative emotions associated with circumcision regret are affecting your day-to-day ability to function and care for your child, please seek help — first and foremost, your son needs you!]
From a Circumcised Son: A Regret Parent’s Communication Guide
By Max Fairshield
If you are reading this, odds are you had your son circumcised, and later found out how terrible and damaging the procedure truly is. Unfortunately, the harm does not end when the surgical procedure is over. Circumcision continues to harm people their entire lives. While there is no way to take back the damage done, there are ways to help decrease future damage, both physically and mentally.
Let’s address the emotional impact of a circumcision decision, and how to mitigate that impact as much as possible for your child.
Honesty and Emotional Support
One of the most difficult parts of being circumcised is the mental and emotional damage. Though it won’t be easy, you need to tell your son the truth. You need to tell him what happened to his body, you need to explain everything to him, and you need to be supportive.
Ideally, the conversation can begin when he has started exploring his own body, right before puberty. Some people may find their sons are mature enough to be told sooner. Do not wait too long after puberty has begun — he needs to know how his body was designed to work and what steps he can take to prevent future damage, and he needs to know you’re sorry.
Boys can react with a wide range of feelings. Some won’t seem to care, some will be upset but understanding, and some will be downright furious. Be prepared for any reaction. It is crucial that you accept his feelings and give him what he needs, whether that be affection, help and understanding, or a lot of space. This experience will be painful for him, but not nearly as painful as it would be if he found out on his own. Being open and honest with your son is the best course of action.
You may need to earn back his trust and respect. Keep in mind that he may actually feel threatened by and scared of you after learning what you chose to have done to his body. The same feelings may surface towards doctors, as well, so it’s important that you find him a doctor that he trusts, one who is against circumcision and understands its implications.
Addressing Negative Feelings: Worthlessness, Helplessness, Injustice
One of the negative feelings a circumcised boy can experience is worthlessness. A boy may feel more like property than a human being when he learns what has been done to him. His body was treated as if it didn’t belong to him, so he might come to believe he is worth less than other people. A circumcised boy’s self-confidence can be shattered, so you need to make sure your son knows that he isn’t worthless, that he wasn’t circumcised because you or anyone else thought less of him. Another circumcision-induced negative emotion is helplessness/powerlessness. Providing your son with pertinent information, opportunities, and choices can help him feel more in control of his body and his life. In particular, some pubescent boys will appreciate information on manual foreskin restoration, which can help a circumcised penis regain a limited amount of the functionality and sensitivity lost to circumcision.
[Note: When regret parents first hear of restoration, they often envision it as a way to "fix" their mistake. Unfortunately, restoration doesn't work like that. Foreskin restoration can be an extremely emotional process for adult men, and should only be undertaken by someone who is old enough to consent and who has the mental and emotional capacity to understand the choices they’re making for their body.]
Your son may become extremely angry or extremely sad as he learns about being circumcised. These extreme emotions result from the feeling of being violated, physically, sexually, and emotionally. You need to accept that these feelings may take a lot of time to diminish, and probably will never go away completely.
For the most part, you will have no more control over your son’s emotions than your son will. If negative emotions are affecting his ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it can help to find a mental health professional who can guide him in dealing with trauma. More people, including counselors, are waking up to the harms of circumcision. Nonetheless, it’s necessary to screen for counselors that have differing views and don’t understand circumcision as a violation of a person’s body and rights. A counselor who does not understand the harms of circumcision will only make things worse by denying the validity of your son’s feelings, and denying the existence of trauma instead of assisting in recovery.
Probably one of the worst feelings being circumcised creates is injustice. There’s pretty much nothing you or your son can do to hold the doctor who circumcised him accountable. Your son will have to live knowing the person who physically inflicted this haunting injury will never face any consequences for that action. One potential way to help him deal with this reality is to get him in contact with that doctor, if he so desires, so he can voice his complaint (and you can voice yours). Guilt is the only weapon your son has against the doctor — you should allow him to use it. There are American men and parents who have pursued circumcision-related legal action against their healthcare providers. Though such a process may be frustrating and expensive, and may not produce the desired result, for some families it may provide a degree of emotional healing. As more people recognize the damage circumcision incurs, the increasing threat of legal action may dissuade more providers from participating in this harmful practice.
Different people respond to circumcision realities differently, and not every boy is going to experience all these feelings. Some boys might not be too bothered at all. But many experience at least some of these feelings (sometimes without even consciously realizing it), so it’s good to be prepared for the worst. It may be extremely hard on you, as well, but if you don’t acknowledge your son’s feelings and emotions, you will harm him even more.
While much of the damage from circumcision is permanent, there are lots of things you can do to improve the situation for your son. When you admit what you did was wrong (even if you didn’t know at the time) and fully acknowledge your mistake without strings attached, it’s possible for him to see that you now recognize him as an autonomous individual, with agency over his own body. The manner in which you treat him and communicate with him can stop the situation from getting worse. These exchanges between you and your son may be difficult, embarrassing, awkward, and emotional at times, but they will ultimately help him.
Remember, you aren’t reading this because you feel happy and proud about having your son circumcised. You’ve come to your senses. You care about your son and you want to do everything you can to make up for your mistake. No one can promise that your son will ever forgive you, or that he won’t encounter problems in his sex life due to circumcision, or that he will ever feel normal and undamaged. But you can live knowing that you won’t stand back anymore or let future harm come to your son without trying your best to prevent it. While you may feel upset that it’s all you can do, remember that most parents do nothing at all. Most parents never even say sorry. A heartfelt apology puts you way ahead of the average parent, and that means something. It’s likely your son will recognize that in time.
The best of luck to both you and your son.