For many survivors, the holidays can be a season that brings more stress than joy. This is especially true when abuse has been inflicted within a victim’s close circle, such as a family member or friend, causing them extra fear and anxiety as holiday family gatherings approach. For example, an adult survivor who was abused by her older cousin as a child may not be able to enjoy the annual family Christmas party, because she does not trust her cousin to not repeat the pattern among the children who are present. On the other hand, children who are experiencing ongoing abuse at the hands of a close friend or family member may act out or appear uncooperative around the holidays because they fear coming into contact with their abuser and have not yet felt safe to tell their story. There could also be more interaction with an abusive ex-spouse as you split custodial time over the holidays.
In a perfect world, a survivor would never have to interact with their abuser again. But when the abuser is a friend or family member, victims are often faced with the difficult choice of what to do for family gatherings when the abuser will be present. The most important thing to understand is that the victim’s needs and wants should be respected. Victims need to be allowed to determine who can and who cannot be present during the family celebration. Their choice to participate usually is dependent upon how others have treated them since the point of disclosure. Sometimes when family members are not supportive, the victim may have to make a choice not to attend events where they will not feel emotionally or physically safe. It’s essential that victims be allowed to make the best decision for their own mental, emotional and physical well-being, even if it is met with opposition from family members who do not understand. Preventing further trauma is much more important than keeping the peace. If you are a victim whose family is not being supportive, we are sorry. This is Double Abuse. Consider making a new tradition with your family by hosting an event on another day. Or maybe ask a friend or significant other if you can participate in their celebration instead. If you do not feel able to make the decision not to attend at this time, we understand and have provided some suggestions to help you get through the holidays below.
There are some cases where years have passed, and the abuser is genuinely remorseful, has faced the consequences and made amends. However, even in these cases of true accountability for the perpetrator, a supportive family member will not reject the victim by allowing the abuser to come to the celebration against the victim’s wishes. They can instead celebrate with the abuser on a different day or time. Or if the victim is comfortable, allow an hour or two where the former abuser can attend but then leaves so that the victim can join the family during the majority of the celebration. Traumatic feelings can stay for years. Therefore it is of primary importance for first responders to create a safe place for victims of abuse. Our reactions to the abuse should never place the responsibility on the victim, especially during the holidays.
If you are an adolescent or young adult still living with your family and do not feel you can choose where to spend the holidays, try sharing your concerns and requests with a trustworthy family member. If the person you confide in is not compassionate about your situation and they still force you to be around someone who has abused you, we encourage you to take the following steps to minimize your anxiety this time of year:
- Stay Away From the Abuser as Much as Possible
If you are sharing a meal, find out where everyone will be sitting and make it a point to place yourself far away from the abuser. Before the meal, connect with someone you trust, and ask if you can sit next to them during the meal.
- Stay in Plain Sight
Avoid going into rooms alone, if at all possible. Find a family member you trust, and stay close to their side. Doing so will lessen the possibility of your abuser catching you alone. If necessary, ask someone you trust to accompany you when going to the restroom.
- Sit Out on Activities that Involve the Abuser
Some families like to play games together or do group activities like ice-skating or watching movies. These can present opportunities for the abuser to get close to you. If your family proposes doing a group activity that makes you feel unsafe, ask one of your relatives to partner with or sit next to you. If that isn’t possible and you want to sit out during the activity, perhaps you can occupy yourself by talking with others also sitting out. Or consider helping out in the kitchen, so you do not feel isolated or uncomfortable while the activity takes place.
- Make New Memories
The holidays should be a time of joy and relaxation, not stress and anxiety. Throughout this season, we encourage you to surround yourself, as much as possible, with those who make you feel loved, even if it is just one friend or family member. Perhaps you could go to a sporting event, shop together, or look at Christmas lights to celebrate holiday cheer. Whatever you decide to do, you can make new memories and dim the severity of more painful memories from your past.
And as a note to all parents and guardians: If your child acts uncomfortable or reserved around a particular loved one, is resistant to hugging them, or does not want to go to a party, please do not ignore your child’s wishes. Very often, these actions are indicators that a child has been spoken to or touched inappropriately. If they are exhibiting these behaviors, the child needs to be your number one priority. Set everything aside, bring them to a place where they can privately share. Then, physically come down to their level, look them in the eyes and give them the time and space to begin the courageous task of sharing. Do not interrogate them. It is more helpful to ask them simple questions like, “Why don’t you like so and so?” And then listen, listen, listen, and validate their concerns. The child’s words may surprise you. No matter what, do not dismiss or minimize the child’s disclosure. Give them permission to share their concerns and assure them you will keep them safe, even if that means keeping them away from the event altogether. Do not force them to hug or be near someone who they feel threatened by.
Taking these steps will help to teach your child healthy boundary-setting skills. It will help them develop good habits and empower them to use their voice and to trust their instincts. Children need the help of trusted adults for them to develop a strong sense of self-empowerment and identity.
From everyone at The M3ND Project, we wish you a safe and joyous holiday season. Let us know in the comments below if you plan to use these tips as the holiday season approaches.