Navigating the Holidays As an Adult Survivor of Childhood Abuse
The sights and sounds of the holiday season—festive lights and decorations, cheerful holiday music, and warm and fuzzy Hallmark and Lifetime channel holiday movies— seem inescapable. The celebratory spirit may bring joy and happiness to some people, but for adult survivors of childhood abuse, the holiday season can ignite a sense of dread.
Even the jolliest among us, who savor all that comes with the season, admit (even if reluctantly) that it can be stressful. We want to have the best celebrations and give the perfect gifts. If you’re already managing the stress of surviving childhood abuse, the added pressure of the season can bring suppressed feelings and insecurities to the surface, making the holidays a potential minefield for survivors.
Why Can’t You Just Get Into the Holiday Spirit?
Even if they don’t ask the question outright, people can’t seem to understand why you can’t just get into the holiday spirit. Instead, they refer to you as Scrooge or the Grinch or remind you that if you approach the season with gratitude, you can experience all its wonders. Then, they either repeatedly nag at you to join the festivities or steer clear of you, which can make you feel even more like an outcast or self-conscious.
So now, not only are you battling the demons of childhood abuse, you’re criticized for your lack of holiday cheer and made to feel guilty because you seem ungrateful and putting a damper on “the most wonderful time of the year.” Maybe they sincerely think they can talk you into feeling the joy, but it just adds more stress.
When the Holidays Evoke Bad Memories
For many survivors of childhood abuse, the holidays can be a horrible time of year filled with anxiety and depression for various reasons. For example, family holiday gatherings can force survivors into situations where they have to spend time with people who abused them or people who refused to believe them when they tried to report the abuse.
Maybe you were safe as long as extended family members were around during the holiday. But once they left, you were alone with your abuser. Or, perhaps holiday pressure made tempers flare, and you were the brunt of the anger with no way to escape.
Even if you’ve managed to learn how to dissociate from the bad memories and the associated emotions successfully, it might be challenging or even impossible to do during the holidays. Abuse can cause toxic stress leaving survivors susceptible to triggers. The sights, sounds, and fragrances of the season can trigger all those feelings you’ve trained yourself to bury the rest of the year.
For survivors of childhood abuse, the holidays can pose a painful mental battle of whether to participate in family gatherings or avoid them to stop the pain of reliving such traumatic memories. In addition, the season can be a source of loss, abandonment, and grief, especially for survivors who fear an encounter with their abuser at a celebration or the possibility of having to interact with a loved one who’s toxic. If you fall into these categories, please know that you are not facing this battle alone.
How to Get Through the Holidays Unscathed (And Maybe Even Enjoy Them)
It may not seem like it, but there are steps you can take to make the holiday season more manageable. First and foremost, keep in mind that the season’s emphasis is on giving, and remember that you deserve to give yourself a break. Having self-care strategies can help you cope during the holidays.
Yes, a family can be an ever-lasting bond, but it doesn’t have to be, especially if someone has been abusive to you. You have every right to distance yourself from them or cut them out of your life completely.
Although it may be difficult, you have the right to say “no” even to your closest family members. Even if your family continues to cast you into your old role (or you feel that they do), remember you’re an adult now who can decide what’s best for you. Whether that means avoiding a family dinner and only joining the festivities earlier or later or opting out of the celebration entirely.
Never feel you have to apologize or guilt yourself into attending or doing something so that others will be happy. What you need and want is important, and saying “no” is not a sign of sensitivity or weakness but great strength. Do what you need to do to protect yourself.
Establish a Support System
You can’t control the past, but you can take control of the present by putting a support system in place before the holidays. Again, remember that asking for help is not an act of weakness but rather a strength. Put together a list of people in your life that you can rely on when needed, people who understand and validate your well-being. Then, be sure to make plans to connect with them over the holidays, even if it’s just with a short phone call.
If you participate in a support group, such as Louder than Silence: Ending Child Abuse and Neglect Survivor Community, launched by EndCAN through Inspire, make an extra effort to stay connected over the holiday season. If you’re not part of a support group, this may be the perfect time to check one out. They’re safe places where you can find compassion from non-judgemental people who have “been there,” offering reassurance, companionship, and practical support.
If you’re working with a therapist, it may be a good idea to try to book a pre and post-holiday appointment to discuss coping strategies.
Be Kind to Yourself
The holidays can be stressful for everyone, even if they’re not child abuse survivors. Sure, you may get angry, have arguments, be impatient, or make mistakes. That’s okay. Be sensitive and gentle to yourself. Breathe, take control and shower yourself with self-care.
If you find your feelings are too overwhelming to cope with, reach out for help to others, call 911 or go to the closest ER. Take control of your reactions to triggers and keep yourself safe because you are worth it.
Create New Memories and Traditions with Those You Love
You deserve all the joy and merriment the season has to offer. You can make the holidays fun and memorable, even if it doesn’t involve your family of origin. Sometimes, friends can feel more like family, and that’s perfectly okay. So have holiday fun with your chosen family. It is possible to carve out a holiday celebration that works for you.
Accept That You Don’t Need to Be Perfect
Do things that bring you comfort and joy! Don’t place impossible demands on yourself. That includes putting distance between you and your abusers or anyone who makes your life toxic. Refrain from caving into their guilt-inducing manipulations.
It’s okay if you find the holidays difficult—you’re certainly not alone. It’s also okay if you’re struggling. It doesn’t make you difficult or weird, just human. Don’t make apologies for yourself—you’re doing your best. You’re good enough as you are!
Even though it can be a challenge to endure the holidays, it’s not impossible. Try to take it easy. Limit your time commitments to others and make choices that make you happy. Whatever works for you–know that you are not alone, not wrong, not bad for feeling conflicted or having misgivings about how to celebrate or if to celebrate at all.
Know that we’re always here for you. Find information and resources to help you or someone you love and take care of yourself. You are worthy!
Wishing you a safe and gentle holiday season!