Ways for Adult Survivors of Abuse to Cope During the Holidays

Hundreds of burning candlesFor many survivors of childhood abuse, the holidays can be a horrible time of year filled with anxiety and depression. This can occur for a variety of reasons. But the important thing is to be prepared, instead of allowing yourself to get blindsided by all of the cheer and festivities which surrounds you.

Maybe childhood holidays were a tough time for you. Perhaps the holidays brought extended family members into your home, or your family members into theirs. Arguments might have been common–especially if alcohol or other drugs were a part of the celebrations. In these types of situations, it’s not uncommon for abuse to increase either during the ‘festivities’, or after the company has gone home. Maybe you were safe as long as extended family members were around. But once they left, you were alone with your abuser. Tempers which had perhaps been simmering all day finally come to a head, with one or both parents venting their anger on each other or upon the children. Perhaps the brunt of the anger fell upon your shoulders. As a child, you were trapped; you had no place to go–no escape.

For many children who come from healthy homes, the holidays provide a chance to take a break from school, complete with slumber parties, sleeping-in, staying up late–having a great time with siblings and friends! Maybe holiday travel was involved, making the holidays a magical time of year. But for those who did not have that type of a childhood, the memories might be much bleaker. For many, the holidays provided more time at home–weeks around your abusive parent(s), without friends and caring teachers to offer you a reprieve from the reality of your life. You probably tried your best to stay quiet while at home–with the hopes of being out of sight and out of mind. But for many, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t escape the wrath of your parents or other abusive family members.

Although you may have learned to dissociate from your memories and the associated emotions during most of the year, it might be impossible to do so during the holidays. Seeing the Hanukkah decorations, hearing Christmas carols playing in the malls and on the car radio, smelling freshly baked holiday cookies, seeing and smelling pine trees and garland, and other festive reminders of the season might be just enough to trigger all those old feelings of abandonment, even though you’ve managed to bury them during the rest of the year.

As an adult, many survivors find themselves thinking of the parents they wished they would have had–the parents they deserved. They often grieve the loss of what should have been and wonder why they couldn’t have been lucky enough to have grown up in a Norman Rockwell-type of home. Especially if you’ve had to cut off from parents and/or other family members in order to survive, the holidays can be a difficult time to be without the parents you deserved. It’s important to allow yourself to grieve this loss, because it truly is a loss. A well trained therapist who deals with these issues can help you to resolve this grief and to move on over time. But it’s a process and often a painful one at that. Give yourself time to heal and until you reach that point, try to offer yourself kindness and compassion.

Even though it can be difficult to endure the holidays, it is not impossible. There are ways to survive the holidays in a healthier manner. Having a healthy support system is crucial! Maybe you have friends you’ve met at work or in a support group. Maybe you’ve got a neighbor who is always there when you need him or her. You don’t have to have a long list of good friends, but just one really good friend. A true friend will be there for you no matter what. Possibly you have a sibling, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or cousin who is emotionally healthy and can be a source of strength for you. A therapist can also be a great source of support during the holidays. The key is to have someone (or several ‘some ones’) who are willing to listen and to validate your feelings. To be there, so that you don’t feel all alone and once more abandoned.

If you feel that you must spend time with members of your family of origin, give yourself permission to limit the amount of time that you spend with them. There are no guidelines for what is considered to be an acceptable amount of time to spend with these family members during the holidays or any other time of the year. You are now an adult and you are in control of your schedule. Don’t spend excessive amounts of time with these family members, causing yourself to suffer because you are filled with guilt. Remember, these family members may not appreciate that you’ve began limiting the amount of time you spend with them. They may be bitter if you’ve gotten into therapy and are now setting limits with them. They may not appreciate that you are refusing to sweep the past under the rug. Their tendency will be to pull you back into your old role–to your old position in the dysfunctional family ‘mobile’. They will not want to accept that you have gotten healthier and are choosing to no longer hold that spot. But just because they try to pull you back in does not mean that you have to succumb. You are in control and can maintain your healthier boundaries.

Because the holidays can be stressful for most everyone, and usually are more so for survivors, remember to take it easy during the holidays. Limit your time commitments to others and make choices which bring you joy. Try not to do things out of guilt, just so others will be happy. Remember that you deserve happiness and take the time to make that happen. If you try to do too much though, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed. This is an important time to take care of you. Take the time to do those things which are self-soothing and which bring you comfort and joy. You might get a new haircut, a manicure or a pedicure. A massage can be a wonderful way of soothing yourself and releasing stress at the same time! Possibly lunch and a movie with a friend, or spending time involved in your favorite activity or hobby can bring you relief from the stress of the holidays. Try to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and get plenty of rest. Try to avoid excessive use of alcohol, as this can increase your depression and/or cause anger outbursts and other problems. As you have fun and spend time participating in positive activities during the holidays, you will begin to replace some of the old, negative thoughts with new and enjoyable thoughts. This will allow you to build positive holiday memories.

The important thing is to be good to you and to not place impossible demands upon yourself. Allow yourself permission to spend time alone. Let yourself grieve the losses of your lifetime–from the childhood that wasn’t, to the adult life that still isn’t. Give yourself space from your abusers and don’t cave in to their guilt-inducing ways. Don’t make apologies for yourself, as you are doing your best and have no need to apologize. Realize that you do not have to be perfect, because you are good enough as you are! Do things which bring you comfort and joy. Give yourself permission to have a wonderful holiday season and to participate in the joy of it all. You truly do deserve it!

© Copyright 2009 by Joyce Thompson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Marie

    Marie

    December 9th, 2009 at 5:26 PM

    I simply do not go around certain family members anymore because of the things that I feel like they knowingly allowed to happen to me when I was a child. I finally had to put them out of my life and not be around them or talk about them anymore to get to a better place for myself. That has been difficult for my parents and other family members but it was the only way I could regain my sanity and some sense of normalcy.

  • BEN

    BEN

    December 10th, 2009 at 1:03 PM

    I think the best way forward would be to get involved in activities with friends or people who make you happy. If you are are a foreign student at a university and plan to spend the holiday season with other students, you’re in for luck because you can visit a new place and get rid of the mental baggage.

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