How to Handle the Holidays as a Survivor
The Holidays can be Difficult
The twinkling lights and smell of pine. Soft scarves and warm food. Music and laughter. The hustle and bustle of the holidays can be fun and exciting. Sometimes though the holiday season can present overwhelming emotions and triggering moments. Holidays and family get-togethers can be trying for anyone, but for survivors of child sexual abuse they can be even more difficult, especially if your family is tied to your abuse in some way. It could be that they didn’t believe you, that they didn’t stop it, that they don’t support you in getting help, or that the person who perpetrated your abuse is in your family. For some survivors, the holidays represent the frightening possibility of being in the same room as the person who abused them.
So, as a survivor, how can you handle the holidays? Or, if you’re someone who loves and supports a survivor, what can you do to make the experience less stressful for them? Whether you’re a survivor or a supporter, you’ll find tools below that can help you traverse this time of year with safety and, hopefully, end up feeling more peace and less dread than you have in the past.
If you’re a survivor, keep reading; everything you need is right below. If you’re a supporter, we have suggestions tailored specifically to you here that can help you understand the ways that you can provide encouragement and safety for the survivor you care about.
Handling the Holidays: Tips for Survivors
As you decide what tools to add to your holiday survival kit, trust your intuition. If something feels right, try it. If something feels like it’s not for you, that’s okay. You can simply move on to the next thing. Some things may be easier if you “practice” them before a potentially triggering situation, especially grounding techniques, which are techniques that can help you focus on and stay in the present moment. For example, when you first learned how to tie your shoes it probably took a lot of thought, time, and concentration; now you can probably tie them without even looking. It may take a lot of energy the first few times you try a new technique (including asking for help), but you’ll improve your ability the more often you do it. The more you’ve practiced a technique, the more effective it will be in moments of distress.
One of the best things that you can do for yourself before any event, party, or get-together is to plan ahead. We tried to make it easier for you by creating the guide below. We’ll walk you through each part of this resource step-by-step so you can get the most out of it.
Identify people who can help
There are a variety of ways to manage triggers, but one thing that can be especially helpful at a party or gathering is identifying a person or group of people who are safe and supportive. This could be someone attending the same event, like a family member or friend. It could also be someone you can call or text, like a therapist, if things start to feel overwhelming. Reach out to this supporter or supporters before the event and let them know that you might need them at that event or during that day and time.
Think about what you'll need from your supporter
When you reach out to let your supporters know that you might need their help, it can be a good idea to let them know a few things that you’ll think will be helpful. This will allow both of you to know what your expectations are. For instance, if you only want someone to listen, it’s important to let your supporter know that, otherwise they may try to fix the problem and make you feel worse. You can also ask them to remind you of a grounding technique that you’ve found effective, or ask them to give you an excuse to leave early if you need it.
Plan out a response to any sexual abuse related questions
When the #MeToo movement began in 2017, it opened up a space for survivors to share their stories and made conversations about sexual abuse more common. If the people at your event know that you are a survivor, it may come up in conversation. If this happens, keep in mind that you are in control of your story and you don’t have to talk about it unless you want to. Plan out a few responses you can use if someone brings this up and you don’t want to share your story or only want to share a part of your story.
Make a list of positive affirmations
Having some positive affirmations ready to use can be a great way to maintain a sense of safety in a stressful situation. You can come up with affirmations that are as general or as specific as you like. Keep in mind that you want these to be encouraging and calming. Instead of saying: “My family will never accept who I am now,” you could tell yourself: “I am enough.” Say your affirmations out loud and see how they make you feel. You can even try writing them down in prominent places so that you see them in the days leading up to the party.
Know when to say No
No one knows what you need better than you do. And sometimes what you need is to not attend a family gathering or holiday event. There can be immense power and relief when you choose to say no. It’s not always easy, however, especially if you feel as though you’re disappointing someone. Take some time to practice declining the invitation. You can even ask a friend to help you roleplay what you’ll do or say. The important thing to remember is that you're doing what is best for you and your well-being; it’s not selfish, it’s self-care.
Make self-care a priority
Speaking of self-care, it is vital for your healing journey that you make caring for yourself a priority. This looks different for everyone. If the thought of a bubble bath makes you roll your eyes, but the idea of taking a long walk makes you feel peaceful, then walking may be a good form of self-care for you. Sometimes something as simple as taking care of an everyday task that you’ve been putting off can be exactly what you need in a moment. Self-care is important for balance at all times of the year, but critical for survival in the holidays when stress can be more common.
Be kind to yourself and don't give up
If things don’t go well, it can make you feel frustrated and defeated. You may blame yourself for being triggered or not handling things as well as you wanted to. Instead of positive affirmations empowering you, you may give in to negative self-talk and berate yourself with mean thoughts. This presents a wonderful opportunity for you to practice being kind to yourself. You’re on a healing journey and this means that there may be setbacks and detours, but as long as you don’t give up then you’re heading in the right direction.
The holidays can be exhilarating or exhausting; they can be exciting or overwhelming; maybe a mix of all of them. Trust your intuition as you identify what will be best for you. Consider ways to plan ahead, ask for help when you need it, and take care of yourself. Above all, you are absolutely worth the effort, so don’t give up.
Handling the Holidays: Tips for Supporters
It can be hard to see someone you love struggle. It can also be hard to know what to say and how to help when that person is a survivor who has disclosed their abuse to you. There are countless ways that you can be a great supporter, but in our guide below we cover five of the biggest ones. Download the PDF and read on for our tips for making this holiday a happy and healthy one for the survivor in your life and you.
Listen to what they need
Too often when someone comes to us with a problem, we want to fix it or make it better. Sometimes that means that we’re jumping to solutions too quickly. Or, out of a desire to spare them the stress of talking about it, we interrupt or try to change the subject. Put those impulses aside and really listen to what they’re saying. Let them tell you what they need.
Create a Safe space
When a survivor is experiencing a trigger or is overwhelmed by their emotions, feeling safe can be the first step in helping them. Work with them to create a safe space (either literally or figuratively, depending on where you are) that will allow them to work through what they’re feeling. During a party or gathering this could mean taking them to a different room, talking to them on the phone, or stepping in to help them escape or navigate a conversation. Talk to them about what you can do to create a safe space for them.
Be a Buffer
Holiday parties or family events can be crowded, noisy, or environments where potentially difficult conversation topics arise, all of which can be very challenging for anyone to handle. However, when you are a survivor these same situations may become unbearable. Talk to your survivor about topics or people where they would like you to help out or intervene. Make a plan for how you can support them if that topic arises or that person tries to talk to them. While your first instinct may be to step in and protect, allow the survivor to call the shots. You are there to empower them to handle the situation, not fix it for them. Your behavior may also serve as an example to others and encourage them to adopt similar behaviors.
When emotions are high and stressors seem to be coming at them from every side, remind your loved one to take a minute for themselves. Encourage them to practice self-care regularly. Figure out the ways that help them decompress or recharge and try to make those possible for them as often as you can. Continue to listen and be sympathetic to the stressors and holiday busyness that the survivor is trying to navigate. Sometimes it may be especially helpful to encourage your loved one to accomplish a specific number of things on their to-do list, and then to follow that with a self-care break. It’s important to remember that your loved one doesn’t want to feel broken or incapable, and they may feel like ignoring the things they need to do will also backfire. You can remind the survivor how important balance is and that it’s especially important at this busy time of year.
Take care of yourself
Have you ever heard the adage: you can’t pour from an empty cup? It means that you can’t take care of someone else (or fill their cup) when you’re running on empty. Take time to check in with yourself and make sure that you prioritize your own self-care. You and your loved one both benefit when your needs are met before you feel burned out, defeated, or resentful. This is a critical time to practice being kind to yourself. There may be times where you’ll wish you could do more for your survivor, but know that you are a blessing in your loved one’s life and your efforts to provide support and safety is evidence of the good you are doing. (And reminding yourself of this would be a fantastic affirmation.)
Your Efforts Can Make a Difference
For many, the holidays are a wonderful time of the year filled with traditions and good food and the joy of being with the people you love. If a survivor you love is struggling, please know that you make a difference to them. You may not be able to get them to jump up and down with excitement, but you can help them look to this time of year with less dread and more hope. Sometimes letting them know that you’re there for them and they don’t have to go through it alone can make all the difference.