It’s already November and 2015 is coming to a close, which means holiday season is right around the corner! Winter welcomes a smorgasbord of cultural holidays: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Christmas, Kwanzaa, etc.
For most people, family time is synonymous with this joyous season. From blood relatives to chosen families, this time of year is meant to bring us closer together and create new memories. Yet, dealing with trauma isn’t something anyone can put on hold, and the holidays can put added pressure on people to be social and appear happy even when they are struggling with the impacts of trauma on their life and relationships. Although family is supposed to make us feel safe and supported, sometimes family dynamics can be difficult or just plain complicated. Sometimes, family is even the source of trauma.
With this in mind, here are a few tips for making holiday family gatherings as safe and supportive as possible for your loved ones who are dealing with trauma.
Step 1: Check in.
We tend to recognize when someone we care about is feeling uncomfortable. Maybe their mood has shifted or they are acting a bit withdrawn from everyone. Similarly, we can often pick up on when a loved one is putting on a brave face but struggling underneath.
It never hurts to ask how someone is feeling. Who knows? Maybe you are the first person to do so. Check in to show that you’re paying attention and that you care. Let your loved one know that if they want to talk, you’re there to listen without judgment. Let them know you want to help in whatever way they need it.
Step 2: Respect boundaries.
Sometimes, being at a distance is someone’s way of coping with trauma. If your loved one wants space, respect their wishes and let them know that you’re there if they ever want someone to talk to.
Pressuring your loved one to disclose can be harmful and can trigger them to relive the trauma. Show that you respect them if they say they’re okay or that they’re not ready to talk. By doing so, you’ll show that their choice matters in how they handle their trauma. Something that might seem minor to you, like acknowledging their request and not forcing them to talk, offers more help in that moment than trying to get them to talk. That can help them feel safer with you when they are ready to talk about it.
Step 3: Facilitate self-care.
Just like the different foods families bring to the table during the holidays, people’s trauma can manifest in different ways. Yet regardless of what someone’s trauma looks like on the outside, it brings a whirlpool of emotions and is exhausting due to stress and anxiety that taxes a survivor’s physiological and neurobiological systems.
Unfortunately, survivors often feel unable to take care of their physical and mental health. Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to change that. Offer them nourishment with a glass of water or some hors d’oeuvres. This lets them know you care for them and that their health is important to you. This can also be a great opener to the tip above of “checking in.” Help them stay hydrated and eat regularly throughout the day—heck, even eating that last piece of pumpkin pie can be a part of practicing self-care.
At the same time, all that food and family time can be overwhelming, too. Peace, rest, and quiet are often underrated during the holidays, but when someone is dealing with trauma, that might be exactly what they need. Survivors might feel guilty about stepping out for privacy when family is around, so remember to ask if they would like to go outside for some fresh air or a walk around the block, or if they’d like to take a nap. Taking time to rest or to step out and breathe in the cool air can be empowering and rejuvenating.
If they’re open to it, you can also talk with your loved one about strategies to process and cope with their trauma in ways that will resonate during the holidays and beyond.
Step 4: Practice self-care.
When you care about someone who’s directly experienced trauma, you can experience what’s called “vicarious trauma.” For this reason, taking care of yourself is important, too. Your loved one might disclose experiences that affect you deeply, so make sure you work to recognize how their trauma is impacting you and remember to practice self-care in your own ways.
Step 5: Do what you can within your locus of control.
When someone we love has been harmed, we often go into “fix it” mode. However, people aren’t simple machines with simple fixes. While we can’t eliminate harm or traumatic impacts, we can lessen the effects of trauma and avoid causing additional trauma. Check out our tips for responding to disclosures to guide you. Even when you can’t “fix it,” you can make a positive difference.
Step 6: Share resources.
As the loved one of someone who’s experienced trauma, you have the power to help them through care and support. You don’t have to do it alone, though. Inform your loved one of community resources they can connect with, such as STAR’s 24-hour hotline and no-cost counseling. Also, recognize that STAR is a resource for you, too!
So, to recap: check-in with your loved one, respect their boundaries, facilitate and practice self-care, focus only on what you can control, and connect your loved one to resources beyond what you have to offer. Our holidays (and lives) may not be picture-perfect, but we have the power to promote connection, show support, and inspire resilience in ways that will make the holidays a bit brighter for those most in need.