by Joan Mulleady
While the excitement of the season is here, for many the holidays are the best time of year and for others the worst. For child victims of trauma, as well as adult survivors, for anyone who has experienced loss, this time of year can bring joyful anticipation mixed with confusion, anxiety, sadness, and fear. Through the lights of holiday decorations and music that fills the air, hopes for happy family times can turn heavy with memories of abuse and loss.
- The young, pregnant teen you see walking down Main Street, holding tight to her mother’s hand, is a victim of a sexual assault, carrying her assailant’s baby. She’s expecting scowls from others.
- The young boy you see, and hear, having a tantrum at the grocery store, may be a victim of an unthinkable crime. He has been triggered by the sight of someone who looks like the person who hurt him. He cannot control the reaction and fear as his nervous system is telling him he is unsafe. He doesn’t have the understanding or the words to explain. He expects to be hurt.
- The 10-year-old you see hanging out at the mall, unkempt hair hanging over her face, a black hoodie over her head, baggy pants and flip flops; she is doing everything she can to keep people away. When she was 8 years old she wore nice clothes, she kept her hair long and “perfect,” and people told her how beautiful she was. Her hope now is that if she is not so beautiful, she won’t get hurt again. She is trying to keep herself safe. She is expecting judgement.
- Perhaps the young child, the adolescent, or the adult is simply dealing with the stress that can take over during a holiday season that results in that system overload that we have all experienced.
What can you do? You can give them a sincere, compassionate, kind, smile. You can let them go ahead of you in line. You can hold the door for them or make a silly face to encourage a laugh. You can comment about the weather. “Brrrr. It’s cold outside! I wonder if it will snow?” These are all connections that, to them, may be a huge gesture. You noticed them with acceptance. You grounded them for just a moment and that moment may help them get through the day and may even encourage them to pass on a simple act of kindness.
“Never Underestimate your ability to make someone else’s life better – even if you never know it.” – Greg Louganis
There are things we can do to help our children, our family and friends, our community and ourselves find joy and safety during this season. Hours are spent preparing meals, shopping, wrapping gifts. We can take just a few moments preparing ourselves and our children. Remind children that surprises are wonderful, yet secrets are not. Encourage them to come to you if anything causes them to be upset and assure them you will listen. Remember most child victims are molested by someone they know and trust – a relative, a neighbor, a friend of the family. While the adults are busy preparing, celebrating and catching up with each other, children become more vulnerable. Increase your awareness at holiday gatherings, notice who is there and who is where. Set boundaries prior to celebrations. Decide how to best protect a child from victimization as well as from increased fear or anxiety at a special holiday event that might trigger memories of an earlier trauma. Give your child permission to say no to a hug if they don’t want it. Encourage them to come to you if they feel “icky” about anything. Share the responsibility of supervision of children with someone you trust.
Giving yourself the same time to decide how you will take care of yourself if you become overwhelmed is equally important. Take a moment to decide what you can do if you find yourself slipping into panic mode because everything isn’t perfect, or because family dynamics re-appear, and you start to go down the rabbit hole of not being good enough. It may be as simple as stepping outside for some air, reminding yourself about the reasons you are celebrating and of all the things you love about the season and, most importantly, all those you love and those who love you.
May you know peace in your giving and know you can make a difference!!
“Like small seeds, small deeds can make a big difference.” – Seth Adam Smith
About the Author
Joan Mulleady, Clinical Program Director, The Center for Children
Joan has a Master of Arts Degree in Counseling and is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. With over 30 years of experience providing therapeutic services to children and families in Mesa County, Joan has been associated with the Center for 15 of those years. Her expertise includes counseling child victims of sexual abuse/trauma and their families, trial preparation for victims and mental health program development at the Center. To learn more about the services provided visit wscchildren.org