Family Trauma & The Holidays

Helpful tips to manage your emotions around the holidays

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“If you think you are healed, go back home for the holidays”. This is what my teachers, Ron and Mary Hulnick, the founders of University of Santa Monica used to say. I knew exactly what they meant as I, as a psychologist, know that most of our current triggers or reactions to others come from our early experiences, especially if our relationship with our first care givers were stressful or traumatic. 

Many people think trauma requires a physical component such as a war, accident, or natural disaster. That’s simply not the case. Relational trauma is one of the most common underestimated traumas. When the bonding and healthy attachment between a parent and child get disrupted, that’s relational trauma. A child who has been neglected can in fact suffer from more emotional symptoms than a rape victim. Bessel van der Kolk explains, “The impact of neglect or abandonment is greater than sexual abuse. Children who do not have healthy attachments have been shown to be more vulnerable to stress.” 

Our childhood feelings might get activated during the holidays if you spend time with your family. Have you ever been around your father or your mother and feel angry about every little thing they say, while your friends think your parents are wonderful and they have no idea why you react the way you do? Don’t be surprised if you dread seeing your family or you feel sick when you are around them. Despite your wish and effort, you may not be able to keep your cool. 

Here are some helpful tips for you to manage your feelings around holidays. 

  1. Adjust your expectations. If you feel disappointed when a loved one treats you the way they have always been treating you, this means you have been wanting them to be different. This desire is often very deep seated and hidden. For instance, if you expect your mother not to be judgmental, yet you know that she has never been different, you may feel angry or sad. Prepare yourself ahead of time and remind yourself that people only change if they want to change, otherwise expect them to be how they have always been.
  2. Do you have a support system? A non-judgmental friend or a therapist perhaps? Talk to them ahead of time and make a list of what you think might go wrong during a holiday gathering. Will your cousin be drunk again and blurt out the most obnoxious things? Will your sister judge you for being single? Look at your list and go over each possible scenario. Express your feelings to your support person, let their compassionate words in and ask them if you can text or call them during the gathering if your feelings become too much. 
  3. Normalize your feelings and don’t judge your reactions. Don’t forget that current issues might be triggers of past memories. If your father yells at you it might remind you how you were punished as a child when you had no control or say. If your mother drinks too much you might find yourself helpless like you felt when you had to take care of her when she was drunk. It is OK that you have strong feelings now, there is no right or wrong way to feel.
  4. Put stronger boundaries. As a child you have much less control of your life and for sure you couldn’t control how your parents treated you. Remind yourself now that you are an adult, and you have a right to say no if something doesn’t feel good for you. If someone talks to you in a hurtful way, don’t be ashamed to say: “This is not Ok. I don’t appreciate how you talk to me. I won’t respond until you change your language, and you address me with respect”.
  5. Spend some time at home practicing either meditation, yoga, or breathing techniques to calm your nervous system. Feel how this calmness feels in your body by scanning all your physical sensations. Feel the strongest part of your body and stay connected to that sensation. Once you achieve a sense of inner peace and inner strength, imagine a protective bubble around you before you head to meet your family. During the gathering, remind yourself of your body and the protective bubble around you where you don’t let the negative feelings come in.
  6. Practice mindfulness. Bring your attention to the present moment and let go of your thoughts, judgments and preoccupations. Mindfulness has proven to be one of the most effective therapeutic tools according to studies. During the holiday gathering, notice your reactions, thoughts and feelings around others and just don’t hold on to anyone of them. Just notice them without getting attached to them.
  7. Know that sometimes despite all your boundary efforts, you will encounter someone who will push your buttons and you will feel powerless and defenseless. In those situations, remember that if your own family is not healthy anymore you can create your own family. Refuse their invitation and instead spend the holidays with people who love you and respect you. You can use the increased Covid cases as a “reason” to refuse family gatherings if you think you will not be able to tolerate seeing them right now.

NO matter what you decide to do, find something or someone that you are grateful for and focus on that. Relationships can be hard, the one with your family can be even harder, don’t give yourself a harder time than what is necessary. Remember we are collectively under a lot of stress, a tad bit of compassion to others and to yourself can go a long way. Happy Holidays.

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