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When You were Abused as a Child, Holidays can be Triggering

Image by Vicki Lynn from Pixabay

Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up in a happy family, where holidays are all sweetness and light. If you grew up in an abusive home, holidays probably didn't have the same luster for you as they did for your friends.

When I was growing up, holidays were just an occasion for my extended family to make us feel bad. My mom's relatives always made us feel bad because they didn't approve of her marrying a blue collar guy, and becoming a stay at home mom. Even as a kid, I was acutely aware of this, although no one explicitly said those things to me. Kids pay attention, even when adults think they aren't.

Especially if you grow up poor, this is something you are acutely aware of. My aunt and uncle had a bigger house than ours, they had fancy jobs, and new clothes all the time. I only got new clothes once a year at back to school time, or once in a while if my Grandpa would come to town and take us shopping.

We didn't get to have the coolest new toys, electronics, or name-brand clothes.

And, when we went to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with my mom's family, my dad always worked so he never went with us. Looking back now, maybe it was deliberate. Or maybe it was because he got paid overtime for working those holidays.

All the kids had to sit at a separate table from the adults and be quiet. Then after dinner, we were allowed to go play hide and seek in the rest of the house. If we came into the room where the adults were, we would notice them getting drunk and starting to argue with each other.

As soon as I was old enough to get a job, I took a cue from my dad and started volunteering to work on every single holiday. It made me likable at work (especially when I was a manager) because most people want holidays off to be with their families.

Needless to say, I don't have a lot of good holiday memories from childhood. I do remember one year I got an Ariel barbie for Christmas, but that's about it.

Otherwise, I was a built in babysitter for all of the other kids in the family since I was the oldest. When my daughter was similarly starting to be cast into this role, I stepped in as a mother and let the family know that it is inappropriate to take your kids somewhere if you don't plan on paying attention to them yourself. Maybe that's why my daughter is child free as an adult. Who knows.

Childhood Holidays can Leave Scars

If you grow up without happy childhood memories of the holidays, you may have a hard time wanting to attend holiday gatherings as an adult. It can trigger old trauma memories of disappointments of childhood. Or, if your family hasn't changed, these holidays can be a forum for continued abuse.

According to Michelle Halle,

Some families appear intact, but appearances are deceiving. If you’ve experienced childhood trauma,  the holidays are a reminder of what you don’t have and generates old feelings of grief.
Your grief goes unnoticed by others (disenfranchised grief). Not only are you grieving but you also feel isolated, making it hard to feel connected to all the festivities that excite everyone else.

For years, as an adult, I hated Christmas. I didn't go to celebrations. I would either work, or when I couldn't, I would stay at home on the couch eating crackers and spray cheese all alone. My ex-husband would take my daughter to their family gatherings. I tried to do the family holiday thing for a while, but it was too hard and too painful.

The last straw came for me one Thanksgiving when I got roped into coming to my aunt and uncle's house after work. I showed up at 8pm, long after everyone had finished dinner. I wasn't so much as offered a plate to warm up. I sat down where everyone was chatting, and not long afterwards, my uncle told me and my sister that it was "time for the younger generation to do the cleaning." Of course the boys were excepted.

Of course, I came to Thanksgiving to be your slave, uncle douchebag. I thought to myself. Of course I want to clean up the kitchen after a dinner that I didn't even eat. No, don't mind me, I just worked for 12 hours today.

I actually was still such a people-pleaser when it came to my family that I actually started clearing the dishes and started washing them. But then I just lost my shit and started crying. I begged my ex-husband to leave, but he wouldn't take me home. So I just left and walked home. For an hour. In the snow.

Happy fucking Thanksgiving to me.

Even now, almost 20 years later, that memory still brings me close to tears. Holidays with my family were just belittling. It was just a venue for them to remind me of how shitty of a person they thought I was.

If you had a happy childhood, you probably don't relate. But if you know, YOU KNOW. You know the pain of having to pretend to be happy when you feel dead inside. You know the hatred you feel when you watch people put up their Christmas lights. Maybe you publicly just blame the consumerism of it all, but inside, you hide a secret shame.

You missed out on all these beautiful things that other people had and you didn't. Happy holidays were never something you got to have. The times that are full of joy for everyone else are just a reminder of all the things that were wrong in your life as a child.

It's hard to tell people about it too. People don't get it. You tell them you hate Christmas and they look at you have three heads. They think you must be the Grinch because he is the only person they have ever heard of who hated Christmas.

I finally just started telling people at work that I didn't celebrate Christmas. Most of them assumed that I was Jewish, because we had another Jewish coworker. I let them go on thinking that, it was easier than telling the truth. Easier than delving into all the pain and disappointment that had been my life.

Holiday trauma can run deep. You hide scars and shame, and feelings of unworthiness and being different from everyone else.

Healing is Possible

It does get easier with time, especially if you are going to therapy that is geared toward Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and learning how to move on from Narcissistic Abuse. One of the best types of trauma therapy that you can try is called EMDR, and it helps you to reprocess your trauma so the memories aren't so triggering anymore.

Doing the work for trauma healing isn't easy, but it is worth it for the results that you can get. When I started therapy for my PTSD, I was having panic attacks several times a week. Now, after spending over two years working on myself and my coping skills in therapy, I have panic attacks maybe once a month, if that.

Once you are able to heal from your trauma and find a new normal, you may find yourself less angry at the holidays, and less reluctant to participate in holiday traditions.

For me, this started when I got into a relationship with my current partner. He loves the holidays, and being with him allowed me to see things through new eyes. We created new traditions of hosting dinners with our friends for the holidays. Having friends who are your "chosen family" can be healing if you come from a toxic family of origin.

You may also decide to do holidays at home with just your immediate family, so that your kids don't have to deal with the extended family the way that you did growing up. Or, you may decide to go to your in-laws if they have a warm and welcoming family.

If none of these resonates with you, you can also do volunteering at the holidays in a soup kitchen or something similar. This way, you are reclaiming the holidays for yourself by helping those in need and making an impact in their lives.

However, if you still want to attend gatherings with your family, there are ways to cope with that as well. I know this is the case for many people who are on good terms with some relatives but not others. It can be a difficult situation to navigate, but it is possible. My biggest tip? Take your own car so you can leave any time things get out of hand!

Closing Thoughts

If you don't have good family memories of the holidays, it can be a lonely and isolating time of the year. This can be the case whether you attend gatherings or not. It is hard being sad or triggered at a time of year when other people are happy.

Have patience with yourself, give yourself grace, and don't be afraid to put your foot down with your family. You can set boundaries as an adult for the way you will allow people to treat you, and leave a gathering immediately if things get out of hand. Or, you may decide not to attend at all and create new, more positive traditions for yourself.

Healing from trauma isn't linear, and you may find that what works for one holiday doesn't work at another. That is perfectly ok. Accept where you are at in your healing journey, and take time for rest and self-care if you are feeling triggered or otherwise stressed out.

Remeber your coping skills, and apply them when things begin to get difficult for you. If you haven't been in therapy yet for your trauma, I would highly recommend seeing out a good trauma therapist, it can make a world of difference in your mental health!

If you are contemplating suicide, please reach out and call 988 for the National Suicide Lifeline. They have counselors available 24/7.

You are not alone, and you don't have to suffer in silence. That may have been the case when you were a child dependent on your family, but as an adult you now have the freedom to do as you choose. You also get to choose who has access to you and is allowed to be in your life.

It can be hard to go no-contact with your toxic family, but if they are negatively effecting your mental health on a regular basis, you may want to at least go limited-contact if you aren't ready to be fully no-contact.

No one's situation is exactly the same, and there isn't a one size fits all approach to healing from trauma. The more tools you have in your coping skills toolbox, the better! You can always be learning new ways to cope with things more easily, and find healing from the past.

I hope that you have a blessed holiday season, even if all you do is sit on the couch eating crackers and spray cheese. Even that can be incredibly healing.


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