I’ll be Home for Christmas. Sung by dozens of recording artists since its first recording in 1943 by Bing Crosby, the song’s lyrics were from the perspective of a WWII soldier who anticipated being home for Christmas.
For the soldier, to be home at Christmas was peace and all things nice like mistletoe and presents under the tree. But for the victim of childhood sexual abuse, being home – with the family of origin – can mean war and all things not so nice like inappropriate touching, incest, and secrets. The WWII soldier left the warzone by coming home. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse enter the warzone of trauma when they return to their childhood home.
The stress of the holidays is common to all individuals and all families. Some medical websites offer tips for managing holiday stress. The holiday stress for victims of childhood sexual abuse is exponentially higher when the abuse originated in the family of origin.
The dysfunctional expectations of the victim’s family-of-origin infiltrate numerous conversations leading up to and during the Christmas season. The expectations themselves and the motivations underlying the expressions of those expectations can trigger trauma for victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA). Let’s consider some examples of verbalized expectations that induce trauma and the underlying motivation of the “ruling” parent or sibling of the victim.
The setting: The annual family picture is about to be taken. Everyone is
colorfully dressed and looking their best.
The statement: [Made by either a parent or sibling] “Smile everyone!”
The underlying motivation: “Everyone look like we’re a happy family.”
This experience can be traumatic and nauseating for the victim of CSA who for most of their childhood was pressured to live and look like nothing was wrong even though there were distressing family secrets. Years and even decades later, the family continues to give its energy to portraying an image that covers the secrets.
The setting: Typically a phone conversation when the victim of abuse is
informed that her childhood perpetrator, Uncle Charlie, will be at the
family Christmas gathering this year.
The statement: [Made by a parent with a cheery tone] “Uncle Charlie will be coming this year.”
The underlying motivation: “I hope you’ll speak to Uncle Charlie this
year. We should all get along. We’re family!”
The victim finds it incomprehensible that other relatives, especially her parents, are oblivious to what a creepy letch Uncle Charlie is. Other’s oblivion is traumatic for the victim of CSA because it is a bitter reminder that her voice and cry for help was never heard.
The setting: The victim/survivor has learned to set boundaries, no longer being the people-pleaser that tries to meet everyone’s expectations just to keep peace in the family. But the victim’s controlling parent continues to use guilt when Christmas approaches.
The statement: “What do you mean you won’t be here the whole day? Everyone else is staying late into the night.”
The underlying motivation: I must have control over the behaviors and responses of each family member.
Guilt statements that are intended to control behavior occur in most families. But the control expressed through guilt statements is traumatic for the victim of CSA because it triggers the control that was exerted during abuse. The adult victim of CSA is allergic to any exertion of control.
• When making arrangements or when responding to arrangements for the holiday family gathering, do so by email rather than by phone.
• When using email for the arrangements, use the 7-minute rule. In other words, write the email and then come back to it later to read and edit it before sending. Be available to your wife to interact on the content of the email, but do not force your input.
• If going out of town to visit family for the Christmas holiday, stay in a motel. By all means, do not stay overnight in the house where your wife was sexually abused.
• Keep the number of hours/days of your stay as minimal as possible, even if you did travel a long way.
• When the family gathering is out of town, plan some activity so that you are not sitting around the whole time in dysfunctional communication with extended family. Take your wife out for an hour or two and have coffee together. If you are in her hometown, drive around and have her show you some places that remind her of happy memories.
• Agree with your wife on boundaries before the family gathering occurs.
• If you are hosting the family gathering, and if your wife is doing most of the cooking, consider purchasing the holiday meals offered by local grocery stores. If the meal preparation is therapeutic for her, then don’t interfere. But if it is not a therapeutic task, then present this idea as something that might enable her to focus her energy on well-being.
• Your wife does not want you to do battle for her. She wants you to be the broad and soft shoulders on which to land at the end of the day and any time during the day.
• Don’t confront during the holidays. If you need to advocate for your wife, do the major work at another time so that the holiday is not scarred by a tumultuous memory. Remember that there are extended family members who will get some sick pleasure in the future by frequently referring back to the family scuffle.
• Learn to say, “No.”
• Have friends praying for you.
• Allow yourself and your wife enough time to recover afterward.
What ideas have worked for you? Please share them in the “Comment” section of this site. I’d love to include your ideas in a future publication.