Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?

By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D., & David Prescott, LISCW

Christmas and the winter break have long been a time to reconnect with friends and family. This is indeed welcome, especially given the challenges that we have had with COVID-19 over the last couple of years. The fact that we are now overloaded with the typical jolly Christmas movies and uncountable pictures of family members laughing at the Christmas table in the media and in advertisements, it is always good to remember that the festive reconnect is not positive or welcome to all. When we think about the impact of seasonal holidays, we often think about Halloween and its safeguarding issues, but we don’t think about Christmas and its capacity to cause trauma; Why?

Research and practice tell us that most people who have been sexually abused are sexually abused by someone that they know. Often this is a family member, either a parent, sibling, or close relation. This means that individuals who have been victimized often must learn to navigate a new status quo in family life after their abuse experiences, often regardless of whether they have disclosed their abuse to anyone or have reported it to the police. People who have survived sexual abuse often talk about having to choose what family gatherings to attend, whether they stay at family member’s homes, who they want to be in the room with, or if they even want to be in the room, they have to explain why they are being “weird”, why they cannot just “let the past be,” or why they “can’t just put on a smile for everyone’s sake”. This means that a sometimes-stressful situation for some can be more stressful and potential retraumatizing for others.

The other outcome of festive reconnections is the possibility of increased disclosures, especially of historical sexual abuse experiences, which will be additionally stressful for the individual which is disclosing and the family unity trying to process it.

The question is how we tackle the legacy of sexual abuse during the festive season. While there is no protocol for it, there are several things we can all do:

·     Be aware of people’s engagement, or lack of engagement, in family activities. Use it as an opportunity to "lean in" and learn more about what's going on in peoples lives.

·      Approach conversations with care, in a trauma-informed way, recognizing that behaviors and actions may not be related to the immediate context.

·   Don’t force conversations, meetings, or activities - especially in respect to hugging, kissing, and physical contact. Remember that consent and understanding is essential in all parts of life.

·       Consider having more smaller, bespoke gatherings rather than single larger ones.

·       Think about the location of activities, who’s involved, and what there activity is.

·       In terms of any disclosures, it’s important to let people speak, hear what they are saying, not to judge the person disclosing it, and offer the help, and support, that they want.

·      Most importantly listen to the person in question, whether disclosing for the first time or revisiting past, known experiences, rather than “knocking it down the line” to discuss in the new year. 

These considerations may seem obvious in print, but too easily go missing in daily life. They require not only empathic action, but also an open mind and the ability to listen and not immediately judge. These are skills that are not given to everyone to the same extent and are certainly not evident in a situation where one might want to reflexively react in a defensive and denialist manner, based on the idea of not damaging the family's happiness, as well as protecting family members and/or oneself.

That is why it remains so essential that we continue to strive to make sexual abuse a topic for discussion in society and give people – including lay people – insights not only into the often-complex interpersonal dynamics present in e.g. chronic abuse, but also into the coping process of people who have been victimized and how this can be expressed in very different ways.

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