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Holidays are hard. For those of us who experienced difficult childhoods, holidays can be especially challenging. If our early years were tough or traumatic, it makes sense that traditional celebrations of nostalgia may not be our vibe.

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Help for the Holidays​

When Childhood Memories Aren’t Merry And Bright
When Family Is Not Accepting
WHEN RELATIONSHIPS ARE STRESSFUL
WHEN WE FEEL LIKE OUTSIDERS
WHEN HOME DOESN’T FEEL LIKE HOME
When Food Is A Focus
When Crowds Overwhelm
When Making Ends Meet Is A Struggle
When The Body Keeps The Score
When Our Light Feels Dim

When Childhood Memories Aren’t Merry And Bright

Our experiences as children can impact the way we feel and function throughout our lives. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful, potentially traumatic events or circumstances occurring before age 18 that may have negative, lasting impacts. They include abuse, neglect, caregiver divorce or separation, growing up in a household with domestic violence, or having a household member who is incarcerated, has a mental illness, or has issues with substance use.

 

ACEs – along with adversities like poverty, discrimination, and community violence – create stress in our bodies as children. When the stress response is activated often, or for a prolonged amount of time, during critical periods of development – it can become toxic. This is more likely to happen when we don’t have adequate buffers – like nurturing adults and environments – to help us process our stress.

 

Toxic stress can have lasting, damaging effects on our health, our relationships, our educational and career achievements, our overall well-being, and even our lifespan. The more adversity we experience growing up, the greater our risk of negative outcomes from toxic stress.

 

If you grew up with high levels of stress – it makes perfect sense that you may be struggling. Also, for many of us who grew up with ACEs or other adversities, the holidays mark anniversaries of past trauma or loss.

 

There is hope. The effects of toxic stress are treatable, and healing is possible. While we can’t change or erase the past, we can determine where our story goes from here.

Tips and tools

Stay grounded: When painful memories compete for our attention, grounding tools can help bring us back to the moment and keep us present. Make a note to yourself – on a card or in your phone – to carry with you that includes a reassuring mantra you can repeat, along with any details that help place you in time, space, and safety as an adult. Check out more grounding tools here.


Create new rituals: One way to help shift how we approach this time of year is to create new rituals – special practices, activities, or events we do. We get to decide the meaning for ourselves.


Think about what might help bring you light and warmth during a dark season. Consider whether you’re seeking solitude and quiet, community and connection with others – or a balance of these components.


Consider your surroundings. Want to brighten up the long nights, but don’t feel like decorating traditionally? Get creative and choose your own style. Feeling tropical? Love the forest? You don’t need much – a few strands of lights and some upcycled or nature finds can help transform your space in a way that feels special and unique.

Resources

NumberStory
Discover the Story of your Number to learn more about ACEs, childhood adversity, the impacts of toxic stress, and how to heal and support the kids in your life.

EndCAN’s Survivor Community
The National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN) raises awareness of the impacts of abuse, and supports a community for survivors. They created the Louder than Silence: Ending Child Abuse and Neglect Survivor Community, a free online community where people can feel safe anonymously discussing their experiences among others who are likely to understand.

When Family Is Not Accepting

The holidays often center around spending time with family – which can feel especially painful for those of us whose families are less than accepting. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience childhood adversity, including abuse, neglect, and bullying. These experiences, along with family rejection, can have lasting negative impacts on our health and well-being.

 

When our family refuses to accept us as we are – failing to respect our identity, our relationships, or our beliefs – the holidays may evoke feelings of shame, anger, grief, and loss. This can happen whether the situation is new, or we’ve been dealing with – or avoiding – these dynamics for a long time.

 

Some of us may also make the difficult decision not to share our true selves with family, to prevent the rejection we anticipate would occur. This can be its own source of pain, anxiety, and resentment as we mask our identities out of fear or knowledge that our family’s acceptance is conditional.

Tips and tools

Set and maintain clear boundaries: When it comes to boundaries with family, we can make decisions that prioritize our self-worth and well-being, this season and always.

Your feelings are completely valid if you choose not to attend gatherings where you’re unable to be your full self or bring your partner(s). You may also decide it’s worth attending – maybe to stay connected to some family members who are supportive, or to be a positive presence in the lives of kids in the family.

If you choose to spend time with people who aren’t accepting of you, be prepared for how you’ll handle potentially stressful or unpleasant interactions. Don’t hesitate to take a moment outside to breathe and shake it out.

Know your limits, and if it’s helpful, decide on a time limit for your visit. This may be for an hour or two days – it’s up to you to anticipate your needs and plan accordingly.

 

Lean on chosen family: We can honor and celebrate the people in our lives who see us and love us for who we are – the ones we’ve found along the way who have our backs through tough stuff like the hurt we’ve experienced in our families of origin. These people – our chosen or found families – can be here for us, especially if we reach out when we need them.

If you decide to spend time engaged in difficult family dynamics, let a close friend or two know and ask for support if you need it. Some uplifting text messages can provide needed encouragement throughout the visit. Try to plan time afterward with chosen family whom you know will provide affirmation and support.

Support the community: If you find you have any extra time or funds this season, lifting others up can go a long way in boosting your own sense of self-worth. Volunteer at your local LGBTQ community center, or consider participating in a project like Trans Santa to

Resources

The Trevor Project

24/7 crisis support, information, resources, and connection for LGBTQ young people.

 

Trans Lifeline

Radical community care via a confidential 24/7 hotline available in the U.S. and Canada run by and for transgender people

 

LGBT National Hotline

All ages free and confidential phone, chat, or email peer support and resources, Mon-Sat.

 

PFLAG

Support, information, and resources for LGBTQ+ people, their parents and families, and allies.

 

GLBT Near Me

Database of the largest online collection of LGBTQ resources, including community centers, social and support resources, youth groups, and more, searchable by ZIP code and category.

 

It Gets Better

A global movement of people sharing their stories to provide hope and encouragement to young LGBTQ+ people.

 

Additional Resources

Links to LGBTQ+ resources around coming out, family acceptance, mental health, medical and sexual health, substance use and addiction, legal needs, homelessness, faith communities, and survivor stories.

When Relationships Are Stressful

The holidays can add pressure and tension to any relationship. When we’ve gone through tough stuff early in life, relationships can prove especially difficult to navigate; we may find that skills like emotional regulation and conflict resolution don’t come easily.

Relationship challenges can be exacerbated if we grew up in a household with intimate partner violence (IPV). Exposure to IPV in childhood can increase our risk of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use issues. The lasting effects may become part of an intergenerational cycle of violence. When we’re exposed to IPV as kids, we’re more likely as adults to experience violent dating and intimate relationships, either as victims or perpetrators.

If we grew up with any ACEs or childhood adversity and we’re parents or caregivers ourselves now, we may be trying to figure out how to raise our kids differently than we were raised. This time of year, we may be facing family members who are the source of our trauma, who don’t value or support our mental health or well-being, or who don’t respect our boundaries or parenting decisions. These situations can activate feelings of powerlessness or victimization we experienced as children.

Tips and tools

Plan strategically: If you decide to visit family and you’re unsure about your safety – physically or emotionally, make a plan in advance. Consider how you’ll prepare before the visit to fortify yourself. Plan for how you’ll stay as regulated as possible during the visit, and how you’ll deal with unsafe situations, should they arise. Inform a friend of where you’ll be and let them know about your plan. Consider how you’ll take care of yourself, decompress, and recover after the visit. If you decide at any point in time to leave – you have autonomy and can make that choice. Remember that you and your safety are top priority.

Be your own fierce advocate: Many of us know what we would say to stand up for a dear friend if they were in our situation. Imagine a friend in your situation – what advice would you have for them? What words would you suggest for them? Summon your inner advocate and practice speaking firmly and clearly about your needs and boundaries. Write notes in your phone or on paper if it’s helpful. Preparing for potentially challenging communication can help you maintain the voice, tone, and message you intend to convey.

Stand in your power as a cycle breaker: Your parenting decisions deserve respect, and you’re working hard to make sure your child grows up without the generational trauma you inherited. If family members try to influence our kids with values we know are harmful, or treat our kids in ways we find unacceptable – we need to step in, be their protector, and stand up for their rights, perhaps in ways no one did for us.

Resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Call, chat, or text free 24/7 if you are a victim of domestic violence and need help. Create an interactive safety plan that can help lower your risk of harm.

 

American Society for the Positive Care of Children

Parenting research, advice, and support, including a Parenting Resource Center.

 

Latinx Parenting

Bilingual family education and support that is culturally responsive to and for the Latinx community and its allies, trauma-informed and centered on strengths and advocacy, rooted in children’s rights – ending chancla culture.

When We Feel Like Outsiders

One of the effects of surviving trauma – including childhood trauma – can be feeling like we don’t quite belong. We’re often aware that we’re experiencing the world differently than others. We may struggle to stay present and connected, or feel on our own even when surrounded by others. The holidays can heighten these feelings.

There are other reasons we may feel like outsiders this time of year. Maybe we’ve lost someone without whom the holidays don’t seem the same, or we carry guilt about enjoying things in their absence. We may have grown up without acknowledgement in our school or community of our cultural or religious practices or holidays. We may be prevented from participating in many of the activities of the season due to a lack of accessibility or accommodations for our differences or disabilities.

Some of us have made decisions to leave religions we once practiced, and this time of year can be complex to navigate. We may feel obligated to participate by family, school, or community members. We may find some holiday content to be activating to our nervous systems if we’ve had distressing or traumatic religious experiences. We may experience grief over the loss of our belief system or relationships with family or religious community. If we choose not to participate in or celebrate the holidays, we may find this time of year to be lonely or find that we’re pressured or misunderstood.

Tips and tools

Consider helping others: “Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life,” writes US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. One way to help heal ourselves is to make meaning – service to others is a great way to do that. Whether we spend time with a neighbor who could use some extra support, or volunteer at a local organization with a cause we care about – opportunities abound this time of year.

Allow yourself to grieve: Giving ourselves time and space to experience the painful emotions that may arise this season can be essential to moving through them. Sometimes our grief or loss can contribute to feelings of isolation or separation from others. If you think it may be helpful, dedicate time to recognize and honor whatever or whomever you’ve lost. Doing this may help release you to more readily connect with others.

Connect with nature: Spending time in nature improves our health while calming our mind and body. Being in nature can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce stress and pain. Nature renews our mind, boosting attention span, mood, and ability to focus. Even if we’re by ourselves, experiencing nature can make us feel more connected and bring a greater sense of belonging.

Resources

Inclusive Therapists

Find inclusive therapists, counselors, and coaches who celebrate the strengths and center the needs of people in marginalized bodies and identities.

 

Religious Trauma Institute

A trauma-informed approach to religious trauma, providing resources, training, and community for survivors, therapists, researchers, and advocates.

When Home Doesn’t Feel Like Home

For some of us, home is far away – maybe a different country with a different language, culture, and traditions – and it may feel more distant this time of year than ever. Maybe we’ve moved so often that we’ve never really felt like we belong. Some of us know what it’s like to have spent our early years in foster care placements, group homes, or institutional settings. Maybe we’ve struggled with finding safe housing, and instead of having a home, we have a place to crash for now. Whatever the reason, we may feel something’s missing from our experience of this season.

Tips and tools

Connect with your people: Supportive relationships can buffer stress and the negative impacts associated with childhood adversity. Science has proven that strong social connections support healing, help us overcome adversity and tragedy, and build resilience. Find ways to stay connected with your people this season, even if they’re far away. Whether you use technology to video chat and share special moments virtually, or you exchange care packages of small treasures, handwritten notes, and photos or children’s drawings – sharing your life with others provides invaluable benefits.

Share your culture: For those of us feeling like home is somewhere else, the holidays can be a time to connect with others who celebrate like us – or to introduce our culture and traditions to others as new experiences. Consider connecting with a local cultural community center, non-profit, family resource center, or arts organization, or gathering with friends or neighbors to share a meal, music, poems, or traditions from your culture.

Resources

Immigrants Rising

Resources, information, and support for undocumented people, including Wellness Support Groups to help undocumented young people stay grounded and connected to community.

 

LatinxTherapy

National directory of Latinx therapists (98% of whom are Spanish speakers), along with a bilingual podcast, and culturally-grounded workshops and services.

 

Unbelievably Resilient

Empowering young people in foster care and changing the narrative by sharing stories of moving from trauma to triumph.

When Food Is A Focus

Many holiday gatherings center around shared meals and seasonal foods. For some of us who struggle with issues around eating and food – like digestive problems, insulin resistance, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, eating disorders, and other challenges – ACEs and toxic stress might help explain why.

We may find it difficult to navigate food-centric festivities, especially if we also deal with body image, eating, or food issues that may be exacerbated depending on our surroundings, stress levels, and other variables. Gatherings can be especially tense when we’re vulnerable to well-intentioned “concerns,” criticism, or suggestions from family conditioned to comment on our bodies or our food choices.

Tips and tools

Stay connected: We may consider avoiding food, eating, and body image issues by avoiding holiday gatherings altogether. If we otherwise would like to be present, isolating isn’t likely to help us address the issues – and it can exacerbate them. Planning ahead for how we’ll navigate challenges is key.

Recruit support: Ask a friend or family member to be available if needed for texting or chatting as back-up support. Knowing someone is there can be reassuring, especially if your anxiety ramps up.

Protect your boundaries: You have a right to make it clear that comments about your body, or how or what you’re eating, are not welcome – no matter how well-intentioned. If things get tense, it may help to simply suggest focusing on enjoying each other’s company.

Resources

The Body Is Not An Apology

A movement of radical self-love for everybody and every body, with a digital library featuring a host of categories including weight and size.

 

Eating Disorders Helpline

Call, text, or chat the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline for support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder. If you are in crisis and need help immediately, text NEDA to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line 24/7.

 

Online Eating Disorder Support Groups

This article provides detailed pros and cons of eight free support groups, including groups for teens and for caregivers.

When Crowds Overwhelm

When we’ve experienced childhood trauma, we may feel anxious or on edge in crowds – even gatherings of loved ones. The sensory stimulation can lead to hypervigilance – when our brains try to protect us by constantly scanning for danger. This can make it very difficult to relax and enjoy ourselves. We may seek and find ways to cope that provide temporary relief, but that may not always support our long-term well-being.

Tips and tools

Make a squad strategy: Make a list of events or tasks that are difficult for you, and talk through it with friends or family. If you’re not up for a crowded school event, you could ask a friend to record your child’s performance, then hold a special screening of it as a family at home together. Ask a family member to pick up some items you need at the store; consider offering to help out with some gift wrapping or another task at home.

Celebrate your way – or don’t: You can decide to participate in events and activities in your own way, for as long as it’s working for you. Know the signs for when you’re approaching stress levels that mean it’s time for an early exit. Or join a celebration virtually, if that’s what you feel is best for you. You’re also allowed to say no, and celebrate however you’d like – or not at all.

Get sensory savvy: If we decide to venture into the crowds and chaos, there are some ways we can help reduce our levels of agitation, anxiety, or dissociation. Wearing earplugs, chewing mint or cinnamon gum, wearing a super soft scarf, eating sour candy, sipping a hot or cold beverage – these simple sensory experiences can help keep us present and grounded.

Resources

Transforming Trauma Self-Care Resources

From the Center for Mind-Body Medicine include video modules on expressive meditations like shaking, dancing, drawing, and writing, and mindful meditations like guided imagery. These techniques, when practiced regularly, are powerful tools for helping heal the effects of trauma on our minds and bodies.

 

CPTSD Resources

From the CPTSD Foundation include free weekly newsletters, blog posts, weekly livestreams with chats, and monthly virtual meditation classes – all trauma-informed and designed for survivors of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – ongoing, inescapable, relational trauma, like child abuse and neglect.

 

Out of the Storm

Is a free, anonymous community of adults suffering from symptoms of Complex PTSD, mostly from childhood trauma.

When Making Ends Meet Is A Struggle

When getting by financially is an ongoing challenge, the holiday season can be especially stressful. There can be pressure to spend money on special meals, activities, and gifts, and we may feel guilt or shame if we can’t fully participate or provide for our loved ones in ways we see promoted as the ideal or perfect holiday. This can be a major challenge if we’re unemployed, we lack stable housing, or we’re struggling to figure out how to stretch our food budget throughout the month.

These struggles can be connected to our childhood trauma; Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are associated with lower incomes, unemployment, and homelessness. Instead of feeling joy and cheer, we may feel like this time of year just seems to add strain to our already very stressful lives.

Tips and tools

Release guilt and shame: Know that you’re not struggling because you did something wrong – life is hard. You may feel like you’re letting yourself or your family down by not being more financially secure – but that’s not the case. You’re doing your best with a lot of odds stacked against you. Your resilience is amazing, and your strength will see you through these tough times.

Seek community care: We may be used to thinking we can only rely on ourselves, especially if we grew up that way. There are caring, supportive communities ready to help us meet many of our needs. Check out local community organizations near you to find a good fit, or call 2-1-1 to discuss what you need.

Give from the heart: While we may wish we could show our loved ones how much we care by buying them things they would enjoy – be assured that people who care about us would rather have us spend time with them than opt out because we’re feeling inadequate. Know that your presence is a gift.

If you want to give something without spending money you don’t have, consider your skills and talents and the needs of your closest friends and loved ones. Is there something you could teach or offer – a lesson, child care, an experience?

Resources

2-1-1

Offers trained staff 24/7 in many communities to help provide access to shelter, health care, food, and other services and programs. You can dial 2-1-1, or search by location for online resources and contact information.

 

Find Your Local Food Bank

Through Feeding America.

 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

(SNAP) offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible individuals and families with low incomes. Find your state and local SNAP info with the SNAP State Directory of Resources.

 

Women, Infants and Children

(WIC) program offers supplemental foods, nutrition education and counseling, and screening and referrals to other health and social services.

 

How to Get Help If You Are Experiencing Homelessness

A step-by-step guide from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, with links to find local resources.

 

National Coalition for the Homeless

Offers information on accessing resources and assistance to prevent and get help with housing crises and homelessness.

When The Body Keeps The Score

Childhood toxic stress can alter our bodies in ways that affect us into adulthood. There are over forty health conditions associated with ACEs and childhood adversity. Many of us may experience stress-induced flares of chronic illness. We may be unable to participate in or fully enjoy activities due to health conditions – some of which may have roots in our childhood trauma. Being in pain is exhausting and consuming, and can leave little space for joy. Feeling left out or left behind can remind us of other times we’ve felt abandoned, or affirm negative beliefs about ourselves.

Tips and tools

Prioritize your needs: It’s not selfish to put your needs first – even during the season of giving. When our health is a challenge, solid self-care is a requirement to even consider participating in activities that demand our energy.

As much as possible, stick to a routine that works for you and your needs. Set reminders for your medications if you normally rely on a work or school schedule that’s temporarily altered. Nourish your body and stay hydrated. Even if you experience sleep difficulties, as many of us with childhood trauma do, get plenty of rest and relaxation. Caring for your basic needs can make you less vulnerable to symptoms, flares, and other illnesses.

Release expectations: Part of learning to live our best lives with chronic health conditions includes releasing our own expectations of how we should do things – like celebrate holidays – along with releasing any pressure we may feel from others. This can require us to make and communicate firm boundaries, especially if our conditions are invisible. Try to remain flexible and ready to change plans to support your needs as they shift in response to stress, flares, weather, sleep, workload, family needs, and other factors that impact your health status or pain levels. Learning to release the guilt or fear over how you may be perceived is part of the journey of self-acceptance.

Resources

The Mighty

Is a safe, supportive community for people facing health challenges and the people who care for them.

 

The Spoon Theory

This personal story by Christine Miserandino is popular among many with chronic health conditions as a tool for understanding and explaining the limits on their daily energy. Search #spoonie on social media to connect to community.

 

Find a Health Center

Providing free or accessible care in your area in this searchable database from the Human Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

 

Find a Clinic

Providing free health care in your area with this map from the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

When Our Light Feels Dim

Some of our toughest struggles – depression, anxiety, substance use, thoughts of self-harm or suicide – may seem intensified against the backdrop of holiday cheer. These conditions may have their roots in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or childhood trauma.

The more adversity we experience in childhood, the more likely we are to struggle with alcohol and substance use as teens and adults. While not something we talk about openly or often enough, suicidal thoughts or behaviors are among the most common challenges associated with ACEs.

If we’re feeling added stress, or we’re navigating trauma anniversaries or encounters with abusers or problematic family members, we need to take extra care of our minds and bodies throughout the season.

Tips and tools

Plan coping strategies: Awareness and preparation can be empowering. If alcohol or substance use are struggles for you, make a plan for reducing your risk of harm during this season, especially if you know there are events or situations that may be activating to you.

Create a safety plan: When we struggle with mental health issues, including thoughts of self-harm or suicide, we may want to consider creating a safety plan to think through what support we may need in case of a crisis. We may want to consider:

  • Who can help me and how? Include names and contact details of friends, professionals, and helplines/hotlines
  • What would I say to someone else in my situation?
  • Where can I go that I feel safe?
  • What have I done before that has worked?
  • What can I do to distract myself?
  • What things make me feel worse that I should avoid?
  • If these feelings won’t go away, what should I do? Call 988, go to the ER
  • Any other helpful thoughts or ideas

 

Prepare your support network: Talk with reliable people close to you about being accountability partners and supporters to help you through this season. Let your support network know about how they can best be there for you, including sharing about your harm reduction and/or safety plans, if you have them.

Resources

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

The Lifeline provides free 24/7 confidential support whether you’re in need of immediate help or you’re looking for prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Call or text 988, or chat. For TTY, dial 711, then 988.

 

Crisis Text Line

Click the link or text ACES to 741741 for free crisis counseling 24/7.

 

SAMHSA’s National Helpline

1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24/7 information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The Helpline provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Check out the online treatment locator, or send your zip code via text message to 435748 to find help near you.

 

NAMI

Call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-6264, text 62640, or chat, M-F, 10am-10pm ET. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

 

Live Through This

A powerful, diverse collection of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors across the U.S.