Toxic Stress and the Holidays: 6 Ways to Help Your Family

Holidays can do a number on us as we anticipate both happy and stressful celebrations. Gathering with extended families can bring up unresolved pain from our own upbringings. Strained relationships or toxic people may hijack the hope and joy we anticipate for the holiday season.

Working with young children as a therapist and school counselor reminds me of the stories we carry as parents ourselves. Some of us grew up in loving and nurturing homes while others grew up in homes with one or more adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. As children, we had no choice or control over the family of origin in which we were born.

Experiencing divorce, substance abuse in the home, a battered mother, a family member with criminal behavior or mental illness, emotional or physical neglect, or emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child make us more susceptible to physical problems, mental health issues, and addiction as adults. The ACES study conducted in the 1990’s found direct correlations between toxic stress on children and medical risks as adults.

Living free from effects of a toxic childhood requires intentionality, energy, restoration, and hope. You may have this energy and motivation most of the year, until the holidays roll around. Then, it may take everything in you to simply make it through a family meal.

If you struggle with childhood wounds or family pain, here are

Five practical tips to help your holidays be a little more bright.

  1. Remind yourself you are not bound by the circumstances or adults who hurt you as a child. You didn’t have control over many things that happened to you. These toxic experiences are not who you are.
  2. Embrace the resilience that is part of you. Survival skills kept you safe and healthy as a child. They created a rich deposit of tenacity and perspective that bear fruit in your personal and professional life.
  3. Set healthy boundaries. Thanksgiving or Christmas may be the only time you interact with toxic people from your past. Even so, it’s important to implement healthy and safe boundaries, both for you and your family. For tips on boundaries, see resources from Townsend and Cloud or Alison Cook.
  4. Let Jesus carry your burden. Revisiting toxic environments, memories, or people may make you feel as helpless as you did when you were a child. Let Jesus be your protector, provider, and refuge. Tell him your anxieties, insecurities, and needs surrounding the holidays. Let Him meet all your needs according to His glorious riches (Philippians 4:19)
  5. Focus on your family. Don’t let pain from the past rob the beauty of your own family. Traditions and memories with your children are breaking chains from the past.
  6. Attend to your pain. You may need counseling or other professional services to heal unresolved childhood wounds. Rather than avoid the pain or dread it each holiday season, care for yourself as you would your own child who’s hurting. Inside of you is still that child who needs to be nurtured, protected, and loved.

Father, thank you for each parent who is doing their best despite family wounds and trauma. Be with each one as they approach the holidays. May your grace, peace, and healing take place in each heart that still carries the wounds of a child. Amen.

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