Now that the #MeToo movement, Kavanaugh hearings, Betsy DeVos’s proposed campus rape rules and protests like the Google walkouts have put sexual assault right up there with movies, pets, weather and politics as very possible topics of family dinner discussions, heading into the holidays can feel more fraught than ever. That’s especially true if you’re a sexual assault survivor. And it’s why being thrust into such a conversation without being mentally prepared could leave you rattled.
“I left feeling jarred and jangled and with a feeling disequilibrium,” says Fran (not her real name), a 48-year-old California woman, regarding a recent visit with her parents during which they raised the topic of her childhood assault at the hands of a family member. She believes they brought up the incident, after many years of avoidance, because the national conversation had provided them with a new way of understanding it all. “I wasn’t mad, but I left feeling unmoored because it didn’t feel like it was about me and my well-being and my resolution, but more about theirs.”
Her advice to others heading into a similar setup, particularly for people with traumas that have yet to be disclosed? “Imagine the topic is going to come up in some form, and know who you’re talking to and where they’re coming from … and know that no one’s going to be thinking about you,” she says, “so you think about you. What would be meaningful for you? What would help move you forward and not just the conversation?”
Experts agree that it’s a great guidepost and offer more guidance on how to be ready for sensitive, triggering discussions about sexual assault and harassment — particularly those that leave you wanting to disclose your own history in order to make a heat-of-the-moment point to your clueless relative. “It’s a very pivotal moment when you are able to share your trauma,” psychologist Kathleen carterMartinez, author of Permission Granted: The Journey From Trauma to Healing From Rape, Sexual Assault and Emotional Abuse. And you want to do it in a way that feels like healing, rather than self-harm.
Consider waiting out the holidays.
First things first: Is this really the safest time to go there? “Rule number one when discussing sensitive issues with family members: Timing is everything,” states Los Angeles–based family therapist Paul Hokemeyer.
“People have a hard time maintaining their secrets around the holidays, because it’s hard to fake it among family, and it’s hard to sit and be jovial when you’re carrying secrets,” Connecticut-based family psychologist Barbara Greenberg adds. “But the holidays are not necessarily the best time. You might get an excessively emotional reaction, because people are already operating at a heightened stress level.”
Further, Greenberg says, beware of making a painful disclosure out of anger, in the middle of a fight, and “you especially don’t want to do this with an audience.”
Plus, notes Hokemeyer, “The lens through which you should present your data should be that of education rather than superiority. Avoid taking a moral high road or preaching. Remember, it didn’t work when your parents tried that approach with you; it’s not going to work with them either.”
If you choose not to share your experience with family members over the holidays, carterMartinez advises, know that the dinner conversation could be unwittingly hurtful. “Remember that everyone around you does not know you have been traumatized,” she says, “so the chitchat will not be in consideration of the trauma.”
Be in control of the setting.
“I would not do it at the dinner table,” carterMartinez says, no matter where the conversation veers. “If you feel uncomfortable, the simple reality is that you can get up and leave the room for a bit and pull yourself together. You have options, and you have control. And that also means you can choose a safer moment.”
For example, she says, “You can say to whoever it is — a sister, a parent — ‘I have something to talk about with you when we can sit down quietly.’ If they say, ‘Can we do it right now?’ you can say, ‘I think I want to wait until later, or until tomorrow morning.’ Set your boundaries and listen to yourself.”
Greenberg also suggests trying to prepare your loved ones ahead of time, letting them know, “I need to talk to you about something,” as a gentle warning, which could be just enough to clue them in to the topic. “It’s not uncommon for the parent to have suspected,” she says, “and to have always felt that something was amiss but didn’t know what. So the discussion could be a wonderful opportunity for parents and kids to get closer.”
Prepare yourself for gut reactions.
But first, there could be a rocky road. “For parents, the number one thing we want in life is that no harm ever comes to our child — especially that no intentional harm ever comes to our child. And an assault means that someone intended to harm your child,” carterMartinez says. “So they will have a gut reaction, and there are many ways it surfaces.”
Many parents, she explains, can react to news of their child’s sexual assault or abuse “in what may feel like a wrong way — ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ ‘When was this?’ They might initially go down a road that feels like interrogating. … They are in defense mode, and it can sound and feel angry to the person who is struggling with this trauma. But know that it can be the knee-jerk reaction, not the heartfelt reaction, and that you need a little time to get to the heartfelt reaction.”
There is also the issue of disbelief, she explains — the basic inability to believe what has happened — which survivors struggle with themselves. “That’s also true with loved ones, who wonder, ‘How can this happen to my daughter? How can this happen to my sister? This is something that happens to other people,’” carterMartinez explains. “It’s a harsh reality when we realize that we all are other people. That’s very difficult as a family to accept.”
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Another great resource: Know Your IX’s Holiday Guide: ‘Discussing How to Talk About Title IX Changes During the Holiday Season’