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The Holiday Season May Not Be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The holiday season means more family time, and for some that could present uncomfortable challenges. People living with chronic abuse – whether victims of domestic violence or elder abuse – sometimes find it harder to stay safe when there's more family time.

"People living with abuse fall into routines that enable them to preserve their safety and mental health," says Nancy F. Aiken, Ph.D., elder justice manager for LifeBridge Health's Center for Hope. "They learn the abuser and they rely on their survival skills and survive."

The holidays, Aiken notes, present alterations to routines with increased time spent with others. People take vacations from work and children are off from school, disrupting normal routines.

"This can put a higher stress level on the person who is being abused because they have to develop a new routine," Aiken adds. "And they have to develop more and new survival skills because the person creating the harm is around more. Just when you feel like you're safe, the person changes their M.O. (modus operandi) and that's why the holidays are hard."

The holidays provide an increase to stress levels for a variety of reasons – family visits, finances and gift buying, less structure at home with more going on and increased alcohol use. These can all contribute to an increase in abuse, says Audrey Bergin, MPH, MA, founder and manager of the Domestic Violence (DOVE) Program at Northwest Hospital, a LifeBridge Health Center for Hope program.

"The added pressure around holiday time is not what causes domestic violence," says Bergin. "But if you've got an abusive relationship that added stress around the holidays can exacerbate it, make it worse. There can be conflicts around finances, spending time with relatives."

For older adults, there is a desire to have family around during the holidays and an increased desire to "keep the peace."

"They may be more willing to allow abuse like taking their money or car and accepting more disrespect and abuse because of a desire to have family around during the holidays," Aiken says. "They may tolerate higher levels because of their increased desire for peace and harmony."

In some cases, the perpetrators can use the holiday as a weapon of power and control. They demand money and use of the car for the purchase of gifts to not ruin the holidays. Or they may require money or the older adult's ATM card in exchange for a ride to a gathering. Many older adults longing for socialization acquiesce and can put up with more abuse to just get through the holidays.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a part. People are without jobs, suffering from mental illness and increased anxiety and emotional stress, and that carries into the holiday season.

There are signs to look for in friends and family members who might be victims of some type of abuse: 

  • Be aware of bruises or injuries
  • Make sure they do not appear withdrawn or unusually quiet
  • Take note of frequent and last-minute changes to activities or commitments
  • Pay attention to small signs and actions out of character
  • A friend or family member needing to constantly check-in or gain approval from a partner
  • Look out for increased depression, nervousness, irritability or anxiety

Ways to help: 

  • Address concerns in private with the person who you suspect is being victimized
  • Offer help and support
  • Resist the urge to tell them what to do
  • Respect their choices to be in control of their own life
  • Leave the door open for further conversation
  • Confront the abuser only with the victim's permission
  • Offer rides to appointments to free the victim from the perpetrator

The Center for Hope addresses violence across the lifespan. To reach the DOVE Program, Elder Justice or another department call the Center for Hope at 410-396-6147.  

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