The holidays are upon us, and that means most of us are busy and stressed! The winter holidays are an emotional time for many people full of both positive and negative associations. I loved Christmas with my family because it was often the only time we were all together: decorating the tree, making dinner together, going through my stocking with my sister, seeing family I hadn’t seen in a long time, driving around to see the lights and decorations. It felt like a time of connection, warmth, and joy, and many people feel the same. However, the holidays can carry a lot of stress and negative feelings as well concerning decorating, travel, having guests or being a guest, spending money and gift giving, weather, time with difficult family members, etc. As much as I adore my family, I do not adore travel or travel delays or holiday shopping. Also, some years the holidays have been less joyous than others: years when a family member has passed away, when I couldn’t travel to be with my family, or simply when I could not seem to find that joy of the holiday season. These feelings around the holidays are normal!

The Holidays Impact on Mental Health

For domestic violence survivors the holidays bring additional unique challenges.

      • Survivors may not be able to see or even communicate with their loved ones due to safety concerns, so they might feel lonely and isolated during a time when everyone else is feeling connected to their families, or they could be dealing with the stress and risk of attempting to be with family during this time of year.
      • They also may have positive memories of holidays with the person who abused them which can cause conflicting feelings because they miss what they had with that person and they want things to be good again while at the same time they could feel hurt, angry, and grieving because of the loss of what they had.
      • They may have negative memories of holidays with the person who caused harm which can make the holidays feel sad, overwhelming, and emotionally draining simply because the holidays haven’t felt good for them in the past.
      • Additionally, survivors who have children may find that their kids struggle during this time of year, especially if they aren’t able to be at home in a familiar place surrounded by familiar things and people.

This list isn’t exhaustive! Every survivor’s experience of the holidays will be different, and every survivor will want and need something different during this time.

As advocates, it’s important to keep in mind how the holiday season can affect survivors’ mental health and really think about how you can support survivors during this time of the year. A great start to figuring that out is to have those one-on-one conversations with the survivors in your programs about how they’re feeling about the holidays, what their plans are, and explore how you can support them during this time if they need you to do that at all. has a great article on celebrating the holidays after trauma which explores how a few different survivors handled the holidays which spanned from not planning anything special at all and just resting to starting completely over with new traditions.

Ultimately, it’s okay if survivors don’t really feel that holiday cheer or if they do. Lean into that with them! If they’re excited for the holidays, share that excitement. Maybe you help them decorate their room if they’re in shelter or do arts and crafts with the kids; maybe you help them create a holiday schedule of people to see and places to go integrating safety planning considerations; or maybe you decorate your office with a little bit of festive cheer. If they aren’t interested in celebrating the holidays, then normalize that, too. You might help a survivor create a plan for lessening exposure to the holidays; provide activities and conversation topics that have nothing to do with the upcoming holidays; or simply provide a brave and non-judgmental space for exploring their feelings around the holiday season or even to simply sit in silence.

Special Considerations

There are some special considerations to keep in mind when working with survivors during the holidays:

      • Shelter is an emotionally difficult experience for anyone. Some who has experienced trauma is leaving their home, their routines, and their life behind to move into an unfamiliar place. Some shelter programs are “communal” or “congregate” living styles so the survivor will be living with unfamiliar people who have also experienced trauma. This can lead to tension and conflict on the best of days, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Here are some things to consider that can impact survivors’ mental health while in your shelter during the holiday season:
          • How and where you decorate your shelter for the holidays;
          • The foods you provide;
          • The activities and topics you plan;
          • Gifts and the giving of gifts;
          • How other survivors in shelter are reacting to the holidays;
          • Their children’s needs and wants at the holidays; and
          • The expectations staff intentionally and unintentionally convey about participation in the holidays.

This list is not comprehensive! Keep in mind that it’s hard to escape the holidays in your own home when it’s a shelter, and remember to make space for survivors to participate in the holidays in the ways that feel safe and right for them and to support that wherever possible.

      • Coping skills and mechanisms vary survivor to survivor, and the stress of the holidays can lead to survivors having to use coping mechanisms more frequently. Some of the those coping mechanisms may be healthy like grounding techniques and speaking to a counselor while others may not be as healthy like using substances or self-harm. Substance use is a common coping mechanism for survivors of domestic violence, and alcohol is everywhere during the holiday season. You may find that survivors in your programs struggle with managing their substance use or relapse during the holidays. Where possible provide emotional support, explore additional coping mechanisms, engage with survivors non-judgmentally, and provide resources.
      • The advocate! It’s absolutely critical that advocates take care of themselves during the holiday season as well. Advocates have their own experiences and feelings surrounding the holidays, and those experiences and feelings will go to work with them. Here are some things for advocates to consider to help get through the holidays while working for a domestic violence program:
            • Be self-aware regarding your feelings and traumas;
            • Use healthy coping skills;
            • Engage in self-care both at work AND at home; and
            • Get the support you need for yourself from coworkers, supervisors, friends/family, and/or a counselor.

The holiday season can be a beautiful time to make new memories and embrace life transitions, but it can also be a time of overwhelming emotion and loss. Domestic violence programs have an incredible opportunity to provide the most accepting and supportive space possible to help survivors heal and begin to create neutral or even positive associations with the holidays. Be thoughtful during this time of year and give the greatest gifts possible to the survivors with whom you work: empathy, compassion, and acceptance.


–Samantha Dickens, ICADV Programmatic Technical Assistance Coordinator