CPTSD and Visiting Family: Ten Tips for Self Care

Lately, a lot of people who grew up with childhood trauma are going “no contact” with their families and loved ones. I hear people talking about it with relief and sometimes a sense of accomplishment. For many people, the abuse was egregious and may be ongoing; in these cases, walking away for good may be necessary and courageous. For others, going no-contact is an emergency form of self-protection that, over time, may not need to be permanent.

So I want to share with you ten tips to protect yourself when visiting people who hurt you in the past, and are triggering for you now — so that contact with them — if you want it — is still an option

I’m telling you this as someone who tested having no contact with my family and then changed my mind about it, and am so glad I did. It can still be really hard for me to handle my own reactions around family, but if you’re like me you’ll find that healing your triggers and calming your symptoms and behaviors (that seem to come flying out of you when you’re triggered) goes a long way toward making family time more of something you can handle and yes (in some cases) enjoy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that what happened to you as a kid doesn’t matter. It matters. And many families are still trudging along, mostly unhealed from what happened in the past. None of us can count on things getting better. But with some healing, you have a choice to stay connected, to show up as your more healed self — not so prickly maybe, or not so boundary-less — and to discover the joys of sharing love with people who are probably never going to be what you hoped.

It’s so understandable that we want them to change — to apologize, to somehow set things right and make this pain inside feel better. I’ve met people for whom this happened and what they say is: It’s nice to get that apology, and a lot of positive things flowed from changes in the relationship that followed. But the injury that happened long ago doesn’t automatically go away. 

For most of us with childhood trauma, the injury has been inside, sending out ripple effects that impacted our relationships, our jobs, our possibilities, and our behaviors — for decades. And so even when a parent gets sober or apologizes or tries to make good, all this damage inside reveals itself to be, what? Our problem.  It’s inside. It has nothing to do with them anymore and they can’t fix it.

Make no mistake — you did NOT deserve to be neglected and abused as a kid. You deserved safety and love, sheerly by virtue of being a child.  But your happiness is no longer in the hands of the people who hurt you. It’s in inside. This is yours to heal. 

So this is my lead-in to the question should you go home? 

My opinion is, if you can handle it, you should go, if they’ll have you.

If you’re thinking of giving it a try, here are ten tips to help get you through it — and maybe to make things better than it has been in the past.

  1. If you go, own this decision and go only if you actually want to go. Don’t go kicking and screaming and complaining because someone else wants you to go. You may have mixed feelings, but once you decide to go, take 100% responsibility for the decision. If things go badly, don’t blame anyone for making you do it. I’m not even giving you tough love here – it’s just common sense. Unless you’re a child, very old or severely disabled, you always have a choice about where you spend your time, and with whom. So you can say no. If you can’t handle the interactions without hurting people, you probably should say no.
  2. As you consider the decision to go home (especially if your feelings are strongly mixed) go slowly — not impulsively, but with enough time to think through the kind of stressful situations that are likely to happen, and how you can prepare for them. Those of us who grew up with abuse and neglect are usually terrible at boundaries, at least at first — but this would be the time to clarify and use them. The people who have known us for a long time are often shocked when we actually say No to some of their expectations and actually, really take care of ourselves. They’ve maybe never seen us do that before — they’ve probably never seen anyone do that before! 
  3. Have boundaries, but don’t use them as weapons. Don’t call your dad and say “OK but this time I will NOT TOLERATE such and such… “ or “I’ll come if mom agrees not to drink!  Your boundary can be not to come. Your boundary can be to have a Plan B to leave the house if your mom gets drunk. But a boundary can’t be a demand that another person do something or not do something, or make a promise that you (and they) know perfectly well that they’ll struggle to keep. In fact they can’t keep it. Leading with demands and warnings could be perceived as aggression and you’ll very likely be met right back with aggression. If you have years of this kind of dynamic going on, then really, ANY positive change you make can seem threatening. So don’t blow your horn about it!  Just say “It’ll be great to see you” and show up. If mom gets drunk don’t argue, don’t make a fuss. With as much gentleness and non-judgment as possible follow your Plan B (go elsewhere for a while) until you’re ready to carry on with the family — maybe the next morning when she’s sober again. I’ll talk about plan B in a minute.
  4. Acknowledge the emotions, which probably involve a lot of sadness, anger, disappointment, shame, feeling ignored (See? Can you tell I’ve been through this?). See if you can NOT have to talk to your family about it. If you have someone there who totally understands and supports you, OK, mention it. But try not to get carried away with how bad you feel — dwelling on it, savoring it, telling stories. These are feelings. They’re normal under the circumstances. In a troubled family it’s a terrible idea to try to get the people who hurt you to listen or help you with your feelings about it, especially while you’re stuck together in one house, or worse a car! It is a fight waiting to happen. Don’t do it. It’s not going to make you feel happy or vindicated or anything positive that that you might be imagining.
  5. Limit your time in situations that stress you. Try limiting contact to 30 minutes or two hours or whatever you like, so you have a way to step back and calm down if the need arises. If you need some extra help for “cooling down,” you can try my Daily Practice techniques.
  6. Avoid unnecessary conflicts, and do it without anyone knowing you’re doing it. There’s a time and a place to express yourself and set the record straight with those who have wronged you. Family holidays are probably not that time and place! Here’s a handy method you can use to dodge any fight someone tries to start. It goes like this:  Your Uncle Bob: “People like you…” (and you can insert anything you want here — your age group, your political affiliation, your geographical home).”You people LOVE to whine about how BLAH BLAH BLAH and you think you can just BLAH BLAH BLAH…”  Do you have people in your family who do this? What YOU do is act like your phone just vibrated in your pocket and say, “Oh, just a minute Uncle Bob… someone’s calling me. I’ll be right back!” And then you don’t come back to the conversation!  Uncle Bob will forget. It’s like it never happened. You will be amazed how differently everything can go. And you never have to worry that you are condoning bad behavior, just because you’re not participating in screaming matches.
  7. Remember, the party is for everyone else too. You may be feeling hurt and judged, but sometimes the best thing for that is to take your mind off what you feel, and think who in the room might benefit from a kind word or a little acknowledgement. Family get-togethers and holidays are hard for a lot of people. You will find that you sadness can be lifted up when you assist others with their sadness, or their social awkwardness, or their embarrassment over spilling something or not bringing a gift or whatever it is. If this is all you did the whole time at a gathering, I promise you, you’d have a nice time.
  8. Do I even need to say this? Don’t talk about controversial things. When people talk about politics and religion and money, you can just smile, nod, and listen or say neutral things like “I see what you mean,”  “MM-hmm!” or “Good point,” or “I’ve heard so many people say they feel that way too.” If you remember nothing else, remember this: It’s NOT a good time to get people to “understand” that they are wrong in your eyes, or that you are right, or the reasons for the way you feel! Forget all that! Stay connected to your reasons for coming — to feel the connection and love, as feeble and tiny as it might be, between you and your family. The rest doesn’t ultimately matter. 
  9. Take care of yourself. This is the secret to fending off depression and dysregulation. You can keep it to just these four things: Get your sleep no matter what; get fresh air and exercise no matter what; eat protein with every meal and drink lots of water no matter what (even if you just ate a ton of carbs), and use your calming techniques, at the normal time, no matter what. 
  10. I told you I’d get back to this, is to bake into your family visit, a plan B in case things go south. Line up a place where you can stay if things get ugly or fall through. Have a way to get there, such as having your own car, downloading a ride-sharing app or planning your route on public transportation. Enlist your friends at home to support you too. 

So those are the ten tips. All of this is to help you avoid the extreme measure of going no-contact. You can use thee even if there’s been no healing yet between you and your family. Now that you’re grown up, it’s you who just might be the person who introduces healing to those damaged relationships. 

If you’re thinking “That’s not fair! They should be the ones to reach out to me!” I’d say the person who should reach out is the one who has the most maturity and who has the most healing themselves. — let THAT person make the first effort. Let it be the one who has become the BEST at staying calm and kind, even in the presence of people who are themselves traumatized and struggling. Let it be the one who no longer makes demands, who has released expectations, who has opened to love in whatever wobbly forms it happens to take. Let it be the one who grasps that time is running out, and that sometimes the love we feel is more urgent to experience than the anger. If you’re watching this video, maybe the person who introduces this change to the relationship can be you. 


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