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For many families, the holiday season is a marathon of new memories made with family and close friends not seen frequently throughout the year. For others, it can be a time of discord, dysfunction and, statistically, an increase in physical, emotional and even sexual abuse.

“There is an increase in all types of abuse over the holiday season,” According to Licensed Professional Counselor Sara Berkey of WellSpan Behavioral Health in Chambersburg. “Schedules become more hectic (and) parents become overwhelmed due to financial stressors.”

Berkey said children, who are home more, tend to be excited and struggle with listening. Depending on family dynamics, the wave of activities and changes in routine can trigger feelings of anxiety, depression or anger among children and adults alike.

Keep Healthy Boundaries

In addition, visitors to the home or people at the homes visited could unknowingly include potential predators. That’s why Berkey suggests parents educate children on an age-appropriate level about their bodies and the boundaries they should keep.

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“Teach children about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touches and use appropriate names for the body,” explained Berkey. “Predators tend to give private parts nicknames to prevent from being caught or allowing the child to catch onto the abuse.”

Berkey said parents can help stop potential abuse by talking with their children about appropriate physical boundaries to have with others.

“Don’t force them to hug or kiss relatives if they do not feel comfortable doing so,” she said, adding parents should encourage a dialogue that empowers children to come to them and speak openly about uncomfortable feelings or touches.

She said parents can also safeguard against potential abuse by not leaving children alone with other adults for a long period of time.

“Check in with the children periodically and monitor their interactions with the other individuals,” said Berkey.

Diffusing Anger

Berkey urges parents to know when they’ve reached their limits.

“Take a break when needed to help thwart physical or emotional abuse,” she said.“Parents need to pay attention to when their limits are being reached.”

When holiday-related stressors are mounting, it can be as simple as asking for help, she said. If kids are helping, assign age-appropriate tasks, she suggested.

Finally, she said, take your time.

“Avoid rushing around – this can cause unnecessary frustration and anxiety.”

How Parents Can Help

Berkey said there are several steps parents can take to help prevent physical, emotional or sexual abuse during the holiday season.

  • Spend downtime with your children away from extended family members.
  • Limit the time children are alone with extended family members.
  • Pay attention to your own limits – the holidays aren’t meant to be a time for stress and anger.
  • Don’t force children to hug or kiss relatives they don’t feel comfortable with.
  • Empower children to remove themselves from conversations they don’t feel comfortable in.

Be aware of shifts in a child’s demeanor such as changes in tone or voice, increases in irritability or new waves of emotions.

“If abuse is suspected, parents or guardians are able to contact the PA Childline hotline,” Berkey said. “After a report is made, a local Children and Youth agency will get involved.”

Berkey said making a police report of abuse is also appropriate, as is reaching out to local mental health services to help children and parents navigate the abuse through therapy and help prevent future issues.

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