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What to Do If Someone Talks About Sexual Assault at the Thanksgiving Table

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If you are dreading Thanksgiving because you’re afraid someone will bring up any of the recent sexual assault headlines, you are not alone.

Every day it seems like a new celebrity or prominent figure is accused of sexual assault. From Kevin Spacey to Louis C.K., Ed Westwick, George Takei, Nick Carter, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein and Disney Animator John Lasseter, there is no lack of allegations for your relatives to share their unwanted opinions about.

“A lot of stuff comes up on the holidays and people often choose really polarizing or more intense topics after sitting around for a few hours,” Lindsey Pratt, LMHC, a therapist in private practice in New York City, told The Mighty.

But just because your uncle wants to share his frustration that Spacey’s career is virtually over doesn’t mean you have to listen or engage in conversation. “It is important, always, for survivors or anyone who feels triggered by these topics to just be sure that they are putting their needs first,” Pratt said. “A lot of sexual assault news and sexual assault in general can make people feel very out of control, so it’s important to have a sense of regained control in situations where you are talking about it.”

If you are sexual assault survivor and dreading Thanksgiving, here are seven things you can do to make dinner a bit more tolerable. 

1. Put Your Needs First

Whether you are a chronic people-pleaser or just afraid of upsetting a certain family member, remind yourself before you head to dinner that your needs are just as important as everyone else’s.

If you are concerned that telling your family you don’t want to talk about sexual assault news will create awkwardness, try to push past that momentary discomfort to do what is best for your mental health.

“It’s 100 percent acceptable to ask to change the subject or get up and take a walk or even engage in a side conversation that feels a little bit safer,” Pratt said. “All of those can and should be done in a person’s preference level of what they share.”

That means if you want to tell your family you are changing the topic because you are a sexual assault survivor, go ahead. But if you’d prefer to keep that information to yourself, that’s OK, too. You don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you don’t want to talk about sexual assault.

2. Let the Host Know Ahead of Time

If you aren’t comfortable changing the conversation yourself, let whoever’s hosting Thanksgiving know that certain topics are off limits. This way they can moderate the conversation for you.

If you are hosting Thanksgiving, ask a family member or friend you trust to step in if the conversation goes somewhere you don’t want it to.

3. Set Boundaries Beforehand

You know your family and friends, so if someone you love is known for unabashedly “speaking their mind,” prepare your responses and expectations ahead of time.

“I think it’s just very prudent to consider ahead of time what your boundaries might look like if things don’t go as planned,” Pratt added. “Comfort and safety should really be the top priority.”

4. Have a Mantra

Should things not go according to plan, remind yourself that your feelings and experience are valid.

“Focus on and try repeating ‘I am validated, my feelings are validated, I know of my own reality,’” Pratt recommended.

Remember: You have the power to forgive, to listen, to ignore and to process your trauma in a way that promotes your well-being.

5. Pick Someone to Process Things With

If working out your emotions in your head is too difficult, pick a friend or family member to confide in.

There’s no reason why, just because it’s the holiday, you should feel prohibited from processing those feeling, Pratt said.

If that friend you process things with isn’t at dinner, feel free to step outside and call or text them instead.

6. Seek Support Afterwards

If family and friends aren’t receptive to your needs, look for a local support group in your area. You can also work with a therapist one-on-one if you prefer a more private setting.

If you can’t afford therapy, RAINN offers free, confidential crisis counseling for trauma survivors. Or you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

7. Just Stay Home

Still dreading Thanksgiving? It’s OK to stay home. You can give yourself permission to skip dinner if that is what is best for you.

“I always encourage people to just take a moment and close their eyes and think about what their ideal holiday would feel like,” Pratt said. “Then, take a second moment and think about what they are going to be doing. If those two events aren’t really reconciling with each other, just consider [not going] as a boundary.”

If sitting the holiday out really isn’t an option for you, consider leaving early or arriving late instead. Whatever makes the most sense for you and your wellbeing.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Header photo via Alex Lozupone, Xerxesirl, Spc. Elayseah Woodard-Hinton and Anirudh Koul.  

Originally published: November 23, 2017
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