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Chapman experts offer advice to families facing stress, violence during holidays

Experts offer advice for coping with family violence during the holidays

It’s the holiday season, and movies, TV shows and commercials – filled with holly-jolly parties, togetherness, contentment and cheer – would have us believe, as the popular song says, that it’s the most wonderful time of the year.  However, for many families, that’s just not reality, say experts at Chapman University.

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Susan Jester, associate director of Chapman’s Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy, says a number of factors can lead to family violence during the holidays.

“Stress and violence within families tend to increase during the holidays, due to a number of factors,” says Susan Jester, a licensed marriage and family therapist and associate director of Chapman’s  Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy.

“There’s the economic impact, of course. Many families tend to overspend during the holidays, which can cause tension. Then there’s the increased togetherness, which can bring out old rivalries, worries and resentments, and nudge people back into old, unhealthy patterns of behavior.  And there are often unrealistic expectations that the holidays will somehow make people more loving and thoughtful and make families magically happier.  Add in some ‘holiday cheer’ – that is, alcohol or drug use – and you have a potent recipe for disappointment.  And yes, sometimes violent situations can erupt,” Jester says.

Naveen Jonathan, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of marriage and family therapy in Chapman’s Crean School of Health and Life Sciences and director of the
Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy
, agrees that “elements such as money problems, family issues and power and control can also play a part in increasing violence during the holiday season.”

He concurs that substance abuse often contributes to domestic tension and violent behavior.

“People may turn to alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms for holiday stress, or it can be just the fact that with holiday events and gatherings, alcohol and substances are used more often,” he says.

According to Marisa Cianciarulo, director of the
Bette and Wylie Aitken Family Violence Clinic
run by Chapman University’s
Fowler School of Law
, immediate family members are often very aware of what’s happening in potentially violent situations, but other friends and extended family members may not be.

“Some victims, especially during the holidays, may attempt to cover things up – sometimes for the sake of the children, or a notion that ‘we’ll have a happy holiday no matter what.’ Sometimes it’s simply embarrassing for a victim to admit that violence is happening. So a lot of victims are reluctant to ask for help,” she says.

“And often the abuser is very stealthy,” says Cianciarulo, a specialist in clinical teaching and immigration law with a focus on human rights. “He tries, for example, to isolate his victims, making the woman give up all her old friends, or moving the family far away from their former community. Then, visits from friends or extended family members during the holidays can make the situation worse, as the abuser feels he’s losing control.”

“For an abuser, it’s usually all about that power and control,” she says.

How can members of the immediate family help to defuse stressful holiday situations?

  • “As counselors, we try to infuse some normalcy into the mix,” says therapist Jester.  “We let families know that it’s impossible to spend enough money to keep up with the Joneses, and that they’re not always going to resemble those happy gatherings in the Christmas commercials. And for all they know, the Joneses aren’t really all that happy, anyway. We advise them to concentrate on the things they know they enjoy and let go of the things they don’t.”
  • But in situations that have moved beyond normal holiday madness and into potentially dangerous territory, there are warning signs to look for.  “Isolation is a big red flag,” says Cianciarulo. “If there’s a family member who has traditionally, happily participated in gatherings – and suddenly she’s making excuses as to why she can’t attend, over and over – that’s a cautionary signal that other family members should watch for. You need to listen to that.”
  • In a situation that’s escalated from stressful to potentially violent, the experts agree that the top priority is to get away from the abuser.  “If you know there’s a violent history – and most families know this, better than we ever can – then have an exit plan,” says Jester.  “Know where you’re going to go, and who and what you’ll take with you. Get the children out of any potentially violent situation.”
  • “There should always be a safety plan,” says Jonathan. “If the family is in therapy, the therapist can work with family members to identify safe places, safe people and even shelters the victim can go to. Therapists can also work with clients to have important documents and valuables, along with a change of clothes, stashed in a particular place when the situation arises to leave.” Victims should also ensure that they have access to a vehicle with fuel in its tank, or a bus pass, so a swift exit is possible, he adds.

Cianciarulo says studies show that it often takes a woman several tries to leave her abuser – and that the harsh reality is that a woman is at a statistically higher risk of injury or death if she tries to leave. “But that’s what makes it so critical to break away,” she explains. “Violence is cyclical, and that makes it all the more difficult to leave because there’s a ‘honeymoon phase’ where the abuser apologizes and tries to make up for things. It can be very tempting to believe him – because, after all, she loves him. And in many cases the woman is financially dependent on the man, which also makes it very hard to exit the relationship. But in almost all cases the violence will cycle back again, sometimes worse than before, because she dared to try to leave.”

Because of the abuser’s need for absolute control, says Cianciarulo, “you read these stories in the news about a father who killed the wife, children and himself. That’s a classic, and of course horribly tragic last grasp of the abuser at power over his family. It’s critical that families make exit plans and build support networks before it reaches that point.”

Every community has resources for family members who need to quickly leave and report a violent or potentially violent situation. In any imminently violent situation, the first resort should be to try to get out of harm’s way by whatever means necessary, and to call 911, say the experts. Police and emergency personnel can recommend next steps, which may involve a shelter or staying with other family members. Shelters for survivors of domestic violence can also advise and refer victims  to further help. And for those with low incomes, legal-assistance clinics – often associated with law schools – may offer low-cost or free legal advice on restraining orders, separations and how clients can move out and subsist on their own.

The Frances Smith Center for Individual and Family Therapy, established at Chapman University in 1965, is a training facility offering psychological treatment services to the local community. Under the auspices of Chapman University’s Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program, the Center operates as a nonprofit clinic for individuals, couples, families and children, providing high-quality, affordable mental health services to the local community and to provide an excellent training and research environment to MFT graduate students.  Fees are established according to a sliding scale.


The Bette and Wylie Aitken Family Violence Clinic, founded in 2007, is a legal clinic staffed by students from Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, which operates out of the Orange County Family Justice Center in Anaheim. The clinic provides free legal counseling to low-income families who are victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes. Every year, approximately 25 law students take part in the Aitken Family Violence Clinic, receiving intensive academic training in client interviewing and counseling, the dynamics of family violence and either trial skills or legal writing. The Aitken Family Violence Clinic serves approximately 200 survivors of domestic violence per year. Once in a shelter or other safe environment, victims need additional legal services such as permanent restraining orders, child custody orders and protection from the threat of deportation. Clients are referred to the clinic by shelters, police, victim advocates and prosecutors. The Aitken Family Violence Clinic depends on and appreciates public support – donations can be made online.

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