Years later when in a therapist’s chair- this after my stint in drug rehab- I asked my therapist why do some children survive abuse and do okay and why do so many others become statistics? My therapist told me about the Kauai Longitudinal Study conducted in Hawaii beginning in 1955. This study traced the developmental paths of a multiracial group of children who had been exposed to chronic poverty, chronic family discord and parental psychopathology. The study followed the children at different phases of their lives from ages 1, 2, 10, 18, and 32 years of age. Why did some of these children thrive and others just survive? The bottom line answer was that the children who managed to over come their early childhood trauma had the ability to engage and to be resilient.
What is the ability to engage? To put it simply engagement is the ability to get someone’s attention. The children who “overcame” their early childhood trauma were able to engage someone to help them. That’s it. It took getting somebody to pay attention to them, to care and take corrective action.
Throughout my life I have had people who were willing to engage with me. As a child, the engagement of caring adults saved my life. Those caring adults each took an action(s) that landed me in front of the career counselor in high-school, who found the lawyer, who filed my case in juvenile court and where a judge legally emancipated me from my parents when I was sixteen. Three people who altered the course of my life and got me into college when I was seventeen.
The other aspect of survival for those of us who come from less than fairy tale homes is resilience. The definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and to come back stronger than ever. That’s what had happened to me as a child. I became resilient out of the pure desire to never let my parents believe that their behavior was ok with me. It was not. It never will be. Therapists agree with me “Resilience seems to develop out of the challenge to maintain self-esteem.” This occurs when survivors draw boundaries between themselves and troubled parents.
Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient. Among these factors is a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. These qualities allow people who attain resilience the ability to change course and to soldier on. At the heart of resilience is a belief in oneself- which is the one thing that I have always had. I believed in me when no one else did. The other piece of resilience is the belief in something bigger than oneself. I shared that belief as well. I believe in the inherent goodness of people, despite what I saw and experienced on a daily basis. I also believed that someday my experiences would help other people and they have.
While some scientists argue that resilience is inherited others say it can be cultivated. I believe both are true. Some people do differ in their ability to handle stress better than others. Some people because of their trauma lose their ability to handle stress, but if one sees oneself as capable and competent it is possible to survive the darkest times.
Evidence shows that its not really until adulthood that people begin to surmount the difficulties of childhood and rebuild their lives. As Hara Estroff Marano writes in her article “The Art of Resilience” “Resilient people don’t walk between the raindrops; they have scars to show for their experience. They struggle- but keep functioning anyway.”
Marano continues to say that ” A troubled family can indeed inflict considerable harm on its children, but resilient people are challenged by such troubles to experiment and respond actively and creatively. Their pre-emptive responses to adversity, repeated over time, become incorporated into their inner selves as lasting strengths.
As an adult I can say that I have cultivated insight. I have the mental habit of asking myself hard questions and finding honest answers for myself. I take charge of problems and I stretch and test myself. I am glad I have done so. I hope that others can learn do so as well.
With Light and Love,