Childhood experiences and resilience

3:19 pm Uncategorized

(Trigger warning for the links discussed in this post: there is no explicit violence discussed in the articles, but they could still be upsetting to read.)

One of my friends on Facebook posted a link to this article, which begins by talking about how the Dallas mayor said violence is men’s fault, and that men have a responsibility to change the culture that leads people to experience violence. The author of the article then went on to reverse the usual ways in which violence is discussed in the media, focusing on the perpetrators rather than on the victims.

That article was on a site focused on The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which I explored further. One of the major findings of the study are that experiencing even a few types of trauma as a childhood can lead not only to emotional and social problems, but also to things like heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer. The authors of the study emphasized that they had administered the survey to people who were middle and upper class, and that the results indicated that traumatic childhood experiences happen to everyone in society, and not just to the poor.

I took the survey (it’s short–just ten questions), and was surprised by two things. First, that my score was between 7 and 9, depending on how I framed the questions and answers in my own mind, and second, that I was surprised by that. Denial can be a powerful thing, and even now I minimize what I experienced as a child.

But then, as I thought more about the article, and thought about how I wished there had been more focus on the factors that lead to resilience, I realized that while I did have very bad experiences, there must also have been things that led me to be resilient in coping with them. Denial isn’t the only reason I don’t see my childhood as a period of unrelenting trauma. There were factors that led me to find strength, and helped me to cope and survive as an adult.

So what I have begun thinking about is, what are the elements that led me to have better outcomes than my childhood experiences would suggest I should have had?

Dissociation is definitely a factor. It wasn’t just that I responded to trauma with dissociation, which meant that when I was in school or not actively experiencing trauma, I was able to put it out of my mind. There is also the fact that because many of the members of my family who were abusive were¬†also dissociative, so my experience of them included times when they were loving, and engaged in supportive parenting. This is not, by the way, one of my recommended ways of helping people to build resilience, but once I was able to understand that constant and nearly total dissociation isn’t a normal way to live in the world, I was also able to see the ways in which it can help people to cope with otherwise intolerable experiences. The problem is that it’s not a great long-term coping strategy, because it makes it a lot harder to address and prevent trauma.

Another thing that helped me to survive was that I had reading. For most of my life, this was a very good tool for dissociation, but it also meant that I was exposed–at least in fiction–to families in which abuse, neglect, poverty, and dissociation were not prominent. I was able to imagine a different life for myself, and when I began to interact with people whose experiences were different than my own, I was able to create a character to play, so that their impressions of me seemed more normal. Besides, reading was fun, and it gave me a big vocabulary, which helped a lot as I went through school.

Reading also led me to have positive relationships with people outside of my family. I could talk with people–other children, certainly, but also adults–about books. I was praised as a reader, I had an escape from bullies when I spent time in the library, and I had the experience of being trusted with something valuable (library books) and being able to take care of it. Libraries and librarians, both in school and, as I got older, in the public libraries, gave me a chance to have some of the experiences children from more stable families had. When we moved to a new location, the library was still organized in essentially the same way, and the books were the same. It gave me the experience of continuity in a life that was often very chaotic.

School was another place where I was able to have positive interactions with adults. I was fortunate enough to be intelligent, and also to be the type of child who was willing to do without attention rather than risk being punished. This meant that school was a safe haven. The rules were clearly stated, and thus, they were far easier to follow than the rules at home. I wasn’t able to believe that I was worthy of praise or positive attention, but I also chose not to reject it entirely. And from the time I was quite young, teachers not only assumed that I would go to college, they gave me clues about how I could make that happen. So I knew that there were classes I needed to take, and tests I needed to study for, and I began to prepare for that path when I was in middle school. I acknowledge that, without the teachers who made sure I had that information, I simply wouldn’t have known what I needed to do until it was too late to be able to do it.

There are many other factors that led me to be able to survive, but those are the ones I can think of right now.

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