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Resilience

Overcoming Childhood Abuse: 4 Cornerstones of Resilience

Research examines how abuse survivors can go from surviving to thriving.

Key points

  • Participants reported that putting feelings into words helped them distance themselves from their abusive pasts.
  • Developing pleasurable and meaningful interests contributed to the participants’ well-being and helped them derive control over their lives.
  • Seeing themselves as having “inner strength” helped participants make sense of why they were able to overcome adversity.

When abused children become adults, how do they shore up the resilience they need to live life to the fullest?

This was the question posed by public health Professor Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir of the University of Gothenburg and her team. In their paper "To Live, Not Only Survive—An Ongoing Endeavor," they report that, although a great many experience childhood maltreatment, they also may demonstrate enormous resilience. However, they argue, these “resilience resources” in adulthood are not yet well understood.

To pursue this line of inquiry, Gunnarsdóttir and her collaborators conducted and analyzed interviews with 22 women between the ages of 31 and 64 years who had been maltreated as a child, ranging from emotional neglect to sexual abuse.

The analyses yielded four interrelated resilience resources, each of which was multidimensional. The authors emphasized that these resources work together, not linearly or chronologically, but in a more fluid and as-needed fashion. An overview of the four resilience resources and their associated dimensions are provided below.

1. Establishing and Maintaining Command of Life

a. Processing through dialogue: This helped the participants distance themselves from their abusive pasts. It means putting feelings into words and is both an internal and external process. Internal dialogues involved self-reflection and were processed by writing letters, journaling, or meditation. External dialogues were with others, including talking with mental health professionals, having conversations with friends, and sharing experiences with others with similar histories.

b. Setting social boundaries: This dimension refers to focusing on one’s own needs or being self-protective. This necessity emerged in both the relationship with the abusing parent[s] and with others. Sometimes, setting boundaries included going "no contact" with an abusive parent[s]. One participant shared:

I didn't want anything to do with [my] dad....And I said to him, straight out and bluntly, “You can go to hell; I never want to see you again. You have ruined so much in my life.” And it made me feel so strong.

c. Making strategic life choices: This dimension reflected the proactive pursuit of things that enhanced their well-being and the disengagement from things that provided no benefit. These strategic decisions included choosing a romantic partner, being a young homeowner, obtaining an education, and securing a job.

d. Cultivating enjoyable and meaningful interests: Developing pleasurable and meaningful interests contributed to the participants’ well-being and helped them derive control over their lives. Examples include cultural, physical, and “cognitively demanding” activities, like crossword puzzles, education, and reading.

2. Employing Personal Resources

a. Embracing the joy of living: This dimension reflected the capacity to feel joy even in the most difficult of times. Some thought joy was innate, while others felt that it was cultivated through making good decisions. Either way, the participants viewed joy as a wellspring of positive feeling and healthy functioning.

b. Releasing inner strength: Seeing themselves as having “inner strength” also helped participants make sense of why they were able to overcome adversity. Inner strength was described as both an innate and actively developed quality and was ineffable. A participant remarked:

I have given a name to this thing that I don't really know what it is. I call it my lifeblood, and it is completely unyielding. So, it doesn't matter how much of a difficult position I am in....no matter how hard life has been, somehow it has bounced back again.

c. Assigning the responsibilities: Knowing that they were not to blame for nor deserving of their parents' abuse was essential in achieving well-being. Similarly, it was crucial for them to understand that, while their parents were responsible for the abuse, they were responsible for moving forward and transforming their negative experiences into something positive.

3. Surrounding Oneself With Valuable People

a. Receiving care from others: This dimension involved both intimate and professional relationships and highlighted the importance of supportive relationships. It also included close others who could be available and supportive.

b. Taking care of others: This dimension underscored the value of being responsible for others’ well-being and provided meaning. In particular, becoming a mother also revealed how wrong their parents’ abusive treatment really was.

4. Reaching Acceptance

a. Consenting the present: This means accepting one's strengths and weaknesses, and believing that one is “good enough no matter what.” Participants described it as having the continual desire to confront problems and to advance their well-being by living life rather than just merely surviving. Finally, consenting the present meant accepting that challenges are natural and can be approached with humility and serenity.

b. Finding explanations: Participants needed to understand or explain why their parents were abusive. Explanations ranged from alcoholism to psychological problems to parents’ own abuse and neglect histories. Fathers’ abusiveness was often attributed to illness, having an abuse history, or lacking control. Their mothers’ abuse or lack of protectiveness from their fathers’ abuse was more difficult to explain. Some explanations included that their mothers were struggling to survive themselves. For many, accepting that their parents did the best they could helped them achieve greater well-being.

c. Forgiving the parent. The women reported that finding explanations could lead to forgiveness. It was particularly significant when a parent asked for forgiveness. Similarly, a parent’s confession sparked relief. One participant shared the following:

There came some kind of “sorry” in his own little way. And, for the first time, there, on his deathbed, I chose to actually sing for him of my own volition. It was big.

Recovering from abuse is a challenging and ongoing process—but it is possible to not just survive but also to thrive in the aftermath. As the inspirational Helen Keller once said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”

References

To Live, Not Only Survive—An Ongoing Endeavor: Resilience of Adult Swedish Women Abused as Children. Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdottir, Jesper Löve, Gunnel Hensing, Åsa Källström. Public Health, 25 February 2021.

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