Survival Resilience - Learned Unhealthy Coping Skills

As a CPS social worker I had the duty to protect vulnerable children, I was on the team that responded to emergency situations. It was near midnight when I received the call from local law enforcement, six children were to be taken into state custody and I needed to get there now. The mom had a long list of arrests for drug use and now had nearly burned their house down cooking methamphetamine.


I approached the dilapidated house, lawn so overgrown it poked through the snow, it was so dark that the only lights were those from the emergency vehicles. Police officers were scrambling to put up their yellow caution tape and lab technicians equipped with gas masks and plastic suits were everywhere.


Initially I felt shocked by what I saw, I was called here to pick up six kids and this scene looked like a chemical spill hazard area. I found the closest police officer and introduced myself and asked where the kids were. The officer pointed me to a detective that appeared to be in charge. He gave me a once over, satisfied with my plastic ID badge, then pointed to a police car telling me the “6 pack” is in the back seat. All of them? I asked. He nodded and proceeded to tell me the oldest would not let any of her siblings out of her sight.


When I opened the back passenger door I was face to face with six children ages two to twelve, dirty, worn out pajamas, winter hats covering their matted hair, fear in their eyes. All six bundled up in winter coats. I introduced myself and told them I was going to take them to a safe place where they could wash up and get some sleep. The oldest took a protective stance and firmly stated that they all had to be taken together, I could not split them up. She said she was their big sister and her mom had told her they were her responsibility. I assured her I was not going to split them up that night, that I was taking them to a safe, warm place.


Survival resilience refers to resilience skills that are cultivated in those who’ve lived through difficult experiences in impoverished and neglectful environments as a mechanism to survive but those skills mostly do not transfer to normal everyday life. These survival resilience skills are, for the most part, maladaptive and unhealthy in nature.


The 12 year old was the mother figure for her younger siblings. She stood over me to ensure that the little ones were in their car seats correctly and that I did not harm them. I obliged with her request to take part in getting her siblings in the car and to keep a watchful eye over me. As I got her in the seat she told me that it is her job to make sure they are safe and that no bad people hurt them. Though I tried to reassure her that I was a safe person here to help, her distrust was apparent. The 12-year old was parentified, a resilience skill adapted due to survival, and looked over her siblings as her own.


During the forensic interview I asked the 12 year old to tell me what a normal day looks like. She began to describe their mornings; she would wake the kids up, get them dressed and ready for school. They all walk the two year-old to a family friend down the street and then walk the rest of the way to school. Once at school she gets them in the breakfast line and then to their drop off area. She said that sometimes she checks on her siblings during the school day because if something happens to them she will get in trouble at home.


After school they meet and walk home stopping to pick up the youngest. Once inside the house she rations the snacks the school sent home while they watch television in the one room they are allowed in. The house they lived in had no running water so she would bathe them with a washcloth that she warmed in the microwave. The last thing she told me was that she had to keep them all quiet so her mom and the boyfriend could take their “medicine” in peace.


The 12 year old developed these survival resilience skills to keep her and her siblings safe. She played the role of mother and kept a watchful eye. A high level of concern and protection for her siblings was her main focus. She developed routines and schedules to tend to her siblings never giving her the time to take care of herself. She was in constant fear that something bad would happen under her watch. She endured verbal and physical abuse from her mom when she could not keep the younger kids quiet or in their room. The 12 year old was meeting the basic and psychological needs of her siblings while not getting any of her own needs met.


These skills do not transfer well to adulthood and real life because these particular skills can cause a person to continue problem solving and coping in unhealthy ways. Decision making, problem solving and coping mechanisms are used to survive and meet temporary needs rather than making their quality of life better. The survival resilience skills the 12 year old from this story used kept her and her siblings under the radar of mandatory reports but an extremely dangerous situation she could not manage landed them in State’s custody.



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