What's your best worst childhood memory

How to cope with your life despite a bad childhood

Her parents divorced when she was five years old. Her mother tried to commit suicide when she was 14. Her stepfather when she had just defended her bachelor thesis and graduated with a 1.0. She and her sister were both beaten, and their grandparents died early.

I've known my girlfriend since I was little, we grew up together. She has experienced many strokes of fate that break others. She always seemed optimistic to me, strong. She looks to the future, although her past is very dark in many places.

I've always asked myself: How do you do it?

Family is what shapes us - whether we like it or not. In whatever constellation, it is the first basis of trust in our life. If this relationship is broken early on, the associated bad experiences influence us forever. So one could think that all children who grow up in such supposedly disorderly circumstances would later have a crack.

They don't necessarily have, and there are various reasons for this.

Resilience - the psychological ability to deal with blows of fate

From 1955, the US psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith examined a total of 698 children who were born in Hawaii. The two scientists accompanied these people for 40 years. A third of the children who grew up in poor family circumstances - that is, whose parents had alcohol problems, were depressed, beat or mistreated - later found their way in life despite all the adversities. They had normal jobs, had intact relationships, and did not commit offenses.

They were more resilient than the two-thirds who later became addicted to alcohol or became mentally ill themselves, for example.

Resilience is the psychological ability to deal with blows of fate, to cope with crises and to learn from them. Everyone handles difficult situations differently. Every child too. "About 50 percent of resilience is genetically predisposed," says Doctor Isabella Helmreich, scientific director of the German Resilience Center (DRZ) in Mainz. The DRZ has only been around for two years, resilience research is still a young scientific field - one in which there is still a lot to be researched.

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Helmreich cannot yet answer which resilience properties are already present in our genes. But she knows: “What is given by genetics is resistance to stress. Some people can naturally deal with stress better than others. ”In addition to what is already dormant in our genes (or not), there are a few other factors that allow us to process trauma better.

The social environment is decisive

The long-term study by Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith shows that our resistance to stress depends on the one hand on the personality we have and on the other hand on the trusting relationships in which we grow up.

The Hawaiian children, who grew up under adverse circumstances but later got along well in their lives, had character traits such as a positive temperament and high social skills, they were rather optimistic and full of zest for action. Problems did not set them back, but approached them consciously and confidently. Their actions were shaped by active coping behavior, not by resignation.

All Hawaiian children who had no one at home to confide in, but were able to establish an emotional bond with at least one caregiver in their immediate environment, later managed to lead a normal life.

“It doesn't always have to be mother or father who play an important role in our early years,” says Helmreich. "It can also be older siblings, an aunt, an uncle, a teacher or a social worker who gives the children support."

When it comes to the trust that people have to trust, it is also important that we are mirrored by them, says the Austrian philosopher, social scientist and resilience expert Harald Katzmair. "If we never get positive feedback, it is impossible for us to build an appreciative, trusting relationship with ourselves, which is necessary so that we can prove ourselves in difficult situations," he says.

Assessing yourself and recognizing your own weaknesses, but also your strengths, also succeeds in taking responsibility for others yourself. Children who, for example, take care of smaller siblings and care for them are more resilient than younger siblings, as they have to think about how they can support the other from an early age.

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My friend is such an older sibling, she has a sister who is two years younger. In addition, I know, as I am part of it, that she has cultivated a handful of very close friendships from an early age that still exist today. One of her most important caregivers was her German teacher, who dealt with her and her problems. She could go to her when things got tough at home. It is quite possible that all of this played a role in preventing her from breaking up on her parents' house.

Helicopter parents prevent their children from becoming stress-resistant

If children grow up in supposedly orderly circumstances, that does not mean that they automatically become stress-resistant. Parents who want to protect their protégés from all harm are doing them no good. "It is important to be confronted with difficult situations from time to time so that I can learn to deal with stress," says Isabella Helmreich.

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Children with so-called helicopter parents are often too closed off; they don't have to solve anything and could get through life with it. However, it is possible that they will then be overwhelmed in stressful situations, warns the expert. “It may well be that they just collapse because they haven't learned to deal with failure or difficult things,” says Helmreich.

What would the perfect childhood look like?

Christoph Uhl is a family therapist in Berlin. Top politicians, prominent actors, cleaning staff, students and schoolchildren come to the psychologist. The main problem that almost everyone would, he says, is miscommunication about needs and expectations. Individual family members would often not be sufficiently clear what the others expect.

But what would the ideal case look like? Are there any optimal factors for a happy childhood?

“The child needs security, security and reliability,” says Uhl. In addition, there are caregivers who radiate calm, who are “at peace with their life.” Children need someone who takes their time, gives them love, but also the freedom to develop themselves. "Parents have to trust their child to make mistakes and fix them themselves," he says. But it is also important that they act as solid as a rock. "The child has to realize that they can still turn to their parents."

We can learn to deal with blows of fate better

Even if we have neither grown up under optimal conditions nor have been particularly stress-resistant to strokes of fate, we can learn to deal better with adverse living conditions in the future. To do this, one should first consciously deal with oneself, advises expert Helmreich. First of all, it makes sense to think about how you react in difficult situations at the moment and what qualities you already have to cope with. Afterwards, one could consider how these properties could be further expanded. The expert mentions friends as an example.

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Someone who already has a stable social environment that he * she trusts can consider whether and how he * she can use this even better in crisis situations. “Who can I get help from in difficult situations?” Is a permissible question, says the scientist. The exchange with other people who do not belong to the circle of friends but who have to cope with similar strokes of fate or stressful situations also helps.

“When I hear how others deal with problems that I also have, I might come up with ideas on how to deal with the situation,” she says.

She also advises consciously writing a diary in order to reflect on the problems or to attend resilience workshops. However, she warns: “Resilience is not a panacea. Often times, people with severe trauma or mental disorders do not get better just by strengthening resilience. Additional support through professional help is often helpful and important here. ”But it could help them to deal better with similar situations in the future.