Posted By Tina Dubin, Ph.D. on August 18, 2013 at 2:30pm | General, Tina's Musings

I think there is a Survival Child within each of us – the part of us that emerges with great intensity when you feel emotionally threatened.  Or the part of you that surges up when nothing is going the way it’s supposed to – at all.  You turn into a name-calling, controlling, bossy girl ready to start blaming – usually yourself;  sometimes your beloved.  Someone’s going to get it!  “What an idiot!”  you cry (to self or other).  “What were you thinking?!”  “How can I ever trust you again?!”

Your Survival Child is there to shape you (or y’all) up, keep you going, make sure you make it.  But her intensity can be too extreme at times to be effective.  We end up beating ourselves up too much.  Or blowing our partners out of the water.

Coming to recognize your Survival Child and learning how to work with this intense part of yourself can be very useful.

Your Survival Child developed in response to the expectations of those around you as you grew up – and the treatment you received from them – adults and peers alike.  The more emotional and traumatic the experiences of the past, the more intensely you react, in the present, to any situation that seems similar.

Your Survival Child attacks you when she feels like you’ve really messed up; or even if you haven’t been as successful as you think you should have been.

She will attack when you feel not listened to, not considered, not taken seriously [read Rage and Other Overreactions]  This intense but anxious part can also get worked up if you feel that your beloved is direction meaningful emotional attention to someone else.  That feels threatening and can be – but not necessarily.

The Survival Child holds the “should”, the rules, the supposed-to’s about your thoughts actions or feelings – and those of your beloved.  This powerful part of you tends to be evaluative, scrutinizing, blaming, bossy and aggressive.  She feels she needs to be all of that in order to help you survive.

Can you picture what your Survival Child looks like?

It can be very difficult to change your Survival Responses.  It can feel frightening and impossible to do – like you might not survive if you let down your guard. Once we’ve been hurt or let ourselves down, it takes a long time to regain trust. 

The responses coming from your Survival Child will be fairly primitive because intense survival reactions tend to be based on flight or fight, good or bad, black or white.  The view of the Survival Child is narrow.  You need to be aware that you’re perceiving things in the extreme.  You may be missing the in-betweens or the big picture.

The voice is shrill – whether inside your head or out loud.  (Bill described mine as a “sing-songy voice”.  “So, you think that …blah,blah.”)  When you can, you need to find the Adult voice.   [Read “Pulling Up Into Adult”]the quieter, steady, authentic expression of you when the Survival Child is calmed.

The feelings and fears of the Survival Child are so strong that you feel a sense of urgency and certainty even though you may be wrong.  I repeat – you may very likely be wrong as your perceptions and emotions will be distorted by previous hurts and traumas.

There may be other contributors to your current overreactions – a sense of insecurity or low self-esteem, emotional or physical distance from your partner, associations from the past.  Or even fatigue.

The Survival Child is a very powerful part of our inner life but, still, is only a child part.  Our Adult part is the self that has developed over time as our experience, cognitive abilities and our knowledge base has expanded.  Our Adult part allows us to think more rationally and sensibly.

The Adult needs to be in charge – while still being able to reassure the Survival Child about her fears and needs.  Pay attention to your Survival Child – do what you can to address her fears – but don’t leave her in charge.

The goal is to have the Adult make the decisions and evaluate the situation BUT still take the Survival Child’s concerns into consideration.


–          Be positive, reassuring, comforting, understanding and forgiving to yourself; use your Adult voice when you can.  But

 Take care of business; look squarely at what your Survival Child is reacting to.

Take care of your Survival Child in your relationship  she is ultimately your  responsibility .  It is up to you when you want to trust her with someone else.

Be aware of the Survival Child in your partner too.


Stories:  Jody’s Survival Child became very threatened when she and her husband became overburdened with work, 2 young children and a new fixer-upper home.  His over-involvement in a 50-hour a week job topped off with home remodeling led her to feel ignored, unappreciated and unimportant – like he was someone different than he used to be.

It even felt to her like he was having an affair because his attention was always elsewhere.  Eric was sad and frustrated by her reaction.  He didn’t know what else to do.  Jody had a very intense and sensitive Survival Child having lost her mother early in life and then been emotionally abandoned by her father.  We could understand the reaction of that child part that felt neglected and thus not good enough.  But I reminded her that she needed her Adult to take charge and assess the situation.  [Read Pulling Up Into Adult].

Deep down she knew she was overreacting as she had married a good man who was devoted to his family.  It didn’t make everything better but Jody felt calmer when she was able to look at things from her Adult.

Still, she needed Eric to be more in touch with her – to have more communication during the day and more time alone together during the week.  The Survival Child needed that to feel safe and connected again.  They also needed to slow down their very hectic schedules to allow for calmer and more consistent communication – from the Adult parts of both of them.

*                *                      *                      *

Bonnie  came in declaring herself a “loser”.  She was nearing the end of an internship and had so far been unable to find a job.  The economy was in a slump and though she was well educated and highly experienced, jobs in her field were scarce.  Her Survival Child was worried about how “they” were going to make it and thus kept chiding and goading her.

While Bonnie initially had a lot of energy and motivation to write applications and set up information interviews, her Survival Child’s negativity was bringing her down and ultimately slowing her down.

She needed her Adult to acknowledge the “survival” realities.  How was she going to tolerate tons of rejection yet still remain positive, confident about her abilities and, above all, action- oriented.  Her  Adult was having trouble maintaining strength in the face of ever more intense Survival Child responses – like dissing herself; listing all of her negative qualities; comparing herself especially to people who were doing better.


Her Adult needed reinforcements.  She needed to:

–          Stay in touch with others who believed in her and could offer support

–          Pay attention to the Survival Child’s hears of not making it and reassure her [read Pulling Up Into Adult] of the Adult’s positive intent to take care of business.  Whatever it may take to survive.

–          Remind the Child of when you’ve managed through hard times in the past.  (And, if you haven’t, then remind her that you’re capable of learning; we all are)

–          Have the Adult help your Child come up with the possible positives of this difficult situation.

Remember, some may be yet to come.

–          For examples of the Adult and the Survival Child working together look at Getting Oneself to Do Hard Stuff  and Working through Hard Stuff in Our Hearts and Minds are examples of the Adult and Survival Child working together.




Bottom Line of The Survival Child Notion.

This is the short version of what it means to honor and respond to our overreactions that seem to come from a survival place inside.

If you’re mad at yourself, pay attention to what you’re mad about.  Be sure and address it yet still treat yourself with respect, understanding and compassion.

Because our “survival” reactions may be stronger and more primitive than the current situation warrants, it is important to bring your Adult rational view to bear.

The same holds true with your beloved.  If you’re mad at him or her, find some way to address it.  Yet still treat the other with understanding, compassion and respect.  If you can’t do it right away.  Do it when you can.



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Posted by Tina Dubin, Ph.D.

I received my doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Kansas in 1977. I completed my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin Counseling Center. Since then, I have been a research associate at the Institute of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Texas, a founding associate of Family Eldercare, and have been in private practice with my husband, Dr. William Dubin, at Psychological ARTS since 1980.

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