Childhood Trauma and the 6 Ways We Cope

It should go without saying that children are people too. Of course they are. So when a person is violated by means of power, coercion, or while under duress, they experience rage like any other because their rights and their boundaries have been infringed upon. This fact continues to be overlooked (or ignored) by those who insist on sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Nevertheless, children lack the aforementioned verbal skills required to articulate such violation. And practically speaking, a child is small, weak, and quite literally dependent on his abusive caregiver’s resources (e.g., love, attention, food, shelter) for survival. It thus makes sense for him to mute the objections he is capable of uttering when his rights are violated (e.g., crying, raging, outbursts of physical violence) to ensure his ongoing needs are met. This leads to a tragic and insane learned helplessness, and rather than rage fruitlessly, the child learns to adapt to his abusive family system.

Children are extremely resourceful, and so adaption takes many unique forms. But research (and theory, to pay Freud his dues) has for some time pointed to clusters of adaptive processes that children engage in when their caregivers are neglectful, abusive, or both.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Fuck, Feed: The six childhood responses to developmental trauma
For children to survive the trauma of being emotionally, psychologically, sexually or spiritually abused by their caregivers, they develop specific coping mechanisms Here’s my take on what these mechanisms are. It’s worth mentioning here that I have a BA in psychology. Funnily enough, though, I learned most of what I am about to discuss in this article not through studying undergrad textbooks, but through my own personal experience of and consequent research on childhood trauma.

The Fight Type. Fight types don’t hold back their rage, but nor do they learn to control it in adulthood. Prone to outbursts and tantrums, people with this coping style learned early that, in order to have their needs met they had to become hostile, or go without. Rage is learned through modeling, and can lead to aggressive and anti-social tendencies without appropriate figures to re-model such behaviour. Domestic violence, physical, verbal and sexual assault, as well as more extreme acts of violence like murder are common means of acting out that Fight types engage in. But often the fight type find socially acceptable ways to use and abuse power, and may work they way to positions of authority in Government or in corporate life (e.g., the ‘charming psychopath’) These forms of acting out are used as a means of controlling their circumstances and other people to establish an internal sense of equilibrium, usually when they experience threat.

The Flight Type. Though it could be said that all adults who develop one or more of the six coping styles as a means of escaping the pain of trauma, Flight types are the escapists who’ve honed the skill of numbing out to a T. They run from life’s problems and from the feelings that accompany them. They numb pain through alcohol or drugs, or develop soloist hobbies that allow them to isolate from people and community – the perceived sources of threat – often in socially or culturally acceptable ways (e.g. online gaming, various IT professions). One way that Fight types escape is through fantasy. This can take the form of dissociation (i.e., numbing, zoning or checking out behaviours) to more severe severances from reality (e.g., through the experience of visual and auditory hallucinations, obscure beliefs about self and others, and paranoia). To the very sick Flight type, such breaks from reality act as very powerful distraction from the experience of emotions in the present moment. Arguably, many people diagnosed with schizophrenia or various other psychiatric illnesses have developed exceptional flight behaviours to avoid life’s inevitable stressors. When I think of Flight types, I think of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Freeze Type. Freeze types do exactly that: they freeze in the presence of perceived threat, and suffer the consequences dearly. Those in this category seem to typify the premise of researchers like Alice Miller and Bessel Van der Kolk aptly. That is, that trauma remains frozen in the body until it is released through a safe and therapeutic re-experiencing of it. Freeze types especially are prone to re-enact the abuse they originally suffered in childhood by choosing partners or lovers similar to their abusive caregivers. This is known as repetition compulsion, which is the repeated attempt a trauma victim makes to ‘finish the feeling’, that is, to finally find the caregiver who will show them the love and protection they craved in childhood. Repetition compulsion explains why many women abused in childhood women continually “end up with” abusive partners in adulthood.

The Fawn Type. Fawn types develop codependent tendencies. They’re apt to unconsciously cultivate a ‘helper’ mentality in the hope that their caregiver will meet their needs, or at the very least disengage from abusive or neglectful behaviour. Unfortunately, many codependents end up being complicit in their own abuse or trauma, much like freeze types. Fawn types can be perpetrators too, by acting highly agreeable, sacrificing their own values or beliefs, and being manipulative or dishonest – all dishonest forms communication – as a way to get heir needs met or to avoid the experience of their own or another’s negative feelings. Because Fawn Types did not have their needs met in childhood, they learn to manipulate outcomes through more ‘passive’ means, such as through blackmail, ‘guilting’ or playing the ‘martyr’, rather than through honest and direct communication which, in reality, they were never taught or modeled in their formative years.

The Fuck Type. ‘Fuck’ is something of a misnomer, though it’s appropriate all the same. Children who discover sex, inappropriate touching, or masturbation as a means of dealing with their neglectful, abusive or otherwise emotionally unbearable circumstances discover the pleasure their bodies can provide during high stress situations. Having not been taught the value of experiencing and trusting their emotional experiences, adult Fuck types may develop sex, love or porn pornography addictions to soothe intense emotions. Such addictive patterns include engaging in sexually risky or perverse behaviour (like exhibitionism and voyeurism), to more extreme perpetration involving rape or child sexual abuse. Arguably, Western Culture has a collective preference for the Fuck type’s adaptiveness. This is when we give pause to the highly profitable porn industry (supply and demand, right?), the escalating sexualisation of women – and increasingly men – in popular culture and in commerce (“Sex Sells”), and the quiet yet alarming sexualisation of children. Indeed, one needn’t look far to see the droves of sports stars and religious leaders whose fall from grace has involved inappropriate sexual escapades.

The Feed Type. Feed types learn early in childhood that food is their most important need, and so seek to idolize it. Emotional neglect and abuse leaves a child feeling overwhelmed in the face of their own volatile feelings. Feed types also understandably believe that caregivers ultimately disappoint, but food won’t. Obesity, as well as other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is common in the Feed Type, as are many of the symptoms of body dysmorphia – self-loathing, shame, disgust, and a distorted view of oneself.

As you can see, people who suffer emotional, sexual, psychological, or spiritual abuse at the hands of their caregivers are prone to develop self-destructive -albeit universal -coping mechanisms in order to deal with the trauma of consistently having their needs unmet in their formative years. In a later post I will discuss what current research is demonstrating are our best hopes for breaking free from the shackles of childhood trauma. 

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Ever feel like you need to be saved sometimes?

And do you experience that feeling as overwhelming or out of control?

You may hear me talk about something called co-dependency in this blog. It has many definitions, and frankly I’ll employ more than one throughout the course of my writing. Perhaps it would be useful to introduce the term loosely here, though.

Co-dependency is the over reliance, or even addiction to any source outside of one’s self for approval, acceptance, or validation. It’s that horrible sense that “I’m not going to be OK and I cannot cope unless I have Other (which could be a person, event, process or even drug of choice).”

Co-dependency: it’s a bitch. It robs a person of their sense of self because it takes away spontaneity. If I am relying on Other for validation, I cannot very well get it from myself. This sort of underlying, toxic belief can lead to many a dangerous and self-destructive behavior, including lying, cheating and manipulating, to name but a few.

It ain’t good. Cut the supply, so the codependent believes, and their world ends. So with this in mind, I suppose it makes sense to do whatever you can to keep the supply going. Enter Trouble. The interesting thing about co-dependency is that it’s often hiding in plain sight. This fact speaks to the overwhelming, damaging effect that a lack of understanding can have – especially when we criticise public figures such as Amy Winehouse.

Codependency: It's often in plain sight.
Codependency: It’s often hiding in plain sight.

And while we all need to rely on other people (despite what our subversive, individualist culture tells us!) I suspect that a relationship becomes a co-dependent one when the need for validation from Other becomes greater than the internal belief that that validation, actually, can (and does) exist from within.
Recovery is about calling out self-destructive habits like co-dependency. I’ve certainly felt mine creeping in over the last few days. With stress (which I’ve had a noticeable dose of lately) comes that quiet but often desperate desire to have someone or something save me.

But nope. Recovery comes from within. A friend of mine recently threw a great quote in my face the other day: “I alone can do it, but I cannot do it alone.” Recovery, like this quote, is loaded with paradoxes (paradoxi? Paradoxia?).

Here’s to letting go of bad habits with the help and support of good friends.

Peace!