An overly anxious child is not necessarily doomed to an existence of dread, anticipatory anxiety and fear, or worse things emotionally down the road. A wonderful defense in life against things that feel bad (i.e. anxiety) and our thoughts about what we might like to do about those feelings is sublimation. Some other defenses are repression, displacement, denial, intellectualization, reaction formation, and projection. A child is in a crossroad position every time he or she encounters conflict.
The crossroad involves how the child will choose to defend herself from conflict, fear, and other heavy emotions. Emotions don’t just flow through children or adults in a benign manner. We are always at work managing the emotional things that go on around us. We become accustomed to doing this management and in time we don’t even know we are choosing defenses or other adaptation strategies.
There are healthy defenses and less healthy ones. We all know the ones that have obtained a bad reputation over the years. These are projection and denial. Projection is when you project onto someone else your shortcomings or biases. When we see projection being used a great deal it is usually due to the person having a personality disorder. We all use some of the defenses some of the time. Denial, as comics have noted, is not the name of a river in Egypt, but rather an insistence that something is not true even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Defense mechanisms are rated in the following manner:
- Pathological (psychotic denial, delusional projection, distortion, splitting, extreme projection)
- Immature (projection, acting out, fantasy pre-occupation, passive aggression, idealization, projective identification, somatization)
- Neurotic (repression, displacement, intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, hypochondriasis, undoing, isolation, withdrawal)
- Mature (sublimation, altruism, anticipation, suppression, humor, introjection, identification, thought suppression)
Children are learning all the time. They are learning how to adapt and survive and what to do with the feelings and emotions that come up on a daily basis.
If little Jenny cries for her parents and no one comes to her cries, what has she learned about her parents, her world, and the coping strategies she has been using up to this point?
If little Carl falls down and is yanked up by a parent who proceeds to spank him on the bottom and tell him how clumsy he is, what has Carl learned?
If Johnny gets beat up at school and his parents get mad a him and call him a coward or a wimp, what has Johnny learned about his world and himself?
Defense mechanisms in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood can be adaptive or maladaptive. In a March 2010 study conducted by Corrado Caudek and Maria Anna Tallandini1 they studied children from ages 47 to 102 months of age. They were looking for information on the use of defense mechanisms in early childhood and the effect of defense choice on intelligence and temperamental difficulties.
Children who used the defense mechanism of rationalization were shown to perform better on intelligence tests. This has historically been true in the adult populations. Children who were more withdrawn were shown to use a larger variety of defense mechanisms than the more outgoing child.
“The analysis of children’s pretend play provides converging evidences that DMs(defense mechanisms) relate to central aspects of the emotional lives of children and manifest themselves differently depending on age, gender, temperament, and verbal skills. DM(defense mechanism) use is consistent with major shifts in many domains, including emotional, ego, and self-concept development. Moreover, DM presence stems from the ways in which the individual relates with oneself and the human environment.”2
We will continue to explore anxiety, angst (in children and adults), and the ways we all adapt to our world.