Childhood Responses to Threat/Coping Strategies

Childhood Responses to Threat

When humans are young, their world often revolves around their parents. Parents are the source of safety and security, of love and understanding, of nurturance and support. A child experiencing abuse develops strategies, which become coping mechanisms which enable day-to-day functioning, but yet help the child detach from the emotional and physical pain of events, especially when abuse continues over a long period of time (Henderson, 2006).


Kelly Piet Photography 2012 flickrResearchers have observed a number of different ways individuals respond to dangerous or abusive environments. The human body and human mind have sets of primitive, deeply ingrained physical and mental responses to threat of which there are two main types:

  • hyper-arousal continuum ('fight or flight'), i.e., vigilance, resistance (freeze), defiance, aggression
  • dissociative continuum, i.e. avoidance, compliance (appease), dissociation, fainting (Perry, Pollard, Blakely, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995).

In the face of persisting threat, a child will either move along the hyper-arousal continuum (the child's version of 'fight or flight') or into the dissociative continuum (Perry et al., 1995). The individual response will depend upon the age of the child and the nature of the threat. The younger the individual, the more likely he/she is to use dissociative adaptations rather than hyper-arousal responses (Perry et al., 1995).

'Fight or flight' response (Hyper-arousal continuum)

The most familiar set of responses to threat has been labelled 'fight or flight' reactions i.e. an instinctive decision to either stay and try to overcome the presenting danger (fight) or to run away from it (flight). Infants and children however are unlikely to use a classic 'fight or flight' response as they are rarely capable of being able to either fight or flee (Perry et al., 1995).

"Fight or flight" are not the only response-sets to threat. In the initial stages of distress, a young child will use vocalization, i.e. crying, to alert a caretaker that he/she is under threat. This is a successful adaptive response if the caretaker takes appropriate action and fights for, or flees with, the child. If a child’s cries for help are ignored and no help arrives, or if the trauma is being inflicted by the actual caregiver, the child may shift from hyper-arousal to dissociation (Perry et al., 1995).


Protracted threat may cause a child to "€˜freeze"€™. The adaptive advantage of this response is clear: being still or quiet means one is less likely to be seen or heard, and gives one time to prepare to respond to a potential threat (Cozolino, 2008). Internally, the freeze response increases anxiety and decreases cognitive processes so that it allows one to ‘figure out’ how to respond (Perry et al., 1995). Being motionless is an effective form of camouflage which reduces the likelihood of attracting a predator.

Children who have been traumatized will often use this freezing mechanism when they feel anxious (Perry et al., 1995). In situations where the child feels anxious or out of control (e.g. a family visit) the traumatized-child may cognitively (and often, physically) freeze. In such cases the child may act as if he/she hasn’t heard or ‘refuses’ to follow an adult’s instructions. Such non-compliance forces the adult to increase the ‘threat’ by ramping up the instructions. This increased ‘threat’ makes the child feel even more anxious and out of control. The more anxious the child feels, the more readily the child will move from anxious to threatened, and then from threatened to terrorized. If sufficiently terrorized, ‘freezing’ may escalate into complete dissociation (Perry et al., 1995).


Avoidant Coping Strategies:

    • 1. Dissociation

A child who experiences extreme abuse has few coping mechanisms at his or her disposal. Understanding and integrating the experience may overwhelm the child’s coping mechanisms. In the absence of effective coping skills, the child's most likely option for psychologically surviving the abuse is to dissociate or shut off the experience from his/her consciousness (Henderson, 2006; Perry et al., 1995).

Dissociation refers to the mental processes that create a lack of connection in the person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions or sense of self (Amir & Lev-Wiesel, 2007; Reber & Reber, 2001). Traumatized children use a variety of dissociative techniques. In dissociating, the child (or adult survivor) alters the normal links between thoughts, feelings and memories (Briere, 1992) and so decreases awareness of, or numbs the pain of distressing events (Putnam, 1985). Dissociation is commonly referred to as being "€˜spaced out"€™, "€˜blocking things out"€™ and "€˜being out of touch with one's emotions"€™. Infants and young children commonly employ a variety of dissociative responses such as: numbing, avoidance, and restricted affect. Children report going to a "€˜different place"€™, "€˜assuming the persona of heroes or animals"€™, a sense of "€˜watching a movie that I was in"€™ or "€˜just floating"€™. Observers will report these children as numb, robotic, non-reactive, "day dreaming"€™, "€˜acting like he was not there"€™ or "€˜staring off into space with a glazed look"€™ (Perry et al., 1995).

    • Splitting

Splitting is often related to early abuse and appears to be a mechanism by which people can preserve some semblance of happiness in the face of very negative experiences. Splitting refers to the failure to integrate the positive and negative qualities of self or others into cohesive images (Mounier & Andujo, 2003). People with split representations struggle with highly polarized ‘black or white, but not grey’ views of others and self; people are viewed as either entirely good or bad (Dombeck, 2008; Reber & Reber, 2001). Originally, this idea was used to describe how a child deals with the presence of both good and bad in an abusive parent by creating distinct categories in their mind between good mother/ father or bad mother/ father (Mollon, 2002).

    • Fragmentation of personality

When chronic child abuse occurs the personality is organised around the central principles of fragmentation because fragmentation serves to keep the trauma out of conscious awareness (Herman, 1992).

    • Denial

Child abuse often violates the trust which forms the core of the child’s relationship with the world. The child’s attempts to reorganize his/her understanding of his or her world often exceed his/her cognitive-affective abilities. Rather than experience the complete cognitive paralysis or disintegration which can occur from such a severe disruption to the child’s world, the child uses denial, a defence mechanism that simply denies thoughts, feelings, wishes or needs that cause anxiety. Denial seems to be the mind’s way of staving off complete dysfunction precipitated by overwhelming trauma (Walker, 1994). Denial may enable an individual to survive and function until a time at which he/she is able to come to terms with the event. In this context the term ‘denial’ describes unconscious operations that ‘deny’ that which cannot be dealt with consciously (Reber & Reber, 2001, p. 187).

    • Forgetting: Recovered memories and traumatic amnesia

Adults who recall traumatic events from their childhood, previously unavailable to recall are said to have “recovered” or “repressed” memories. This is also called ‘traumatic amnesia’. Thomson (1995) explains repressed memory as “an unconscious mechanism that protects the ‘self’ from being overwhelmed by the memories of the traumas by quarantining those experiences from consciousness” (p. 97; cited in Henderson, 2006). Traumatic amnesia may last for hours, weeks or years and recall can be triggered by sensory or affective stimuli reminiscent of the original event.

The debate on "€œrecovered memories"€ and "€œfalse memories"€ dominated media coverage on child abuse for much of the 1990s. In the media, proponents of the "€œfalse memory"€ position argued that there was no evidence for traumatic amnesia, and that "€œrecovered memories"€ of sexual abuse were unreliable, and often the product of overly zealous therapists, and hysterical, malicious or confabulating women. Over the last ten years, this debate has become less heated, since the science has increasingly affirmed the existence of traumatic amnesia and the reliability of "€œrecovered memories"€ (Dallam, 2001).

Traumatic amnesia and delayed memory retrieval of traumatic events has been widely documented for almost 100 years, and was scientifically accepted in the context of war, accident or disasters (van der Kolk & Fisher, 1995; cited in Henderson). The concept only became controversial when it referred to child sexual abuse (Henderson, 2006).

By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research had built up indicating that many adult survivors of childhood abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. Many people abused in childhood do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, whilst others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse (Dallam, 2001). Extensive research on traumatic amnesia points to the significance of the victim's age at the time of the abuse as well as the duration of the abuse. More recent evidence suggests that amnesia is more likely to occur when the child is dependent on the abuser for survival (Henderson, 2006).

One of the most definitive studies on delayed recall was a non-clinical sample of adult survivors whose sexual histories had been documented at the time of the abuse (William, 1994). Between 1973 and 1975, 206 girls aged ten months to twelve years had been examined after a report of sexual abuse. Seventeen years later, 38% of 129 of the 206 subjects (i.e. those that could be located) had not recalled the abuse when interviewed.

Reframing Strategies:

    • 1. Rationalising

When avoiding reality becomes impossible, children may construct a rationale to justify their abuse. One common reaction is that children believe they are bad and deserve to be punished i.e. if, "€˜she is bad and can become good"€™, then there is some meaning and hope for the future (Herman, 2001; cited in Henderson, 2006). To maintain hope and meaning, a child will often preserve faith in her/ his parents or caregivers, constructing explanations which absolve them from blame and responsibility and so accommodate primary attachment to her parents (Henderson, 2006).

    • 2. Minimisation

Minimisation is the reduction of an experience to the smallest possible effect (Ostler, 1969). It is often used as a coping strategy for children surviving abuse when denial fails (Henning, Jones, & Holdford, 2005). For example, "€˜My uncle does hit me occasionally, but I'€™ve been through far worse"€.

    • 3. Please or Appease Strategies

Trying to be good

Another common coping strategy that children in abusive environments employ is to adopt pleasing or appeasing behaviours (Mannen, 2006). As Herman (1992) explains, many children, convinced of their powerlessness and the futility of resistance, develop a belief in the perpetrator'€™s absolute powers over them. The child tries to prove his/her loyalty and compliance and gain control in the only way possible, by trying to "€˜be good"€™ (Herman, 1992).

    • Seeking affection

Unable to establish a sense of safety, abused children frequently seek external sources of comfort and solace. Abused children often paradoxically seek the affection of the very individuals who abuse them. The underlying fragmentation becomes central to personality organisation, preventing integration of knowledge, memory, emotional states and bodily experience (Henderson, 2006).


A study by Morrow and Smith (1995) explored the coping strategies used by female survivors of childhood sexual abuse, through childhood and into adulthood.

Morrow and Smith (1995) posit that a child experiencing abuse feels:

a) overwhelmed by threatening or dangerous feelings; and b) helpless, powerless and lacking in control. These feelings produce two parallel core strategies for survival and coping (and are discussed in more detail in chapter 3):

Strategies to prevent the child from being overwhelmed by threatening and dangerous feelings include:

  • Reducing the intensity of troubling feelings (e.g. through the use of dissociative techniques)
  • Avoiding or escaping the feelings (e.g. through the use of dissociative techniques)
  • Substituting less threatening feelings for the overwhelming ones (e.g. through self-harming behaviours)
  • Discharging or releasing feelings (e.g. through shouting, masturbation, etc.)
  • Not knowing or remembering experiences that generated threatening feelings (i.e. repressed memory, traumatic amnesia)
  • Dividing overwhelming feelings into manageable parts (i.e. partitioning emotions into separate compartments or separating them from cognitions, sensations, behaviours or intuitions e.g. through dissociation/splitting).

Strategies to manage helplessness, powerlessness and lack of control:

  • Creating resistance strategies (e.g. defence strategies)
  • Reframing abuse to create an illusion of control or power (e.g. rationalising, minimising)
  • Attempting to master the trauma (e.g. by helping abused people)
  • Attempting to control other areas of life besides the trauma (e.g. control over pain by self-harming)
  • Seeking confirmation or evidence from others (e.g. please and appease)
  • Rejecting power/ authority (e.g. rebel)

These strategies, adopted by children who do not have the cognitive skills to process overwhelming feelings of grief, pain and rage, are used by survivors into adulthood (Morrow & Smith, 1995).


Taylor Pyles

Taylor Pyles is a child abuse survivor and the founder of The Blue Ribbon Project. He has been a police officer with Annapolis Police Department for over a decade and is assigned as a Detective in the Criminal Investigations Section.  When not working, you'll find him spending time with his family and out enjoying the countryside on two wheels. 

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