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Childhood Trauma Adaptations: Superpowers & Kryptonite (Part 1)

Image of girl in superhero costume representing what common childhood trauma adaptations are

Explore childhood trauma adaptations in this 3-part essay series. Learn what common adaptions are and their dual nature as both superpowers and challenges, and how to manage them

Image of girl in superhero costume representing what common childhood trauma adaptations are

Childhood Trauma Adaptations: Superpowers & Kryptonite (Part 1)

In this three-part essay series, we’re going to explore exactly what common childhood trauma adaptations are, why and how they can be like superpowers (not only when we’re children but also when we’re adults), why and how these adaptations can also be like proverbial Kryptonite, how to discern the difference, and what to do if we’re aware that our own childhood trauma adaptations have become a proverbial form of Kryptonite in our adult lives.

Childhood trauma adaptations are an attempt to cope.

Childhood trauma, as I’ve written about extensively, has the potential to negatively shape a child’s development. 

Experiences of trauma, such as abuse or neglect, disrupt normal developmental trajectories, forcing children to develop coping mechanisms that help them cope with painful experiences.

These attempts are essentially survival strategies. 

And these attempts fall into two buckets: cognitive and behavioral adaptations (meaning the thoughts and behaviors that form as survival attempts). 

Cognitive adaptations involve changes in perception, belief systems, and thought processes that aim to protect the child from emotional pain or to rationalize or make sense of their experiences. 

Behavioral adaptations are actions or reactions the child develops to avoid harm, manage stress, or navigate complex social environments (at home, at school, at church, etc). 

Let’s explore more about what common childhood trauma cognitive and behavioral adaptations are so you can, perhaps, begin to see yourself and your own personal history more clearly.

Do you come from a childhood trauma background?

Take this 5-minute quiz to find out (and more importantly, what to do about it if you do.)

Common childhood trauma cognitive and behavioral adaptations include:

Hyper-vigilance

Characterized by an “always-on alertness” to danger (be it real or perceived), this adaptation stems from the body’s fight-or-flight response, which becomes heightened in those of us who’ve experienced trauma. The cognitive belief that danger is omnipresent, prompts behaviors such as constantly scanning for threats, leading to chronic stress and anxiety.

  • Cognitive Example: “I need to be aware of everything around me at all times. Any small sound could mean danger.”
  • Behavioral Example: Constantly scanning rooms for exits or threats, jumping at slight noises or movements. This heightened state of alertness is a direct response to fearing unseen dangers.

People-pleasing

Rooted in attachment theory (which suggests that early relationships with caregivers shape an individual’s beliefs about self and others), in environments characterized by abuse or neglect, children might learn to prioritize others’ needs over their own, believing their safety and worth are contingent upon the approval of others.

  • Cognitive Example: “If I make sure everyone else is happy and their needs are met, then I won’t be hurt or criticized.”
  • Behavioral Example: Always agreeing to requests, even at one’s own expense; changing opinions or behaviors based on who they’re with. This stems from the belief that pleasing others can protect them from harm.

Dissociation

A coping mechanism that allows individuals to mentally escape from distress. This adaptation, while providing temporary relief from pain, can complicate the formation of a coherent narrative about one’s experiences, which is essential for healing and integration.

  • Cognitive Example: “When things get too intense, it’s like I can leave my body and go somewhere else where it’s safe.”
  • Behavioral Example: Staring off into space or “zoning out” during stressful situations, having periods where one can’t recall certain events or actions.

Emotional numbing

Emotional numbing shields from trauma by dulling feelings, leading to difficulties in experiencing and expressing a range of emotions and forming close relationships. It’s a significant symptom of PTSD, impacting how individuals connect with their emotions and the world.

  • Cognitive Example: “If I don’t feel anything, then I can’t be hurt anymore.”
  • Behavioral Example: Showing little to no emotional reaction to situations that typically evoke strong responses, avoiding emotionally charged topics or events.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism may develop from trauma, driven by the belief that worth depends on flawless achievements. This can lead to excessive stress and hinder risk-taking and growth, functioning as a way to cope with unpredictability.

  • Cognitive Example: “I have to be perfect in everything I do, or else I’ll be judged or rejected.”
  • Behavioral Example: Spending excessive amounts of time on tasks to ensure they are done without any mistakes, often at the expense of personal well-being.

Control-seeking behaviors

Control-seeking behaviors in children stem from efforts to manage the uncertainty and turmoil of traumatic experiences. These behaviors aim to create a sense of stability and safety, countering feelings of powerlessness. Trauma survivors may adopt these strategies to lessen feelings of helplessness and regain a sense of control over their lives.

  • Cognitive Example: “If I can control everything around me, then nothing bad can happen unexpectedly.”
  • Behavioral Example: Creating strict routines or rules for oneself and others at home and at work, becoming upset if anything disrupts these routines.

Impulsivity

Impulsivity arises as an immediate response to the intense stress and emotional turmoil from unresolved trauma, often due to a chronically activated stress response system. Acting impulsively can momentarily distract from trauma-related distress, but it may also result in harmful consequences, impacting healthier stress management methods.

  • Cognitive Example: “I can’t handle this pressure; I just need to do something now to feel relief.”
  • Behavioral Example: Engaging in risky behaviors without considering the consequences, such as binge eating and purging, substance abuse or reckless sexual behaviors.

Avoidance

A strategy to evade triggers that recall traumatic memories, reducing immediate anxiety and distress. Though it offers temporary relief, avoidance can hinder the processing of traumatic experiences, potentially exacerbating suffering and contributing to the development of PTSD.

  • Cognitive Example: “If I stay away from anything that reminds me of what happened, then I won’t have to deal with the pain.”
  • Behavioral Example: Actively avoiding certain locations, social situations, or people that are connected to traumatic events, even if this limits one’s life experiences.

Look, again, all of these adaptations serve as coping mechanisms and survival strategies, enabling children to manage their distress and maintain some sense of control over their lives.

How brilliant that children can adapt in these ways to cope with and get through painful early circumstances!

But it’s important to recognize that these adaptations can be both positive and negative (especially if they’re still running on autopilot in adulthood) which we’ll explore more in part two of our three-part essay on childhood trauma adaptations (coming out on May 26th – next week’s post is on Mother’s Day).

But for now though, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Which of these common childhood trauma adaptations do you see yourself in? What’s an example of how this plays out for you now as an adult?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your share and wisdom.

And if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a childhood trauma history and may have developed any adaptations as a result, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a childhood trauma background?” 

It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of childhood trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m deep along on my own childhood trauma recovery journey.

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

So thank you. 

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Reference Section

  1. Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-23623-000
  2. Ainsworth, M. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333–341. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.46.4.333
  3. van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. W W Norton & Co. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-13256-000
  4. Litz, B. T. (1992). Emotional numbing in combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder: A critical review and reformulation. Clinical Psychology Review, 12(4), 417–432. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-7358(92)90125-R
  5. Kuch, K., Cox, B. J., & Direnfeld, D. M. (1995). A brief self-rating scale for PTSD after road vehicle accident. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 9, 503-514. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/articles/article-pdf/id24368.pdf
  6. Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., Nepon, T., Sherry, S. B., & Smith, M. (2023). The destructiveness and public health significance of socially prescribed perfectionism: A review, analysis, and conceptual extension. Retrieved from https://hewittlab.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2023/01/Flett-Hewitt-et-al-SPP-Destructiveness.pdf
  7. Moran, E. G. (1994). Review of the book Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence—From domestic abuse to political terror, by J. L. Herman. Gender and Society, 8(1), 136-138. https://www.jstor.org/stable/190079
  8. Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Brown, M. Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self-harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(3), 371-394. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.03.005
  9. Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: Exposure to corrective information. Psychological Bulletin, 99(1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.99.1.20
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  1. Noemi Barabas says

    Hi Annie, I am very interested in this topic, I love the clear way in which you categorize these otherwise confusing adaptations, and I thank you for posting! I want to add a nuance to this that is really important to me, which is the implied voluntaries of the cognitive and behavioral manifestations. I admit that this is a correction I’d like to see in how therapists communicate about this issue. I’d like the intended audience of relationally traumatized people to find clarity about where our agency lies. The thoughts and reactions behind adaptations are NOT voluntary. I not aware of them before significant therapeutic work. In other words, there is no real first person “I”. The real “I” is the nervous system. It’s like salivating around a lemon. Did I decide to salivate? Did I truly think “I will soon have to swallow lemon”? And can I truly change my thinking to “I can choose to not eat the lemon” and stop salivating? Well, unfortunately, the way most articles on these topics are written, led me for a long time to interpret that the answer was yes. As a result I felt like a failure that it wasn’t working. Traumatized people are bound to read the descriptions with an implication of responsibility because, well, that’s our adaptation. I think it’s important to use language that is sensitive to this vulnerability and make clear the distinction between the “I” with voluntary agency, and the nervous system entity that reacts to cues regardless of intention. The agency lies somewhere else, it lies in the arduous work that un-wires the connections behind these cognitions and behaviors made for old circumstances of danger and rewires them for current circumstances of greater safety. Which is the relational work of therapy and all the other relational tools that heal. I do wonder how this comment lands for you, and I wonder if you would be willing to address this in your next installment of this topic. Thank you!!

    • Gigi Klipa says

      Noemi, I so appreciate you bringing up the sense of agency vs. being tossed about on the ocean of our trauma wired nervous systems. For years, I had felt as if I were under some kind of spell – truly not being able to have a sense of agency over the most important things in my life. It has taken a great deal of psycho education and wildly committed work to begin the rewiring and or developing of new strategies to cope with the things that still activate the nervous system in an old pattern.

  2. Gigi klipa says

    Annie, I am really looking forward to the next 2 essays. I learn a great deal from your news letters and I was just having this conversation about my adaptations being my “superpower and my Achilles heel. So this series of essays is quite timely for me. Many thanks!!!

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