Self-Sabotage as a Trauma Response in Children and How to Stop It

Self-sabotage sometimes occurs throughout our lives regardless of the trauma we’ve endured. It’s that night you ate a package of Oreos after working out all week. It’s putting off studying for that important test until the night before. Or maybe it’s breaking up with someone suitable for us and going after the “bad boy” type instead. In these instances, we are conscious of our choices but choose an option that is not best for us anyway. This can create anger and confusion towards ourselves if we don’t see the meaning within our behavior. We ask ourselves, “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” I know from first-hand experience just how frustrating this can be.

There are also subconscious versions of self-sabotage. It looks like being so perfectionistic that we never publish that article or that book because it’s “not ready yet,” or starting fights with our partner the week before they leave for an extended work trip. Underneath the perfectionist behavior, maybe we believe what our mother said in 6th grade, “you’ll never amount to anything.” Subconscious self-sabotage keeps us from bringing our dreams to life and fulfilling our purpose on earth. Underneath those fights with our partner before a big trip might be our fear of abandonment from being separated from our biological family and put into foster care. The reasons vary, but it’s clear what we experienced when we were developing our beliefs about the world is clouding how we behave with others and the world at large.

While self-sabotage happens in the general population, it tends to be more prevalent in people who experienced significant childhood and developmental trauma, which includes all types of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.

I will share a personal example:

As a trauma therapist, I would frequently hear:

“Michael was doing so well, his grades were improving, and he started helping around the house, then I caught him doing xyz and now he’s grounded for a week.”

Getting into trouble has several upsides when you’ve grown up in traumatic relationships.

1. The outcome is predictable. This reduces feelings of anxiety for the child. Having people angry at you is your norm. Familiarity equals safety for our nervous system.

2. The child learned during critical points in their brain development that relationships are scary and hurtful. Therefore, when they start to get close to someone, they feel fear instead of safety. This fear can motivate them to destroy the relationship if it is happening too fast.

3. Getting into trouble distracts the child from feeling their emotions. It’s tough to focus on how you feel when you’re always in trouble. Being grounded and having people angry with you takes you away from your sadness about what’s happened to you.

4. Being angry and making others angry is a less vulnerable position for the child.

Vulnerability equals being unsafe to a child who has experienced trauma and abuse at the hands of adults who were supposed to protect them.

This may sound like a hopeless situation, but I take heart that our brains and nervous system are malleable over our entire lifespan. Our brains can change when we are eight or eighty, which is good news. In addition, adolescence is a critical time when a child’s brain is in a rapid development process, similar to when we are a baby, and this creates fertile ground for healing and healthy change.

How to interrupt the cycle of self-sabotage in children

Of course, we may have tried all of this, and it’s not helping. Please don’t give up hope. Many types of family therapy can help you and the children you love stop self-sabotaging. I recommend EMDR Therapy, Play Therapy, and Family Systems Therapy for children who have experienced trauma and loss.

I hope this helps you see a child’s behavior with fresh eyes today, and I wish you courage as you take steps toward rebuilding trust one day at a time with your child.

To receive free resources and guidance on childhood trauma, please join my monthly newsletter at BethTyson.com or my private Facebook group, Emotiminds – a community of caregivers and childhood professionals working to heal and prevent trauma.

Disclaimer: This article is written for educational purposes only and does not replace the need for licensed professional mental health therapy. Please get in touch with 988 if you or a child is experiencing a mental health crisis.

Beth Tyson is a childhood trauma consultant, 3x best-selling author, and Pennsylvania Child Abuse Prevention Team co-chair. Beth provides trauma-responsive and healing-centered guidance to organizations that believe in improving the mental health of children and families. She is also the author of A Grandfamily for Sullivan, a trauma-informed children’s book for kinship families and children raised by their relatives due to unfortunate circumstances.

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