Self-Sabotage as a Trauma Response in Children and How to Stop It
Updated: Apr 23
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
Help the child feel safe, seen, and heard by validating their trauma and loss. Adults tend to gloss over loss with children. Unfortunately, this is a protective measure that only makes things harder for the child and easier for the adult. Children need to know it's ok to grieve, feel sad, angry, scared, and all the emotions that follow a significant loss.
Prioritize the child's need for safety in relationships above all else. When a child experiences abuse, neglect, and trauma, their foundation for security and trust has been severely damaged. Our job is to help the child rebuild their faith in the world around them. Feeling safe is a fundamental need that cannot be ignored or brushed aside. If we want to see children move forward after the trauma, we must do everything we can to help them feel safe and protected, even if it's not how we were raised.
Be trustworthy and as honest as possible (in age-appropriate terms) to establish a relationship built on trust. Young children need to hear the truth of their lives in small chunks over time. We don't have to give full details, but we can share that their parents could not keep them safe, and it's our job to keep them safe now. Or that mom has a problem with drinking too much alcohol to help her handle her feelings and needs to find a safer way to feel better. My rule is that if they are old enough to ask the question, they are old enough to hear the answer, but it should be done gently and with compassion. I do not share details or scary information that isn't necessary for the child to know. The time will come when they can learn more. For now, we keep it simple and basic while also being honest.
Stay committed to the relationship regardless of the child's behavior. If they sense our love and commitment are conditional and based on their behavior, the child will not feel safe, and we will be experienced as just another adult who will abandon them. If they even slightly believe abandonment is possible, it is unlikely we will be able to develop a strong attachment with the child.
Wrap as many committed people around the child as we can. Find a mentor, an extended family member, or someone in their life that genuinely cares about them, and foster that relationship. A committed, loving community is the fastest way to help children overcome trauma.
Learn about Positive Childhood Experiences and how they mitigate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences at PacesConnection.com. This research will blow your mind and give you HOPE for yourself and the children you take care of.
Work on YOUR history of trauma so that you are not bringing your past wounds into the relationship with the child. Doing the work to heal yourself prevents you from being triggered by the child's behavior and allows you to stay present with their emotions when overwhelmed.
When we inevitably mess up as a caregiver, admit it and apologize. As parents and caregivers, we are going to make mistakes. This is normal. We will lose our cool, break their trust, and say things we don’t mean, but this doesn’t mean we cannot repair the bond between us. Trustworthy relationships are based on rupture and repair. The golden opportunity is inherent in the repair process. How do we repair it? Admit our mistakes and say, “I don’t like how I acted a few minutes ago. I am sorry. I am working to change my behavior. Can we start over?”
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.