Defense Mechanisms

Now before you go and get all defensive, just know that defense mechanism are normal. We all have them. They are a response to an uncomfortable situation, thought, feeling, and/or behavior and sometimes can even be a healthy response.

Sometimes though, defense mechanisms can get in the way, especially if we over rely on them. Knowing which defense mechanisms you and your child may be using can help you know how to respond. It can also provide the opportunity to grow beyond them.

Many, but not all defense mechanisms are listed below. The most primitive are listed first. These also tend to be the ones used by young children. As children grow, defense mechanisms become more sophisticated. As adults we tend to rely on a myriad of defense mechanisms, but often rely heavily on a select few.

Remember, defense mechanisms are difficult to spot, particularly in ourselves. In fact, many of us aren’t even conscious that we are using a defense mechanism because they usually operate unconsciously. They are there to protect us from feelings we don’t want to feel. Becoming aware of our defense mechanisms is the first steps in breaking down that process.

(To find out how to respond to defense mechanisms in your child skip to the end.)


– Denial
Definition: A complete rejection of a situation, thought, feeling and/or behavior.
Example 1: A child breaks a cookie jar and says they didn’t do it.
Example 2: “Did it hurt, being called a bad person?” “No, not at all.”
About: Denial is the most primitive defense mechanism. It may seem like your child is lying to your face, but often they haven’t learned a more sophisticated way to process their complicated feelings. Adults sometimes have little understanding of their feelings.

– Regression
Definition: Reverting to an old, usually immature behavior.
Example 1: A new baby arrives and your preschooler starts wanting the bottle or breast again.
Example 2: After a difficult break-up an individual crawls into a fetal position and cries.
About: Common in children, especially during transitions, milestones, and new situations.

– Splitting
Definition: Seeing a situation, though, feeling and/or behavior as all good or all bad.
Example 1: When a child is mad at their parent it can be hard for them to also remember that they love their parent. This could explain why they may say, “I hate you”, and mean it in the moment, instead of “I hate what you did”.
Example 2: In politics it happens when one country is glorified as all good and another is vilified as all bad.

– Acting Out
Definition: Reverting to extreme behavior to express oneself.
Example 1: Temper tantrums. (A normal part of toddlerhood, but as children develop language they should learn to use their words.)
Example 2: Throwing a book, punching someone, keying someone’s car.

– Dissociation
Definition: A partial or complete disruption of a person’s conscious or psychological functioning.
Example 1: When parents fight their child gets lost in play or goes into an imaginary world.
Example 2: When your spouse brings up a topic you don’t like, your mind wanders.
About: Mild dissociation, like daydreaming and zoning out, is common and not necessarily problematic.

– Projection
Definition: A way to avoid a negative self-evaluation by seeing our own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or actions in another.
Example 1: A child is mean to their friend first, but when corrected says, “they were being mean first” or “they started it”.
Example 2: “She likes to be right, all the time”, when in fact the person saying it likes to be right.
About: Projection is difficult to recognize in ourselves because we are asked to see parts of ourselves that we would rather not see.

– Displacement
Definition: Redirecting feelings into another target.
Example 1: A child is made fun of at school so they pick on their sibling at home.
Example 2: Being frustrated at being late, but yelling at your child.
About: This is a very common defense mechanism. In relationships it can be easy to redirect one’s anger toward those we are closest to.

– Somatization
Definition: A tendency to communicate psychological stress through a physical condition.
Example 1: A child repeatedly has stomachaches before school because they don’t want to go and there is no medical basis.
Example 2: When an adult is stressed their back acts up and there is no medical basis.
About: This can be both a psychological disorder and a defense mechanism.

– Fantasy
Definition: Channeling unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors into imagination.
Example 1: A child is picked on, so they fantasize about becoming a powerful king.
Example 2: Imagining telling your boss off.
About: Fantasy can be useful, like thinking about an upcoming vacation if you are stressed at work, but it can be unhelpful if it keeps one from dealing with situations one should otherwise be dealing with.


– Minimizing
Definition: To reduce the importance of a situation, thought, feeling, and/or behavior.
Example: “Sure I’ve had a few more drinks recently, but it’s no big deal.”
About: Some parents try to minimize their children’s feelings. “Come on, it wasn’t that bad.”

– Rationalization
Definition: Explanations are used to justify situations, thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors (while denying their own feelings).
Example: Using traffic as an excuse not to go to a party that you didn’t want to go to anyway.
About: Some parents rationalize their children’s feelings. “Don’t cry you have five other toys just like it.”

– Normalization (a form of Rationalization)
Definition: A way to justify situations, thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors by reducing the meaning so that it seems normal.
Example: “Everyone takes pens and post-its from the office.”
About: A very common adult defense mechanism.

– Intellectualization (a form of Rationalization)
Definition: A type of rationalization, only more intellectualized.
Example: In the midst of a conflict, “This reminds me of a class I took in school that focused on anger in Nietzsche’s writings.”

– Compartmentalization
Definition: Separating out ones value system and/or parts of themselves.
Example: An otherwise honest person cheats on their income tax return, but doesn’t integrate their behavior into their identity.
About: Compartmentalization can be similar to normalization (“Everyone cheats on their taxes.”) and rationalization (“What difference do a few bucks make to the government?”).

– Sublimation
Definition: Redirecting a feeling into socially productive activity.
Example: “I am going to be the better man for having suffered abuse.”
About: Alfred Adler called this strategy, “the healthy defense mechanism” because it produced socially beneficial outcomes.

– Undoing
Definition: Trying to take back or undo situations, thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors that are felt to be unacceptable.
Example: “No I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just not myself today.”

– Reaction Formation
Definition: Turning intolerable feelings, thoughts, and actions into the opposite.
Example: A man, who is disturbed by feeling attracted to his friend’s wife, treats her rudely.

– Repression
Definition: Completely blocking out unacceptable situations, thoughts, feelings, actions, so much so, that one doesn’t even know they are doing it, however, it often continues to influence ones behavior.
Example: An adult who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child.
About: Repression differs from denial because in repression their may have once been an acknowledgement of a thought, feeling, situation, action, but no longer.

– Suppression
Definition: Consciously choosing to “not think about it” or being vaguely aware but not willing to go there.
Example: A college student who is failing, goes on spring break and decides not to spoil their holiday by thinking about their grades.

– Compensation
Definition: Counterbalancing a weakness by emphasizing a strength.
Example: “I may not be the strongest person but I can out think anyone.”

– Withdrawal (Avoidance)
Definition: Removing oneself from situations that are too painful or overwhelming to deal with.
Example: Avoiding people in your life. Silence, drugs, and drinking can all be aspects of avoidance.
About: Withdrawing from a situation to think about it constructively can be helpful, but withdrawing altogether is often ultimately not beneficial.

– Attacking
Definition: Lashing back at what one perceives to be attacking them.
Example: You get mad at your spouse for not taking out the trash. They respond by getting mad at you about what you don’t do for them.

– Passive Aggression
Definition: Using passive behavior to negatively impact another.
Example: Your teen performs their unwanted chore overly slow or sloppily.

– Idealization (and Demonization)
Definition: Over-estimation of desirable qualities.
Example: A teenager idealizes a celebrity. New relationship partners can idealize one another.
About: Demonization (exaggerating negative qualities) is the opposite or idealization.

– Co-Dependent
Definition: Individuals learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They work to deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions and/or conflicts.
Example: Even though a wife dislikes her husbands drinking, she continues to stock the fridge with his favorite liquor.
About: Co-dependency is a psychological condition that is sometimes classified as a defense mechanism.


Narrate what is happening. In other words, try to understand and put into words the thought or feeling your child is defending against. Be sure to keep your body language and voice neutral.

– “I can see you being mean to your brother and I’m wondering if you are in a bad mood because those kids made fun of you at school. It’s okay to feel bad, but it’s not okay to be mean to your brother. Let’s talk about it.”
– “You want a bottle like your new sister. It can be hard to have a new sibling in the house.”
– “Maybe you are scared to tell me that you broke your friend’s toy. Let’s talk about how you can use your words next time instead of throwing a toy.”

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