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Love and Toddler Brain Coping Mechanisms

Don’t apply toddler solutions to adult relationship problems.

Coping mechanisms are adaptations to environmental stress designed to comfort or give a sense of control. They differ from the old notion of unconscious defense mechanisms, which Freud believed defended the ego from unacceptable impulses, such as sexual feelings for (or hostility toward) one's parents or caregivers. Coping mechanisms are generally conscious; we’re aware that we’re blaming, denying responsibility, or avoiding the issue, although we usually begin to do so by habit.

Toddlers use coping mechanisms primarily to ward off threats to autonomy and connection. For example, if you find a toddler alone with a broken toy or lamp and ask what happened, you’ll hear, “He/she did it” (blame), or “I don’t know" (denial), or the kid hides or runs away (avoidance). Psychologists used to believe that toddlers utilized blame, denial, and avoidance merely as attempts to avoid punishment or seek reward. Now we understand that they’re also trying, however awkwardly, to maintain some sort of balance between autonomy and connection. After all, the worse thing about punishment to the toddler brain isn’t a time-out or spanking. The deeper pain of punishment is the double-barreled whammy of lost connection and temporary dissolution of the emerging sense of self. When we say “no” to toddlers, as we often must, they perceive it as personal, global, and in no way behavior-specific. It doesn’t matter how carefully we try to explain, “You’re a good child, but this behavior is wrong.” The inchoate sense of self of toddlers cannot distinguish their behaviors from who they are. They require potent (if primitive) coping mechanisms, because almost anything can feel like rejection and self-diminishment.

Most of the time, toddlers can get away with blame, denial, and avoidance, because they’re so darn cute. When adults do it, we’re not so cute.

Adult Blame, Denial, Avoidance

Denial by adults can seem like stubbornness, deception, and insensitivity. It’s often those things, too, but it’s more centrally an attempt to assert autonomy at the cost of connection:

“Just suck it up, like I do!”

“I don’t have to answer to you, just leave me alone!”

Denial can also be used to gain connection at the cost of personal integrity:

“I didn’t flirt, I love you!”

“I don’t care about visiting my friends, if you don’t want me to.”

Avoidance is usually indirect, in the form of procrastination, overworking, overdrinking, overeating, over-exercising, sexual affairs, and smartphone-mania. When overt, avoidance looks like pouting, sulking, or stonewalling.

Blame is the most insidious of the toddler coping mechanisms employed by adults. It’s also the most likely to hijack the adult brain to justify toddler-brain splitting — black-and-white all-good or all-bad perceptions.

Blame is rampant in love relationships (and the culture at large), because it has compelling psychological and social functions. The psychological function is to transfer vulnerable emotional states to someone else. Vulnerable feelings, such as disappointment, sadness, guilt, shame, and anxiety, create self-doubt and make us feel powerless. These can be alleviated with adrenaline, if we can blame someone. The adrenaline that powers blame provides temporary feelings of energy and confidence. It also distorts judgment, which is why chronic blamers seem more self-righteous than right.

The temporary energy and confidence of blame comes at a very high price; it ultimately renders us powerless over how we feel. Whomever we blame lives rent-free in our heads, dominating our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, at least for as long as we need the adrenaline. Worse, when we blame our painful emotions on others, they cannot motivate positive changes in behavior or self-concept. Improvement is sacrificed to the impulse to blame and punish.

The social function of blame is to control other people’s behavior by invoking guilt or shame in them. Blamers typically struggle with high levels of shame, which they try to transfer to others as often as possible as a means of controlling them, lest they stimulate more guilt and shame. They’re prone to imply, if not state overtly: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

The toddler-brain logic in love relationships is, “If I make you feel unlovable, you’ll love me better.”

The adult-brain logic is, “We like ourselves better and feel more lovable when we’re more compassionate and kind.”

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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