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Child Development

Adverse Childhood Adaptations: Superpowers and Kryptonite

Reframing common childhood adaptations as adult superpowers.

Key points

  • Childhood trauma adaptations can have both positive and negative characteristics in adulthood.
  • Hyper-vigilance can lead to sharp situational awareness and strategic thinking.
  • Dissociation can enable creative problem-solving and innovative thinking.
  • Impulsivity, when harnessed, can drive bold and decisive actions in fast-paced environments.

In our last post, part one of this three-part series, we explored how children form adaptations as survival mechanisms to what they endure in adverse situations. We also explored what eight common childhood adaptations can look like and provided cognitive and behavioral examples of how these can play out.

Today, in this second of the three-part series, we’re going to explore how all of these adaptations can become proverbial superpowers.

Adaptations are not good or bad; they are both-and.

Very likely, reading the previous list of common childhood trauma adaptations in essay one of this series, you may have viewed them negatively or with some sense of heaviness, maybe thinking “Ugh, I see myself in this list. This sucks.”

But before you get too self-critical, I want to emphasize something important: Despite that these childhood adaptations may have sprung from very painful experiences and may feel challenging to reflect on, it’s important to bear in mind that these adaptations, like with most everything in life, are not simply good or bad; they are both-and.

Meaning that each of these adaptations, no matter how bad they may seem on the surface, probably equipped you with unique skills and gifts in your adulthood, long after they helped you survive overwhelming childhood experiences.

They became your proverbial superpowers as much as they may feel like your proverbial Kryptonite.

How adverse childhood adaptations can become adult superpowers

These adaptations, once purely survival mechanisms, can evolve into adult superpowers, qualities, and characteristics that enhance resilience, creativity, empathy, and quite frankly, even success in navigating life's challenges and opportunities.

Hypervigilance, for example, can develop into exceptional situational awareness and analytical skills. Individuals accustomed to constantly scanning their environments for danger can become adept at noticing subtleties and details others may overlook. In professional settings, this can translate into super strong strategic planning abilities and an uncanny aptitude for risk assessment, valuable in roles requiring quick decision-making or identifying potential risk issues before they arise.

Another example? People-pleasing behaviors, perhaps rooted in an attempt to keep volatile people calm, may have resulted in a deep understanding of human emotions and needs. Honestly, it can foster extraordinary empathy and communication skills. Those of us with strong people-pleasing skills often excel in careers that require nurturing relationships, such as counseling, customer service, or healthcare, where their intuitive ability to meet and anticipate others' needs can be a significant asset.

Now, another example of a quality that often gets a lot of negative perception is dissociation. Dissociation, while a complex response to trauma, can lead to a remarkable capacity for creative problem-solving and innovation. The ability to mentally step back from immediate emotional responses can allow for a unique perspective on challenging situations, contributing to inventive solutions that might not be immediately apparent to others.

Another reframe on an adaptation I personally strongly resonate with: The drive for perfectionism, when balanced, can result in high achievement and exceptional performance in academic and professional endeavors. The key is in leveraging this trait to set high but achievable standards and learning to see mistakes as opportunities for growth rather than failures.

I also strongly resonate with control-seeking behaviors. Here’s a reframe of it: control-seeking behaviors can translate into strong organizational and leadership skills. The desire to create order and predictability can be a boon in roles that require meticulous attention to detail and the ability to manage complex projects or teams.

Another example is impulsivity. Impulsivity when channeled constructively, can lead to bold and innovative actions. In fast-paced industries where seizing the moment is key, the ability to act decisively and without hesitation can be a valuable trait.

Finally, avoidance strategies can evolve into a skill for focusing on what truly matters, enabling individuals to steer clear of unnecessary conflicts and prioritize their mental and emotional well-being. This can lead to better work-life balance and the ability to concentrate efforts on the most impactful areas.

Each of these adaptations, when recognized and harnessed effectively, can contribute to a person's success in various spheres of life, turning past challenges into sources of strength.

They become superpowers, the skills and strengths that can serve us well as adults and even lend themselves to our academic, professional, and financial success.

But, alongside these positive reframes on how our childhood adaptations may have served us, it’s also important to understand that they also have the potential to serve as kryptonite in adulthood.

We’ll unpack this more in the next post in this three-part series. Until then.

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