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Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used to cope with conflict, anxiety, and disturbing emotions, as well as to maintain social and emotional well-being. The theory of defense mechanisms originated from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical work. Children can adaptively employ these defenses to help resolve conflicts that arise at the stages of psychosexual development—the oral, anal, phallic, and genital stages. As children reach milestones in their development, they also learn to master their environment. In this process they are likely to experience anxiety and other negative feelings at various developmental stages. Defense mechanisms are means to manage the anxious, depressive, and angry emotions that can be both normal and abnormal reactions to family, community, school, and peer environments. There are numerous defense mechanisms, including withdrawal, repression, regression, denial, identification, projection, reaction formation, fantasy, and displacement. For example, a child who is having difficulty learning fractions may employ withdrawal and not participate in math class to cope with the frustration and avoid failure. Children commonly use defense mechanisms so that they can competently cope with emotional conflict, fears, stressful environments, abuse, and negative affect.


Burland, J. Alexis. "Current Perspectives on the Treatment of Neuroses in Children and Adolescents." In M. Hossein Etezady ed., The Neurotic Child and Adolescent. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990.

Mordock, John. "Teaching Children Self-control through Counseling." In Judah Ronch, William Van Ornum, and Nicholas Stillwell eds., The Counseling Sourcebook: A Practical Reference on Contemporary Issues. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1994.

Rhonda Cherie Boyd

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3