3 Common Coping Styles (Which One Describes You?)

Posted By: on August 19, 2015
girl hiding in the corner looking sad

When you were a child, how did you cope when Mom and Dad weren’t available? Your answer can say a lot about how you cope with the pressures of life today.

As a young child, there were times when you felt fearful, anxious, or angry. In these times, you reached out for help and support from the adults around you—usually from your mom and dad.

Your plea for help was then met with one of two responses:

  1. An attuned, supportive response.
  2. A misattuned, unsupportive response.

In the second case—the misattuned response—your mom (for example) might have said word like these:

  • “Quit your whining!”
  • “You’ve got nothing to be scared about!”

In some cases, your parents’ responses might have even crossed from misattuned to humiliating.

If you got a misattuned or humiliating response from your parents, you probably developed a way to cope with your feelings. This is because it is painful to remain open to your sadness, anxiety or anger when someone fails to respond with support. And on top of that, now you also have to find a way to keep yourself from feeling the pain of having your need for help go unmet.

That’s where coping styles come in.

In these situations, children develop strategies to keep themselves from feeling negative emotions. And those coping strategies can easily follow us all the way into adulthood.

That’s why you might still turn to one of the following coping styles, years after you first developed it as a child.

Coping Style #1: Compliance

When a child develops the compliance coping style, she represses her emotions. When she feels fear, sadness, or anger, she refuses to acknowledge it. Instead, she tries to align her response to her parents’ response. She’ll tell herself, “Mom’s right. I must just be a crybaby.” Or, “Mom’s right, there must be something wrong with me.”

When that happens, she begins to lose connection with her feelings. Instead, she begins to act in a way that’s aligned to the parent’s dismissal of those feelings.

Coping Style #2: Self-righteousness or Rebellion

When a child develops the rebellion coping style, he takes hold of his unresolved anger and uses it to say, “I don’t need you anyway; go away and leave me alone.”

The child tosses away the entire relationship in his anger, instead of using the anger to gather courage to express his needs once again.

Expression of anger can be very healthy, when it’s done in a way that leads to open discussion and resolution. But a rebellious expression of anger is not a request for help or support. It’s a declaration of self-reliance in the face of anger.

When this happens, the child is in danger of growing up to be dismissive of others in his life. He might say, “I’m ok, but you’re not ok.” This person is also quick to discount and throw away relationships even in his adult life. Sometimes for a short time. And sometimes forever.

Coping Style #3: Withdrawal

In withdrawal, a child retreats behind her own citadel. She internalizes her feelings, leaving the outside world in favor of the inside. By doing so, she believes she can protect herself from getting hurt again.

As this person grows up, she will tend to be internally focused. She might develop a feeling that other people wouldn’t be interested in her true self. To combat this, she prefers not reach out and talk to others.


The question is: which coping style do you turn to in times of stress?

As a child, were you more likely to be compliant, aligning yourself with your parents’ view that there was something wrong with you? If so, the voice in your head probably sounds something like:

  • “Everyone else is ok. But I’m not ok. There’s something wrong with me.”

Or were you rebellious, quick to become angry with others and willing to dismiss entire relationships? If so, the voice in your head probably says something like:

  • “I’m ok, but there’s something wrong with you.”

Or did you withdraw, disappearing from the world from a time so you could be safe? If so, the voice in your head probably says,

  • “I’m not ok, and there’s no room for me in this world.”

Whatever your answer, this is where some of your ways of being came from.

Understanding which coping style you lean toward is a vital first step. In our next blog post, we’ll talk about the positive alternatives to each of these three styles.

Thanks for reading.

Visit Carl or one of the other therapists at Heart-Centered Counseling at their new location in the heart of Old Town, at 320 W Olive St Fort Collins, CO 80521.


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