Trauma bonding, also known sometimes as Stockholm Syndrome, is yet one more commonly used tactic with narcissists.
In Stockholm, Sweden in 1973, two armed men entered a bank, intent on robbing it. Police went into the bank and the robbers shot and killed them. The robbers then took hostages, holding them for six days. After their release, many of the captives financially helped to pay for the criminals’ legal defense.
This became Stockholm Syndrome or trauma bonding.
This strange phenomenon sometimes happens to prisoners of war, kidnap victims or victims of domestic violence. It can happen in cases of extreme psychological child abuse, often at the hands of a narcissistic parent, and has happened in many cases of ongoing childhood sexual abuse.
For Stockholm Syndrome or trauma bonding to happen, several event must take place:
- The relationship between the captive and captor or abuser and victim, must be very unbalanced in power. The abuser or captor alone decides what the victim can and cannot do.
- There must be a threat of death or injury if the victim is not done as told. Those threats may be spoken clearly. They also may be implied, such as the abuser punching a wall, destroying something near the victim, or giving the victim an intimidating look.
- The victim must be isolated. The abuser hides information from the victim as much as possible, so that the victim only receives information that has been filtered by the abuser.
- The absence of physical violence or providing basic needs such as food and shelter. In these situations, such things are construed as kindnesses, and they draw a victim closer to the abuser.
The result of these circumstances done together can lead to the victims feeling a fondness for their abuser.
Trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome as it happens regarding child abuse is much the same as it is in a hostage situation, especially in the case of narcissistic parents.
It is the parents who have all of the power, just like a captor in a hostage situation. These parents are basically like a god to their child, providing for the child’s needs – they provide food, clothing, shelter, companionship, education and more to the child. If they do not provide any of those needs, the needs naturally go unmet. This puts parents in a unique position of complete power over the child that no one else in that child’s life has. Thank God, not all parents abuse this powerful position!
A narcissistic parent may or may not threaten the child’s life or safety. In fact, often, he or she prefers not to directly threaten the child. If the narcissistic parent does not directly threaten the child, it will be implied that the mother or father has all the power over the child. In any case, the child is well aware of the power this parent has, and often, equally aware of how little power the other parent has. (The “powerless” parent often absolves him or herself of the responsibility of protecting the child by presenting him or herself as powerless to his child, and cowering when the “powerful” parent is angry.) In my later teen years, for example, my mother frequently threatened me with military school, Catholic school and being committed to a psychiatric hospital. Although none of these threats were a physical danger, they all were terrifying to me, and my mother knew it.
The narcissistic parent, especially the engulfing narcissistic mother, will control the child’s access to any information. For example, only allowing the child to spend time with a few chosen people, and allowing her child to have very few friends. That is a double bonus for the narcissistic mother – the fewer people the child comes into contact with, the less likely it is she will tell others of her mother’s abuse, and the less likely it is someone will show the child that the abuse is wrong.
Since no parent can prevent completely a child meeting people sometimes or learning information, gaslighting is commonly used to distort the child’s perceptions of life and truth. If the parent cannot shield the child completely, a narcissistic parent is not above making sure the child does not believe what he or she sees and hears, believing the narcissistic parent instead.
Possibly the worst aspect of Stockholm Syndrome/trauma bonding is what is when the victim is shown periodic kindnesses, because this is what bonds victim to abuser. A child whose narcissistic parent screams at the child and calls that child filthy names, last night, and then is gives a new toy to the child the following day, sends very confusing messages to the child. The parent/child bond is very strong, so the child will tell him or herself that the narcissistic parent really does care, rather than facing the painful truth that the parent actually does not. It is a common survival technique that children use to protect their mental health. Facing the fact that your own parent hates and abuses you is painful for anyone to face, but most especially a child. A child is not emotionally equipped to deal with such devastating information.
A child who experiences Stockholm Syndrome/trauma bonding grows into an adult who becomes very submissive, often one who “freezes” rather than runs away from danger. This person may live with their narcissistic parent well past an age that most people leave home, because he or she does not think they can live on their own.
As an adult, this child may give up needs and dreams if they do not coincide with what the narcissistic parent wants or expects.
This person also may tolerate an abusive romantic relationship rather than leave. Chances are that this adult child also thirsts for the approval of the narcissistic parent, even though he or she always falls just a little bit short. The narcissistic parent’s disapproval can be devastating to this person, even as an adult.
If you realize that you have experienced trauma bonding /Stockholm Syndrome at the hand of your narcissistic parent, you are NOT alone. You can heal!
Although it is not easy, you are going to have to face the truth. You are going to have to accept the fact that your narcissistic parent is abusive, in spite of the little niceties your parent may have done for you. You are also going to have to accept the fact that your parent never has been and never will be a good parent to you. You will need to let go of any and all expectations or hopes of having a healthy, functional relationship with your parent.
While these are some very difficult pills to swallow, it will be worth while doing so. As hard as it can be to face the truth, it is easier than living a lie. You will no longer be hurt and disappointed when your parent fails or hurts you. You will be able to set reasonable boundaries and enforce them with your parent.
Facing these painful truths most likely will make you grieve. That is normal. You are losing a big part of your life in a sense. Be nurturing and gentle with yourself during this grief process. Pray, rest more often (since emotional work is physically taxing), eat healthy and just take good care of yourself. You will get through it and be so much stronger and healthier when you do!