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Psychologists have identified 6 primary instinctual drives that each of us are born with. These basic instinctual drives govern the life and behavior of every human being, and are important for understanding childhood adversity. They are:

  1. Fight/flight
  2. Seek pleasure/avoid pain
  3. Strive for social connection and attachment
  4. Seek approval/Avoid disapproval
  5. Empathy
  6. Guilt

The Different Instincts In Children

A Child’s Fight or Flight instinct

We’ve all heard about the basic “fight or flight” instinct, yet many people do not realize that this instinct applies to much more than immediate physical danger. Virtually all of our responses to adversity (and much of human behavior in general) runs along the lines of this instinctual drive. As Rusk & Rusk (1988, p. 22) point out, “when animals are hurt they try to escape or attack. Humans are no different, just more sophisticated and diverse in our methods.”

When someone is calling a child names or making fun of them, two variations of responses occur: the child either withdraws socially (flight) or they lash out in defense (fight), be it verbally or physically. When a child is going through tough times in the home, some withdraw into a shell and others may lash out with behavioral problems. Once again we have two different responses, but both variations of the same instinct.

There is one important variation to this instinct wherein children are involved: kids are powerless to stand up and “fight” against an adult. However, this doesn’t mean that they never have a “fight” response to adult aggression, it’s just that it will manifest itself where it can: usually in aggressive behavior towards other children. It’s not uncommon for physically abused children to become bullies at school, for example. When a child is physically incapable of lashing out at the time, this reaction is momentarily suppressed or bottled up inside, and they lash out when and where they have the opportunity.

The drive to Seek pleasure & avoid pain

Every single behavior humans initiate is grounded upon this ultimate goal. It’s a good thing to remember when others let you down. Everyone on this planet is merely trying to seek out happiness in their own special ways, according to their own particular script. Each of us seek to alleviate the pain in our lives while obtaining pleasure and happiness. There is no evil in the world, just this fundamental goal in all of us, and some people who go about seeking their pain alleviation or happiness in all the wrong ways. From the rapist to the spouse murderer, these actions are committed for the goal of alleviating pain and seeking pleasure according to their own internal script. “Evil” results when these scripts come into conflict with each other, not because anyone intentionally wakes up in the morning and makes the decision that they want to be horrible.

This also means that each and every one of us develop habits built around this goal. We all have various defense mechanisms aimed at evading painful issues. A child may avoid talking about something or pretend it doesn’t matter to avoid the painful feelings that a subject provokes. We also develop a myriad of ways to drown pain in pleasure: from food to entertainment to sex, drugs and alcohol.

Strive for social connection and attachment

Attachment with caretakers, which we’ll elaborate about later on, is a child’s most fundamental need. This need for social connection with others is arguably the strongest drive we have outside that for sustenance. Children who fail to develop secure attachments with caregivers face an assortment of adverse effects throughout their lives, and severely neglected infants and toddlers can even die from too little human contact.

Seek approval/avoid disapproval

A spinoff of the importance of social connection, this instinct is especially strong among children. It may not seem like it at times, but kids aim to please. They are wired to seek praise and approval from those around them while avoiding disapproval. A common thread among emotional abuse – one of the most destructive but least emphasized forms of abuse – is parental disapproval. It’s not uncommon to run into 40 or 50-year-old adults whose lives still rotate around this desperate need for parental approval, consequence of the emotional abuse they experienced as children.


All children are born with the capacity for empathy; the ability to feel what another feels and respond in a caring manner. This instinct is particularly strong when it comes to their parents or other family members. Children can feel just as severely hurt or distraught over the mistreatment of a parent as they would by experiencing abuse directly.


All children are also born with the capacity to feel guilt. Guilty feelings are designed to spur us to regret when we’ve injured someone else, and are important for keeping our social connections intact. But out-of-control guilt leads to shame – a destructive emotion that serves little purpose and instigates a cycle of destructive behavior. Guilt tells a person “I have done something bad.” Shame implies “I am something bad.” That’s a small but enormously important distinction between the two.

Love and attachment in children

Attachment is a term that describes a child’s bon with their caretakers. Children have different predispositions towards attachment. Some children have stronger drives toward attachment than others, and may have a stronger reaction towards anything that threatens attachment. Strategies can also vary; some children are driven towards maintaining love and attachment with a select few important caregivers; others actively seek the love and attention of as many different people as they can find. Once again, these predispositions are influenced by both environmental and genetic factors. Psychologists routinely group attachment predisposition into three different types:

  1. Secure attachment – The child receives plenty of love and physical affection, has a strong connection with their caretakers, and is thus secure in their attachment. Securely attached children fare much better in the face of adversity than others.
  2. Insecure attachment – The bond with loving adults has been compromised somehow. Either it never fully formed to begin with, or has been damaged through something else, such as placement into foster care, pathological parenting, or parental absence. Children with insecure attachments fare the worst in the face of adversity, since attachment is at the foundation of psychological wellbeing.
  3. Anxious attachment – These children tend to have strong attachment with a select few caretakers, but are extremely protective towards those attachments and hesitant to readily form bonds with others. You see this commonly in a child who has one good parent and one not-so good parent, or when a child has good attachment but has also experienced an attachment injury, such as a father who abandoned her after a divorce. Sometimes this can simply be the child’s disposition; they were born with a higher propensity towards separation anxiety. Though these children typically do not lack healthy attachment in the same way a child with insecure attachment does, they are more cautious and guarded in approaching others, which can limit their sources of emotional support and cause a much more profound injury if something happens to that attachment (a caretaker dies, for example).

Adversity & a child’s basic instinct

Stress and adversity occurs when one of these instinctual drives is rubbed in the wrong way, or when our goals in one of these areas is threatened. At some fundamental level, all forms of adversity can be broken down to how they impede these hardwired drives.

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