Suppression, Repression, Narcissism, Humor, Regression, Denial, Projection, Distortion, Passive Aggression, Acting Out, Displacement, Dissociation, Intellectualization, Isolation…to name a few. We all adapt to our environments by developing these wonderful defenses! I say wonderful sarcastically because though these tools are subconsciously (usually) created to protect us from unwanted feelings or emotions, they often end up hurting us further.. Defense mechanisms are not all bad. When used healthily, and to the proper degree, they can be quite helpful. I know Humor, Suppression, and Intellectualization helped me through many tough years! Then again everything cannot be joked or laughed off, suppressed (or repressed if one is acting in an immature defense) emotions and feelings make their way up to the surface at some point or another, and some things just plain don’t make sense no matter how you look at it!
There is one Defense Mechanism that I commonly see with the children living on the streets that Freud failed to mention: RUNNING! Sure, there are certain Defense Mechanisms that come into play when a child, or adult for that matter, decides to run from a situation, but Freud did not specifically define the act of literally running from a problem (or at least, not that I know of). Running, however, is a well polished Defense Mechanism that these children know so well. I have seen it over and over again. It usually starts at home with a problem, series of problems, or an environment of continuous, ongoing pain and hurt. The child cannot cope and eventually runs from that reality to escape it. Insert a little Suppression of the previous hurt experienced, and the pain of leaving certain loved ones behind, a bit of Projection not wanting to take credit for certain aspects that may be his or her fault, and maybe even a sprinkle of Acting Out.
The child will find his or her way to the streets, or an organization, or maybe other family members in another community, but unfortunately the “system” is built around this Defense Mechanism that the child has now discovered. Most organizations (apart from Places of Safety and Juvenile Reformatories) have an “open door policy”, meaning the child can run away any time they feel. This is obviously not encouraged, but one could argue as long as the child knows it’s an option, we are basically giving him or her permission to do so. This makes it easy for the child to run whenever a problem occurs. For instance, little Johnny might run away from home because he got in trouble at school. He then finds his way to town and joins a group of kids that come from similar backgrounds. Johnny lives with them until one day he steals from one of the kids in the group. Instead of confronting the problem he may run back home, or not seeing that as an option may run to another group in another part of town.
Unfortunately, the problems never disappear. They are still there waiting for Johnny, or whoever, but it is Johnny that is in a different place where those problems do not exist. Today I bumped into Julian, who is a perfect example of this. I met up with him about two years ago on the streets when he had run from the shelter he had been staying in. I worked with him for a while and got him back home staying with his family. Eventually he was not coping in that environment and ended up running away again. Back to the shelter he had run from before I met with him at that time. I saw him at the shelter a couple of weeks back and he seemed happy. So today I bumped into him and he told me he had run away from the shelter on Sunday because he had gotten in a fight with another boy. He is back on the streets. That is, he is back on the streets until something happens that will cause him to run to the next place.
Julian is still young, but he is getting older. The most unfortunate thing about a lifestyle “on the run” is that, as I said earlier, problems do not disappear and they only end up piling up all over the place. The older the child gets in this “life on the run”, the more bridges he or she burns, and the more unresolved problems he or she faces in the world, and the more difficult it is for them to ever settle down and realize that life is full of problems and the only way to get rid of them is to face them head on. I do not think it is a mere coincidence that in our society where we have so many children running from their problems, and a system that supports that decision, that we would also have such a high rate of “fatherless” children. Because these children that learn to run from their problems grow up, get girls pregnant, and act in the defense they know best: RUN!