How Does Personality Develop in Childhood?12 September 2021 / By Samantha Mackay Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on September 12, 2021
This blog post is part of our Fundamentals of the Enneagram series, which takes a deeper dive into all the Enneagram elements - wings, arrows, subtypes, centers of intelligence, growth pathways and more. For an overview of the series, start with our introductory post , then check out our story on defenses here.
Every model of personality helps us to see what we can’t and give labels to the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that we have become blind to. And that in itself is very useful. Having greater self awareness through self observation is a vital part of our growth as adults.
However, there is a layer beneath the labels. This is where we go a bit deeper to understand just why we aren’t able to see ourselves and our own reactions, and why we overreact so strongly to some events and not to others. This is the darker side of personality—the side where we understand exactly why we have a personality in the first place.
Where it all begins
The structural foundations of our personality forms quite early. As children we go through several core developmental stages, and our experiences and how we respond to them shape our personality.
These core development stages take place before the age of three years. Much of our personality develops during a time when we aren’t able to express ourselves very well. Because we are so young, it can be hard to remember exactly what happened.
We all have unmet needs as children
Every human being has many needs throughout their lives. These needs are both consistent (food, water, sleep, connection) but also change day by day, year by year.
As babies and toddlers, we have just as many needs as adults but no way to fulfill those ourselves, and limited ways of asking for those needs to be met. Even the best of parents are unable to meet all of those needs exactly when a child wants them met, partly because it is hard to know exactly what a child wants and partly because it’s not always convenient or an available option.
The pain of unmet needs
Think back to when you were a child and unable to get something you wanted or needed. Do you remember that internal pain you experienced? How large and overwhelming it was, and how it seemed to threaten your very existence?
Known as psychic pain, this is the non-physical pain we experience in our inner world when a need goes unmet. As an adult, you are not reliant on someone else to meet your needs, you can just go out and get what you need yourself. As a child, you lack that option. As a child you have no other tools at your disposal to manage or deal with the psychic pain that no one really understands you are experiencing.
Healthy adaptive strategies
So what is the natural response to psychic pain as a child?
When we are born our brains are not a blank slate. We are pre-programmed with all sorts of things, from physical things like how to feed, to more psychological things, which include a series of strategies for managing psychic pain.
When we experience psychic pain, we reach inside our minds and instinctively draw on a strategy that both reduces the pain, and allows us to remain in connection with our parents, the only people available to take care of us.
As a child, this is a healthy response. We have no other tools or resources, or the mental or emotional capacity to deal with the pain. These adaptive strategies, or defenses, are the best option available to us while we are young.
What strategy do we reach for?
According to the Enneagram, there are nine different strategies that a child can use to manage the pain of their needs going unmet. As a child, how do we know which one to use?
I can’t say for certain but I think the answer is two-fold.
First, and remember this is the very simplified version, there are nine stages of development associated with the development of personality. (I am referring to the research of Margaret Mahler and Beatrice Chestnut, but there are many other developmental psychologists that contributed to our understanding of this space.)
Every child passes through every stage of development. So if we face a challenge or struggle during that period, we may be more likely to draw on the defense or strategy associated with that period. Which is why we have traits of all the nine Enneagram types and experience using all of the defenses, even though we are a single type.
Second, we are born with a type preference . And so it simply feels more natural to draw on the defense associated with this type, regardless of which development stage the psychic pain arose from. We may also be more likely to draw on strategies from types connected to us by wings or arrows as resources to help us manage pain, without those becoming our primary type.
Why do we continue to use these defenses in adulthood?
You would think that once we passed out of childhood, and realized we had the capability and capacity to handle the pain of our unmet needs ourselves, we would stop using these strategies. But that is not how our minds work.
Because we started using these strategies when we were so young, we have forgotten that we are using them. They have passed into our unconscious programming, and now become an automatic habit that we continue to use on a daily basis. What was a healthy strategy is now a defensive reaction.
We also continue to use these defenses because the psychic wounds associated with them remain in our psyche. The adaptive strategy did its job, protecting us from that wound. But it never allowed us to heal it. Part of our job as adults is to heal those wounds, which allows us to release the need for those defenses.
It takes many years until we realize we have the capability to look at those wounds and handle the psychic pain, to wake up to the fact that we aren’t that small, defenseless child anymore.
Personality is the sum of our defenses
Therefore, our personality is our shield, defending us against people and situations that get too close to those unhealed wounds and keeping us operating on autopilot, asleep to the leftover pain from childhood that unconsciously shapes our actions and decisions on a daily basis.
So you could say that “our personality is the sum total of all the defensive strategies we adopted in childhood.” This includes more than the nine defenses mentioned above. It is a combination of the type we are born with, the defenses we develop, the imprint of our parents and their relationship, as well as the environment we were raised in. That includes any significant changes that happened during our childhood, such as accidents, illnesses, death of a family member, trauma, moving house and so on.
This is why all of us are so different. There may be only nine Enneagram types, but we are all unique given that no one’s childhood is alike. However, there are patterns. For example, Type Eights are more likely to have had a combative childhood, Twos often had to take care of a caregiver, and Fives often had the experience of being neglected or intruded upon. We’ll leave a deep dive into that for another time.
But for now, just remember that all of us have a personality. Our personality developed to protect us from the pain of childhood, pain we continue to carry around, and our personality is just a way of protecting us until we figure out how to heal those wounds. So hopefully, we can all have a little more compassion for ourselves and others as we go on this journey of growth together.
Ann Newman (not verified) says...
I hope you dive in on each enneagram soon. I really enjoyed this as I've wondered when personality is set. It's interesting that we are born with a major leaning but then experience shapes us.
Thanks Ann, I hope we get to those soon too! It is such a fascinating topic!
Lindsey (not verified) says...
This may be the wrong forum but I am truly curious to see if you can enlighten or direct me to a resource that can explain a bit about how the Ennagram works with survivors of sereve trauma who developed dissasociative disorders. I am married to a wonderful man/team with Dissasociative Identity Disorder due to massive ongong child hood trauma at an early age. It is...a lot but he's worth it. He scored a 4 on the enneagram but I was wondering if there is any research on Enneagrams and people with this particular coping mechansm. From all I have read and experienced it is really an amazing, if not challenging life-saving phenomenon and I was simply curious to see if there had been any forays into the topic.
Samantha Mackay says...
Hi Lindsey, thanks for your question. I don't know alot about that disorder, or how the DSM and Enneagram crossover at this time, so there aren't many places I could direct you. You may find it interesting to learn more about the Enneagram from a psychological perspective such as my article on defences or this podcast from Enneagram 2.0 on psychotherapy and the Enneagram.
JoshSysAdmin (not verified) says...
It's wild that there are so many people working in the mental health field, but they don't take MBTI as seriously as they should. This questions is exactly what graduate capstone projects should be focused on. There are so many people with limitless fire power, but they have no clue what to aim at. We live in a world with squandered potential and neglected intuitive insight.. Most of the people running the show are extremely daft and overly confident.