What is the Stockholm Syndrome and Why Child Abuse Survivors Should Know About It

Q: Dear Frank, What is the Stockholm Syndrome and why is it important for PTSD survivors to understand this concept? I understand that it was originally defined by you to aid the management of hostage situations. Is it a symptom of victimization?

A: Dear reader, A little over 40 years ago in Stockholm Sweden a notorious bank incident occurred. Instead of simply robbing the bank, the gunman held several employees hostage, demanded that his imprisoned friend be released and brought to the bank, and also requested money and safe passage. This episode lasted six days and was, during that time, the top news story in the world. Afterward, it was learned that bonds were formed between the hostages and the perpetrators. This sort of bond is now called “the Stockholm syndrome.”

Back then, in the mid-seventies, I was a consultant to the FBI and to Scotland Yard, helping mid-rank detectives perfect their skills at hostage negotiation. A handful of us studied sieges, interviewed victims, trained negotiators, and worked alongside SWAT teams, technical experts, and incident commanders. The US Department of Justice convened a National Task Force on Disorders and Terrorism. I was the psychiatrist on that task force. The others were all criminal justice professionals.

For one year (1976-1977) I lived in Europe and visited many survivors of hostage incidents, served as an instructor for the London Metropolitan Police, and spent time in the command center in Holland during a major hostage incident involving a simultaneous terrorist attack on a school and a train.

Somebody, not me, coined the term, Stockholm syndrome, based on the attachments among the hostages and the robber and his accomplice in that Swedish bank. But I defined and explained the term in a memorandum to the FBI while I was studying and consulting in Europe. I noted three things that were very significant for us, the experts on the outside, who wanted to save lives and resolve the dangerous episode without bloodshed. First, the hostage was often attached to the perpetrator. Whether she or he felt love or gratitude or friendly affection didn’t matter. Ironically, paradoxically, the hostage cared more for the hostage-taker than for us who were charged with saving the hostage’s life. Second, the “bad guy” was attached to his victim, despite threatening her or him with death. In Stockholm, Olsson, the robber, tied a noose around Kristin’s neck so that she would be strangled if the police inserted gas to sedate everybody in the vault of the bank. But her affection for him was, he later admitted, reciprocated. That meant that he wanted her to survive. Third, both parties, hostages and hostage-holders, distrusted the authorities and were allied against them. That meant that they, the authorities, couldn’t send secret messages to any of the hostages. The authorities couldn’t depend upon the hostages’ loyalty to the intervention team.

Those three elements became part of our FBI training protocols. Negotiators and incident commanders were cautioned to look for the bond between hostage and hostage-taker and to avoid relying on the hostage to cooperate with our attempts at rescue.

I was often asked, “Why?” Why would hostages become so attached to criminals who violated their freedom, dignity and security? Here is what I noticed and how I explained the situation:

These captures are usually sudden, shocking and terrifying. Survivors told me, “I knew I was going to die.” Some thought they might die, but many said. “I knew,” not “I thought.” They were not allowed to move, to speak, to eat, to use a toilet. That made them like children–regressed, dependent, unable to fend for themselves. Without consciously realizing it, they were emotionally infantilized. But then, little by little, they were given certain privileges and creature comforts. One former hostage told me, “They gave us blankets, cigarettes. Somehow, they came off human.” He added, “You had to fight a certain feeling of compassion.” Isn’t that interesting? “You had to fight a certain feeling…” He was a newspaper editor held hostage on a train in Holland. He didn’t want to like the terrorists who held him and threatened him. They were killers. But that feeling of compassion came over him. It wasn’t love. It was positive and it caused him to feel attached to them.

I believe that we humans, along with other species, experience a very strong bond to our parents, particularly our mothers, during childhood. That feeling is reciprocated. The mother-infant bond is vital for survival. We can’t describe the feeling we had as pre-verbal children, so let’s assume it is something like gratitude. We are given warmth when we are cold, food when we are hungry, and a clean diaper or a toilet when we need sanitation. These are the earliest gifts of life.

A terrorist or a criminal (or, for that matter, an abusive spouse or parent) may be a source of terror and then a source of relief from the state of being terrified and infantilized. That person, by NOT killing you, by giving you the various gifts of life, evokes a primitive and profound feeling. It is the precursor of all the various forms of positive human feelings we experience later in life. We can feel compassion, friendliness, warmth, agape (non-romantic love) or eros (erotic love). The former hostages that I interviewed experienced something on that spectrum, usually non-romantic, often difficult to put into words.

These positive sensations could last a long time. Months. Years. When the sensation finally vanished there was often a sense of loss–even of grief.

It does make sense to consider the ironic attachment, the “trauma bond,” to be a return to infancy and the creation of an emotion that was once necessary for keeping mother and infant in each other’s arms. It is not a sign of weakness or of mental illness. It is natural, predictable and useful. It serves the goal of survival.

And, yes, it comes from being a victim of violence. It does not mean that the victim likes being victimized. It has nothing to do with masochism. But some people will, unfortunately, learn to equate being abused with being protected. That makes life very difficult for survivors of childhood abuse. “Who can I trust when those who gave me life were violent to me – but also were the ones who DIDN’T kill me?”

The trauma bond and the Stockholm syndrome do create that third element – them (hostage and hostage-holder) against us (the “good guys” who are outside the siege room trying to rescue everyone, but ultimately intending to arrest the perpetrators).

Survivors of captivity and survivors of family violence must overcome their trauma bonds and their Stockholm syndromes. These attachments are, in a way, adaptive. They happen frequently and they serve a powerful purpose: survival. I sometimes tell my victim-patients, “You were raised by wolves.” They were lucky to come out the jungle alive. Now they must learn how to recognize trustworthy humans and avoid predators. Not easy.

But many, many survivors have learned to retrain themselves and to escape the patterns of behavior that were useful as hostages, whether they were hostages in a siege room or in their own homes. That is encouraging. If you were “raised by wolves” or dependent upon a predator at any stage of life, understanding the Stockholm syndrome can help you understand yourself. This understanding can place you on a path from victim to survivor – a survivor who thrives and succeeds and knows whom to trust.

Understanding the Victims of Spousal Abuse https://www.giftfromwithin.org/ptsd/understanding-the-victims-of-spousal-abuse/