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Trauma bonding

Trauma bonding is a particularly complex result of repeated trauma. It's often compared to Stockholm Syndrome in that the captive becomes sympathetic towards the captor and comes to their defence rather than seeing they’re in a captive situation.

The emotions and reactions stimulated in trauma bonding are natural responses based on an ingrained effort to survive. These responses instinctively lead us to move away from negative experiences and towards positives ones. As a result, our natural instinct for self-preservation is being exploited for the benefit of the captor.

Trauma bonding and sex trafficking

In situations of sex trafficking, the trafficker may use these natural responses to their advantage and further condition the response through repetition to ensure the individual they are exploiting does not leave.

By applying a combination of punishment and reward, the trafficker places the individual in a position of perpetual insecurity and moulds them to seek out more rewards and avoid punishment. The trafficker further ingrains this response through psychological manipulation, framing punishment as a result of the individual's wrongdoing.

Attachment to the trafficker develops over time as the individual learns to see the trafficker as their caregiver, and source of reward and comfort. Typically, the longer they spend time together, the stronger the bond.

As a result, the person being trafficked may remain or repeatedly return to their trafficker and see their situation as their “choice.” This makes exiting trafficking even more of a challenge.

Signs of trauma bonding

When working with survivors, be aware of the following signs that may signify a bonding situation. These include if the survivor:

  • Over-identifies with the abuser and excuses their behaviour.
  • Feels indebted or always wants to please.
  • Feels "needed" by the abuser.
  • Appears to wear multiple “hats” or assumes personas in different contexts (with the trafficker, with service providers, with police, etc).
  • Minimizes negative emotions.

Strategies for engagement

If you come across a situation of trauma bonding, engage compassionately. Focus on developing your relationship with the individual, and tap into the moments of "doubt" and contemplation as they arise naturally.

It's helpful to be attuned to what needs the trafficker has satisfied and provide suggestions for healthy replacements. This includes emotional voids (love and care), physical needs (housing, food), hope for a better future, etc.

A trauma-informed approach is key to ensuring appropriate care is offered and available. For information about Covenant House's approach to care, click here.

For more support on how to engage with individuals who have been sexually exploited or trafficked, click here.