Are there certain ways to raise a child such that they’d be highly resistant to getting Stockholm syndrome if ever taken hostage as a teen or adult?

I asked the following questions to Dr. Nancy Zarse, associate professor in the Forensic Department, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, whether or not parents can train their children to be resistant to Stockholm syndrome.

Is there a correlation between how close a parent is to a child, and whether or not that child would ever develop Stockholm syndrome? Assume the child, at time of abduction, is at least 10 years old.

Dr. Zarse: Stockholm syndrome has more to do with conditions of the hostage situation than with the relationship with the parent.

Stockholm syndrome reduces injuries and death, so professionals would rather deal therapeutically with the victims following their release than encourage hostages to resist forming a bond that might save their lives.

What can a parent do to make the parent-child bond as powerful as possible so that no abductor could put a dent in it?

Dr. Zarse: It is both the bond with the hostage taker and fear of greater injury or death that prevents an escape.

The bond between hostages and their family may well sustain them in the darkness of their captivity, giving them strength and hope to endure.

Further, the love of family may be exploited by the hostage taker who threatens to harm or kill loved ones as a means to control hostages.

Are kids who are “brainwashed” by their own parents to subscribe to the following principles, at much higher risk for Stockholm syndrome? Children should be seen and not heard; Always be respectful to adults; Never talk back to an adult; You have no rights until you’re an adult.

Dr. Zarse: Children who are taught to be respectful of adults are not more likely to develop Stockholm syndrome.

The formation of Stockholm syndrome is more about the conditions of the hostage situation than with the personality of the hostages.

Are kids who are encouraged by their parents to express their feelings, show disapproval, carry on a debate, stand up for themselves, be assertive, take on challenges, and not be afraid to disagree with adults, at much lower risk for Stockholm syndrome?

Dr. Zarse: The personality of the hostage will influence the relationship that is formed with the hostage taker, and thus the possibility of Stockholm syndrome.

However, Stockholm syndrome decreases injury and death, so it has a positive outcome.

In a hostage situation, the danger and emotional volatility are extreme, so survival is more important than expressing anger at the hostage taker.

A hostage who is unpleasant, obnoxious or threatening to the hostage taker may well be killed.

Survival is key — we can deal professionally after the release of the hostages with the emotional scars.

But isn’t a gamble involved, then, on the part of the parent? On one hand, teaching kids resistance to Stockholm syndrome can ultimately lead to an escape when the captor is absent. 

On the other hand, teaching kids that Stockholm syndrome may save their lives may produce an outcome where the parent never sees their child again because the child spends years as a sex slave, and come adulthood, is too psychologically damaged to make contact with the long-lost family (it’s interesting to speculate if Jaycee Lee Dugard would have ever contacted her family, had Phillip Garrido never confessed his crime.).

Dr. Zarse: A hostage situation is a frightening and confusing possibility for a parent.  Although you want to encourage your child to escape, that same action might endanger the child’s life.

Teach your child not to actively cooperate, but also not to agitate or anger the hostage taker.

Teach your child to hold onto the image of your loving face, to do what is necessary to survive and that you will never cease in your efforts to find and save your child.

Reassure your child that you will work together, upon release, to get the professional help needed to address any damage suffered at the hands of the offender.

What about teaching kids (if old enough) to PRETEND to bond with the abductor?

And a hostage (older child) with his or her wits would never behave obnoxiously towards the abductor, but instead would con them (this is often depicted in movies and TV). 

Are there real-life examples where the victim pretended to bond with the captor; tricked the captor into lowering his guard; and successfully escaped?

Dr. Zarse: Most people do not actively encourage development of Stockholm syndrome.  Any hostage is highly encouraged to act in such a way as to diffuse the intense emotions of the hostage taker and minimize anger.

There are instances in which captives escaped after long periods of being held hostage, so do not give up hope.

Are “bratty,” outspoken or bully-like kids more resistant to Stockholm syndrome?

Dr. Zarse: Stockholm syndrome does not develop because the hostage likes the hostage taker; it forms out of complete dependence, lack of control and terror.

You cannot compare a hostage situation to any other kind of interpersonal situation, because of the traumatic nature of the hostage situation.

It’s explained that Stockholm syndrome occurs when the abductor isolates the victim and makes them dependent for bare essentials.

But why does the victim feel dependent upon the abductor, if there is opportunity to escape? 

“Escape” opportunities could range from climbing the fence in the middle of the night; dashing away from the abductor while in public; yelling out to a nearby neighbor; actually visiting the neighbor; and alerting people via e-mail and phone, to which some abduction victims have access.

Dr. Zarse: Stockholm syndrome does not form merely because of basic necessities like food and water; it is also borne out of feeling unable to control the situation and dread.

The hostage taker uses threats against the hostages and their families to control even when not present.

What specifically can parents do to inoculate their kids from acquiring Stockholm syndrome? Of course, the older the child, the more effective any method would be.

Dr. Zarse: Stockholm syndrome reduces injury and death, so is not necessary to protect against.

In fact, in training to groups at higher risk for being taken hostage, strategies are taught to increase the possibility of forming an attachment to the hostage taker to minimize the risk of harm to the hostages.

Are there cases where a juvenile hostage was murdered as the result of an escape attempt?

Dr. Zarse: I do not know of any such instances, but we know of young people being murdered by their abductors, so it is a reasonable assumption.

How successful can parents be at convincing older kids that if they’re ever taken hostage, that the captor is bluffing when he says, “I’ll kill your parents if you ever escape”? 

How many captors have ever followed through on their threats? I’m specifically referring to men who kidnap kids/teens, versus a man who beats his wife, then kills her parents when she leaves him.

Dr. Zarse: There is an assumption in this question that the hostage taker is bluffing when threats to harm the hostage’s family are made; this is a dangerous assumption.  It is risky to teach potential hostages that threats may be unfounded.

If the hostage feels the potential of injury or death in the threat to be real, chances are good that the hostage will act accordingly to protect loved ones.

If physical and/or sexual assaults accompany such threats, the possibility of harm to others is made much more real by virtue of the actual and immediate injury to self.

How much of an anti-Stockholm syndrome effect would it have, for parents to begin teaching their children about this at an early age? 

After all, parents are encouraged to talk to their grade school kids about drugs, sex, “good touches” and “bad touches,” etc.

Seems to me that the more well-versed a child is in the mechanics of Stockholm syndrome, the less likely he or she will develop it.

Dr. Zarse: Parents certainly need to teach their children to resist harm, but there are extreme circumstances in which being aggressive might increase possibility of injury or death, so one must be very cautious.

An escape attempt increases the emotion of the hostage taker, thereby heightening danger for the hostage.

Stockholm syndrome reduces injury and death, so it would not be wise to teach methods to prevent its formation.

Isn’t it true that if enough “anti-Stockholm syndrome” is drilled into a child from an early age by a parent, that the parent can effectively “brainwash” that child so that the learned material cannot be overridden by a captor (depending on child’s age)?

Dr. Zarse: Parents need to teach their children to protect themselves from harm, but a hostage situation is unique and dangerous so caution is recommended.  Remember, Stockholm syndrome is not about a weak personality type; it is about extraordinary conditions of complete debility, dependence and dread, and surviving.

Dr. Zarse served as Chief Psychologist at two federal prisons, and as the Director of Inmate Administration at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.