Understanding Dissociative Identity Disorder
Commonly associated with prolonged trauma in early childhood, it’s important to know DID’s signs and symptoms—and how to seek help
August 29, 2022
Once referred to as multiple personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a serious mental health condition.
DID is associated with long-term exposure to trauma, often chronic traumatic experiences during early childhood. It is often misunderstood and portrayed incorrectly in popular media.
Dissociation—or disconnection from one’s sense of self or environment—can be a response to trauma. It can happen during a single-incident, traumatic event (e.g., an assault, a natural disaster, or a motor vehicle accident), or during ongoing trauma (e.g., wartime; chronic childhood abuse).
The person experiencing the trauma is so emotionally overwhelmed, they cope by dissociating—they “shut off” from what’s happened and compartmentalize the experience. Dissociating allows for a person to distance themselves from the trauma they experienced.
Keep Reading To Learn
- The truth about DID
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- How you can help yourself or a loved one who has DID
What Is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
Dissociative identity disorder—a type of dissociative disorder—most often develops during early childhood in kids who are experiencing long-term trauma. This typically involves emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse; neglect; and highly unpredictable interactions with caregivers.
Some children in such circumstances can develop DID by compartmentalizing their ongoing, traumatic experiences and then displacing them onto other aspects of their self. By doing so, they can distance themselves psychologically from pain.
To an extent, dissociation permits the child to move through life without constant reminders of distressing events.
So, how might a child start dissociating to cope with trauma?
According to Dr. Milissa Kaufman, “During early development, children possess a wonderful capacity for magical thinking. For example, some kids believe that Superman is real and that someday they will be able to fly, too.”
”Some kids may displace their own thoughts or feelings onto a personified stuffed animal or onto a personified imaginary companion: ‘I’m not worried about my first day of kindergarten, but Fluffy is!’ All of these things are completely appropriate developmentally during early childhood.”
Since a young child doesn’t know it is impossible to “turn into a different person,” such displacement of thoughts or feelings can also become a coping mechanism for children who suffer from repeated trauma.
For example, a child who experiences ongoing sexual abuse can think, “It’s too overwhelming to feel such fear. It’s too dangerous to feel such anger. It’s too real to know what is happening to my body. That’s not me. That’s someone else.”
”By doing this,” adds Kaufman, “They displace overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and memories onto different, personified aspects of self and separate from their painful circumstances. This ‘not me’ experience is the cornerstone of DID.”
Importantly, DID often allows children to maintain attachments, creativity, and the capacity for humor and reflection under extremely difficult circumstances.
However, as dissociation continues into adulthood when the danger no longer exists, it can interfere with—or even prevent—recovery from trauma.
Milissa Kaufman, MD, PhD, is a leading expert in DID and related disorders. She is the director of the Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program at McLean Hospital and medical director of McLean’s Hill Center and the Outpatient Trauma Clinic.