Changes in coping throughout adulthood

Manfred Diehl, Helena Chui, Elizabeth L. Hay are part of the Adult Development and Aging Project (ADAPT) at Colorado State University. Their mission is “To contribute to the knowledge about healthy and successful adult development and aging through research, education, and collaborative outreach.” Dr. Diehl received his PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from Pennsylvania State University and is interested in psychological development throughout the course of adulthood.

The ADAPT team from Colorado State

Diehl, Chui, Hay, and colleagues performed a longitudinal study of the change in coping and defense mechanisms across adulthood. Starting in 1992, they recruited 392 adolescents and adults, the majority of which were of European American descent. 129 of the original sample completed data for all four samples, in 1992, 1994, 1998, and 2004. Participants were asked to two 2-hour testing sessions each time.

In order to measure coping and defense mechanisms, the California Psychological Inventory was used. Ego development was measured using Loevinger’s Washington University Sentence Completion Test. Verbal ability and inductive reasoning were measured using the Education Testing Services Kit of Factor-Referenced Cognitive Tests. Socioeconomic status was also taken into account, although participants were not asked to divulge their education level because for the first two waves many were still high school/young adult age.

Diehl, Chui, Hay and colleagues found significant age related patterns of coping and defense mechanisms. As we age, ego regression tends to decrease while sublimation stays relatively constant and the use of suppression coping mechanisms increases. The defense mechanisms isolation and rationalization slowly and steadily decline with age; displacement, regression, and doubt fall from adolescence to mid-50s when these mechanisms begin to rise again; intellectualization follows the opposite pattern, rising until the mid-50 and then slowly falling again, although less dramatically than the previous three mechanisms.

Interestingly, this study revealed that ego level was the most significant predictor of age related changed in these coping and defense mechanisms. Ego level correlates with intellectualization, and when these rise, doubt and displacement fall. Intellectual abilities didn’t significantly affect changes in coping and defense mechanisms.

There were also differences in men and women use of these mechanisms. Women reported more sublimation, suppression, rationalization, and doubt than men, but less intellectualization. Regardless, both men and women’s coping and defense mechanisms changed similarly over the course of the study.

Coping and defense mechanisms are integral to functioning during stress (so literally anywhere). The changes in these mechanisms don’t seem to follow a set course or become more adaptive as we age, despite what you would think. While some maladaptive mechanisms decrease with age, others increased. By increasing our awareness of which maladaptive mechanisms are prevalent during certain age groups,we can try and increase efficacy of more positive coping and defense mechanisms and make an effort to healthily manage stress.


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