This article is based on Pia Mellody’s Post Induction Therapy model of treating childhood trauma.
When it comes to dealing with childhood issues, most of us tend to gravitate toward one of the following extremes: “It’s in the past, so what’s the point?” “It’s all my parent’s fault I’m the way I am!”
Imagine going to a medical doctor and telling him that you don’t want to give him a medical history because you don’t see the point. Getting a good history is as important to your mental health as it is to your physical health. At the other extreme, if you blame your parents for everything that’s wrong in your life, you remain a victim of the past. You stay stuck because you aren’t taking responsibility for your life. The truth about the impact of childhood experiences lies somewhere closer to the middle.
Believing that your childhood has no influence over your THE INEVITABILITY OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA
Humans have the longest childhood of any species on Earth. We live with our primary caregivers anywhere from 15-18 years and sometimes longer. Not only do we live with our caregivers for a very long time, during the time we live with them our brains are still developing and we lack basic cognitive and emotional skills to process what happens to us. Children are like sponges and are highly adaptable. They are also naturally egocentric. If your parents got a divorce when you were growing up you may have wondered if you were responsible. If one of your parents often looked unhappy or angry, you may have thought it was because of something you did. It’s important to remember that children are not “adults in little bodies.” They are completely dependent on their caregivers. That’s why children are so vulnerable to childhood trauma.
Although we’re all born with certain innate characteristics and tendencies, children are “calibrated” by their family of origin. If their family is chaotic or violent, over time they will adjust to that level of chaos or violence. They don’t have a choice. They become desensitized and habituated. That’s why, as adults, we’re attracted to what’s familiar, even if it’s dysfunctional or abusive. We naturally fear what is unfamiliar.
SO HOW DO WE HEAL FROM PAINFUL CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES? Here are the 6 steps:
1. Identify What Happened You must identify the type of abuse you experienced as a child. There are 5 kinds of abuse: physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Abuse can be overt or covert. Beatings or sexual molestation are examples of overt abuse. Abuse can also be covert or hidden. An example of covert abuse is when a 7-year old boy is told as his father leaves for a military tour of duty that he needs to take care of his mother and is now the “little man” of the family. Neglect and abandonment are also forms of abuse. Many times, this simple process of identifying key events will give you insight about your childhood.
2. Tell the Truth After identifying significant childhood events, you need to tell the truth about what happened to you. This is best done in a therapeutic setting, preferably in a group. When you talk about what happened, are witnessed by others, and listen to others’ stories, you continue to gain insight about your experiences and begin making connections between past events and the current circumstances of your life.
3. Integrate the Functional Adult (Inner Parent) The Functional Adult, or inner parent, is an internal part of the self we all possess. It’s the healthy part of us that knows the next right thing to do. The Functional Adult has the five core issues identified by Pia Mellody (esteem, boundaries, reality, dependency and moderation) in balance. In family of origin work, this part of the self is consciously integrated so that it can be easily accessed when needed.
4. Reintegration of Child States There are two primary internal child states that have the most impact on us in our adult life — the Wounded Child and the Adapted Adult Child. When the Wounded Child gets activated in adult life, you will feel one-down, overwhelmed, passive or dissociated. You will feel younger than your chronological age. The Adapted Adult Child is an older internal child state. You may experience this part of the self as being one-up, contemptuous, or defiant. All addictions are acted out from this internal state. This is your “inner teenager.” When working with child states it is helpful to ask yourself, “how old am I feeling?” to help you identify which child state you’re in.
5. Re-Parenting The bad news may be that you didn’t get the parenting you needed, but the good news is that you can learn to re-parent yourself. The Functional Adult in you parents the inner child states through affirming, nurturing and setting limits. The Adapted Adult Child parents through attacking/ criticizing, neglecting and indulging. The Adapted Adult Child is usually the sense of “adult” that most of us have until we do in-depth family of origin work. The key tools for re-parenting are to first notice which child state you are in and then activate the Functional Adult to parent that part of the self.
6. Ongoing Inner Work with Major Caregivers Children absorb everything that happens around them. If one of your caregivers was irresponsible about how they handled their emotions, you absorbed the mis-managed emotions of that caregiver. This is an example of enmeshment. The child who has absorbed a caregiver’s feelings will literally have too much of that emotion and will carry these excess emotions into adulthood.
Shame is the most dominant carried feeling. These carried feelings can wreak havoc on our lives in the form of toxic shame, rage, or intense anxiety. One way to discharge carried feelings is through a process called “feeling reduction.” Feeling reduction work is a therapeutic process where the client metaphorically “gives back” the carried feelings to the caregiver. This is a symbolic experience with the caregiver rather than an actual event. The work can be done whether the caregiver is still alive or not. If you’re struggling to maintain sobriety, staying in abusive relationships or situations, or repeating patterns that are familiar from childhood, it’s probably time to look more closely at your childhood experiences. Family of origin work is a fundamental and necessary part of recovery and healing. If you want deep and lasting transformation – change at the core – going back to your roots is the place to start.
It’s never too late to give yourself the parenting you needed. MORE ABOUT THE RECLAIMING
© Copyright 2013-15 Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW, CSAT All Rights Reserved