By Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW
The following article is based on Pia Mellody's Post Induction Therapy model of treating childhood traumaWhen 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.
Taking the view that our childhood experiences have no influence over the present is at best short-sighted and at worst perilous. 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 we blame our parents for everything that’s wrong in our life, we remain victims of the past. We stay stuck because we aren't taking responsibility for our life.
The truth about the impact of childhood experiences lies somewhere closer to the middle. We need to tell the truth about the past and take responsibility for the present.
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 their parents get a divorce they may wonder if they are responsible. If one of their parents looks unhappy or angry, they will probably assume it is because of something they did. It is important to remember that children are not "adults in little bodies." They are completely dependent on their caregivers. That is why children are so vulnerable to childhood trauma.
In addition, while all of us are 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 have no choice. They become desensitized and habituated. That is why, as adults, we are attracted to what is familiar, even if it is dysfunctional or abusive. We naturally fear what is unfamiliar.
So how do we heal from painful childhood experiences? There are 6 major steps for effective family of origin work:
Identify Significant Childhood Events
We must identify the kinds of abuse we experienced as children. 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, just the process of identifying these key events will give us insight about our childhood that we did not previously have.
Tell the Truth
After identifying significant childhood events, we need to tell the truth about what happened to us. This is best done in a therapeutic setting, preferably in a group. When we talk about what happened, are witnessed by others and listen to others' stories, we continue to gain insight about our experiences and begin making connections between past events and the current circumstances of our life.
Integration of the Functional Adult
The Functional Adult is an internal part of the self that we all possess. It is the healthy part of the self 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, we consciously integrate this part of the self and learn how to access it, especially when we regress into a child state.
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, we will feel one-down, overwhelmed, passive or dissociated. This is a younger child state. The Adapted Adult Child is an older internal child state. We experience this part of the self as being one-up and defiant. All addictions are acted out from this internal state. This is the "inner teenager" in us. When working with child states it is helpful to ask yourself, "how old am I feeling?" to help you identify which child state you are in.
The bad news may be that we did not get the parenting we needed, but the good news is that we can learn to re-parent ourselves. The Functional Adult 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 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.
Ongoing Internal Boundary Work with Major Caregivers
I mentioned before that children absorb everything that happens around them. If their caregivers are irresponsible about how they handle their emotions, the child will absorb the mis-managed emotions of the caregiver. This is 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.
One way to discharge carried feelings is to do 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 with the caregiver is present. The work can be done whether the caregiver is still alive or not.
If your recovery or therapy is stalled, or you find yourself in repetitive and destructive patterns or relationships, family of origin issues are likely holding you back. Family of origin work is a fundamental and necessary part of recovery and healing. The skills of re-parenting the self and doing internal boundary work with caregivers is an ongoing, life-long process that can be learned. It is never too late to give yourself the parenting you needed.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW, CSAT, CGP is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist in private practice in Houston, Texas. She offers individual, group and couples' psychotherapy as well as workshops and presentations. Her clinical specialties are sexual addiction recovery, codependency, trauma, and couples' therapy.