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To Heal Your Inner Child, First Disempower Your Adaptive One

It’s more helpful to recover, rather than to curb, your inner child.

Key points

  • To lessen parental criticism, a child—however unconsciously—feels obliged to alter and adapt their behavior.
  • To achieve true intimacy, the self-limiting ways you adapted as a child must be replaced by a much less constricting form of adaptation.
  • Your “wise adult” can mitigate the negative consequences of your adaptive child’s regularly asserting supremacy over your wounded inner child.
 Ali Müftüoğulları/Pexels
Adult Embracing Inner Child
Source: Ali Müftüoğulları/Pexels

We’re All Burdened With a Sabotaging “Adaptive Child.”

Prefixing the word “adaptive” before “child” is relatively new in therapy literature. And contrary to the word’s usual positive connotations, in this context, it’s much more ambiguous.

Undeniably, all parents can be viewed as afflicted with certain dysfunctional elements, if only because of the dysfunctional elements characterizing our society and culture.

So if a child is to feel like they comfortably fit in with their family, subconsciously, they’ll be powerfully motivated to conform, or adapt, to their parents’ sometimes maladaptive mandates (typically unspoken—maybe even unrecognized).

Such adaptation ordinarily involves opposites. That is, if you were intruded upon, you’d endeavor, reactively, to preserve your autonomy by defiantly distancing yourself. If you were neglected and felt abandoned, you’d likely react through desperate clinging behaviors.

Yet your parents were also role models. So it’s only human nature to imitate—and internalize—the way they treated you in the way you then treat others, particularly in your closest, allegedly intimate relationships.

As an adult still riveted to your adaptive child, you can violate your partner’s boundaries by intruding on their privacy—or, if you were neglected, by emotionally abandoning your own children.

And all these later “adaptive” behaviors are maladaptive, echoing the dysfunctional elements of your upbringing.

The key author writing on this increasingly prominent subject, especially as it relates to couple therapy, is Terrence Real. So this post will center mostly on his work.

Real’s most recent book—Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (2022)—elegantly simplifies what specialists have already noted but hadn’t yet adequately categorized.

And although I’ll be focusing on its central tenants, there’s not enough space here to fully delineate the author’s abundant case descriptions, convincingly demonstrating the utility of exploring a person’s subconscious to characterize not so much their (wounded) inner child as their (negatively reactive) adaptive one.

Nonetheless, here’s a brief (albeit partial) example that Real offers for the above reactivity/modeling phenomenon:

Tom had an intrusive (boundaryless) mother, and now Tom self-protects with thick walls. He isn’t intrusive with his partner and kids; he’s the opposite—abandoning. Similarly, Janie had abandoning (walled-off) parents, and she is now a needy, anxious young woman most likely to be not neglectful but its opposite: intrusive and suffocating.

. . . But reaction is only half the picture [for the other half relates to modeling—as in “identifying with the aggressor” and reenacting past family abuse].

Distinguishing Between Your Inner Child, Your Adaptive Child, and Your Wise Adult

When therapists talk about a person’s “inner child,” they typically mean the part that was psychically wounded by unfavorable aspects of their environment, principally in their immediate family.

Initially, this inner child was innocent, with its positive nature inevitably compromised when it was obliged to conclude that it had to conform, or comply with, what originally felt alien and uncomfortable.

What had to be moderated—or sacrificed entirely—were such favored features as curiosity and experimentation, spontaneity, playfulness, joy, openness, and a sense of wonder.

To lessen the parental criticism emanating from their very innocence (or naiveté), experienced as a kind of traumatizing rejection and culminating in considerable distress, the child (however unconsciously) felt required to discover how best to alter—or adapt to—their too-frequently-disapproving environment.

And that meant forsaking a substantial part of their inborn nature. This is why therapists working developmentally believe we actually need to recover, not curb, our inner child—after, that is, quieting our alarmist adaptive one.

For it’s when that innocent child has experienced trauma that our healthiest development gets arrested. And what’s yet to be resolved unavoidably gets reenacted or relived.

In addition to the inner child and the adaptive child, the third part of Real’s relational paradigm is what he calls the “wise adult.” That’s the part that can mitigate the negative consequences of our adaptive child’s regularly asserting supremacy over our (wounded) inner child.

Ideally, by taking a leadership role, this wise adult, by gently and patiently prodding our adaptive child to back off, is able to integrate our pre-adaptive and emotional inner child with our rational adult self.

Until recently, most mental health professionals advised replacing one’s emotional self with one’s far more logical self. But presently, there’s increasing agreement that leaving one’s spontaneous, fun-loving child in the dust isn’t what will lead to unconditional self-acceptance and an enduring state of well-being.

Real, borrowing from the work of Pia Mellody, distinguishes between a person’s restrictive adaptive child self and their wise adult self by stressing the dichotomies of black and white thinking vs. nuanced thought; perfectionism vs. realism; a relentlessly blaming vs. forgiving attitude; a rigid, harsh, absolutist stance vs. a warm, yielding, flexible one; an arrogant vs. humble viewpoint; and a tight vs. relaxed body.

Transcending Your “I and You” Safeguards Against Vulnerability to Achieve a Harmonious “We,” and So Ensure True Partner Intimacy

To relate authentically and achieve couple intimacy, you need (as does your partner) to overcome the fear-generated protections coming from your adaptive child.

And that takes not only courage and resiliency but also the ability to maintain a thoughtful adult calm when the reactively adaptive child part of you gets triggered and, in the moment, leads you to feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Essentially, you need to loosen the grip of your various defense mechanisms and directly challenge your largely exaggerated childhood sense of vulnerability. Such out-of-control feelings catapult you headlong into your primal sympathetic nervous system.

Here is where your fight-flight-freeze response takes charge, rendering any real partner intimacy impossible. It’s only when you can subdue this defensive reaction and retrieve the non-defensive humility and open-mindedness of your wiser adult self that you can regain control of the situation.

As a gregarious species, we all long for intimacy. But if when you were young, you felt forced to conclude that such closeness was precarious, you may unconsciously shield yourself from the loving partner union that—consciously, at least—you seek.

So to accomplish your intimacy goals, the self-limiting ways you adapted as a child must be superseded by a much less constricting form of adaptation.

And, as already suggested, it will be one that combines present-day knowledge and experience with trustworthy childhood instincts so you don’t unwittingly end up undermining your adult relationships—including your all-important relationship with yourself.

As Real aptly puts it, contrary to our “wise adult”:

The adaptive child part of us wants to be right, wants to control things, wants unbridled self-expression, retaliation, or withdrawal . . . five losing strategies [for getting the relationship that, purportedly, you strive for].

Obviously, any resolution to the conflict between your instinctually driven child part, your now maladaptive child part, and your more logical wise adult will start with your adult taking control of your recalcitrant, no-longer-adaptive child.

Figuratively speaking, it’s useful to visualize that anxiously reactive child in your lap, held securely in your adult arms, and imparting to them the message that you can handle the situation that’s evoked their fearful defenses much better than they can. You assure them that you’ll safeguard them from harm, so they can relax and let you (not their outdated defenses) run the show.

Now, then, is the time to cultivate a habit of recognizing when you’re about to employ one of your adaptive child’s misguided strategies for handling relational upset. And to “coordinate” with them to circumvent these reactive tendencies.

This effort also requires you to learn communication skills—especially compassionate listening skills—that in growing up, your adaptive child lacked. Not yet within your comfort zone, you’ll initially feel a lot more vulnerable doing this. But in time, accepting that vulnerability will, paradoxically, help you feel more powerful.

And it will also do wonders for your relationship. It will finally (with your partner’s cooperation) enable the union to go from a divisive “you and me” state of consciousness to a more contented, far happier “we” or “us” state.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.