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Do You Ever Wonder What's Going On In Your Child's Head?

Using the IFS model to understand your child.

Photo by Frank Mckenna on Unsplash
Does your child sometimes act completely out of character?
Source: Photo by Frank Mckenna on Unsplash

Have you seen the movie Inside Out? In the movie we get to ride around in the control room of a child’s brain as her sub-personalities work to keep her safe and happy. The movie gets exciting when those sub-personalities, namely Fear, Anger, Joy, Disgust and Sadness, start fighting for control.

For instance, when Fear is in the lead, she cringes. When it's Anger, she explodes into unkind speech. We can all relate: The movie describes something fundamental about our human experience.

But did you realize that this fictional model is true? Not only is it a fairly accurate way to think about how we work on the inside, but there is also an entire school of psychotherapy based on similar ideas. The first post in this series examined the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, which posits that we have multiple entities, or parts, inside us that live in relationship with each other and determine how we behave.

Think again about Inside Out. Wouldn’t that explain a lot about your kids? Consider the classic "three-nager" dilemma. Your 3-year-old asks you for the blue cup she likes. You give her the blue cup. She immediately melts down and starts a tantrum.

“Why?” you ask. She says it’s because you gave her the blue cup.

What about your sweet, polite son, who suddenly turns into a raging monster when you tell him to turn off his iPad? Or your responsible high-schooler who gets straight A's and then gets caught joyriding with her friends? It’s completely out of character for her… unless she has more than one part inside her.

Understanding our inner personalities can help us as parents.

Our kids aren’t the only ones who can behave out of character. Parents know what it feels like to lose our temper and regret it. Don’t we often say as we apologize, “I wasn’t myself”? And when we do, we try to make sure it doesn’t happen again by controlling ourselves better. The idea that we have different parts of ourselves which can compete for control helps to make sense of a lot of what we do.

Dr. Richard Schwartz, discoverer of the IFS model and adjunct faculty in Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department, would say that when we rely on self-control to keep our more extreme behavior in check, we are empowering our managers. Confused? I asked him to tell me how he would explain IFS to parents.

“Think of a time when you lost it with your kid. Either you shut down in a way you shouldn't have done, or you acted in a very angry way and shamed your kid. A time that you look back on and wish you hadn't done. Then as you think about that, notice what your kid did, and then what the reaction was in your body. And then notice what parts came up,” he suggested. “And at that point, people usually get what you mean by parts.”

What are the parts?

Parts, according to IFS, come in three varieties:

Managers make sure we act in a way that will minimize our exposure to pain.

Exiles have absorbed our shame, pain, and traumas, usually when we were children. They want to be heard and healed, so they have a way of popping up and overwhelming us with this pain. In consequence, the managers work hard to keep them quiet, but if they can’t, a third part, the firefighters, come racing to the rescue.

Firefighters bring on more extreme behavior in order to avoid pain, like screaming at our loved one or soothing ourselves with binge eating.

Initially, this may not sound to us like how we operate, but let’s go back to a time when you lost it with your child.

“So was there one part that got very angry and another one that shut you down to prevent that from happening? You know, you can list a lot of possibilities. We all have these parts of us that can be triggered by our children. There's a way to work with them so that they aren't inclined to take over in as extreme a way and perpetuate what happened to us, to our kids,” said Schwartz.

He’s saying that if we don’t learn to work with them, our parts ensure that we will repeat with our own kids what happened to us. Yet, this is exactly what most parents promise themselves they will not do. Schwartz teaches that the way to break this pattern is to get access to our self with a capital S.

We all have a self.

Schwartz believes that we all have a self within us and that it's our “birthright.” This self is the core of us and comes equipped with everything we need to be great parents. When a person is “in self” or interacting with the world from that core place, natural qualities show up in the form of 8 Cs and 5 Ps.

The 8 Cs are calmness, clarity, compassion, curiosity, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness.

The 5 Ps are presence, patience, perspective, persistence, and playfulness.

“So all those combine to make a good parent, and all of that is already there. And so, [parenting] isn't a matter of learning something they don't know. It's a matter of working with what gets in the way of that,” Schwartz explained. “When your kid acts like somebody who's hurt you, then you're going to have an extreme reaction. Or if your kids act like one of your parts that you're afraid of or a part of you that you hate, you're going to have an extreme reaction. And your kid just growing up is going to do that at some point or another.”

“Possibly every day,” I said.

“Yes," he said. "By triggering you, your kid is letting you know what you need to heal, rather than what you need to feel ashamed of or try to, you know, suppress."

In my next two posts, we’ll look at how to use the times when we are triggered to grow as parents, and why shame works to control our kids.

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