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Reparenting the Wounded Child
Many clients tell me during intake, “I think I have a split personality. I am fine one minute, but then in the blink of an eye I can get really crazy.” After completing the intake questions, I usually end up saying, “You don’t have a split personality. You have an Adult and a Wounded Child.” I then go on to explain that the Adult is a metaphor for the part of the brain that is rational, lives in the present moment, and sees things as they are, right here, right now, while the Wounded Child (WC) is a metaphor for the part of the brain that contains unhealed emotional wounds and traumas, usually from childhood. The important thing to understand is that these unhealed wounds, which I call the WC, can be “jabbed, poked, and brushed up against” by current events resulting in an intense knee jerk reaction just as if someone accidently bumped into your badly injured knee.
Unhealed childhood wounds can fester in the background until a stimulus in the present moment “brushes up against them,” releasing a flood of repressed emotional pain that can instantly turn your rational Adult into an intensely emotional and irrational WC. For example, if you were verbally abused and relentlessly criticized as a child by a parent or bully and then 20 years later your spouse says “Honey, I think you hung the picture off center a bit,” which reminds your WC of being painfully criticized in childhood, you can instantly become flooded with emotional pain, and then erupt into intense anger, fear, or shame, which seems to come out of nowhere, but it doesn’t. It comes from your WC.
So, how and why does this happen? Well, there’s a part of your brain called the brain stem, which is responsible for “keeping the car running” – respiration, heartbeat, etc. – but also for the fight-or-flight reaction, a helpful system that protects us by quickly recognizing danger and then immediately shifting our bodies into overdrive to deal with it. The brain stem does this in conjunction with the amygdala, another part of the brain that, when triggered, becomes supercharged to race through our memory files to identify the current threat based on our memories of past painful events. Interestingly, the brain stem fight-or-flight mode is hundreds of millions of years old – even lizards have a brain stem – so it is entirely a knee jerk reaction. It is incapable of recognizing obvious facts such as that I am now a powerful adult, not a powerless child, or that the cologne I now smell is worn by my loving spouse, not by the person who abused me wearing the same cologne when I was six. The brain stem/amygdala fight-or-flight reaction is automatic. It searches for anything that in any way reminds it of painful situations in the past, and then immediately goes into fight or flight mode, which is a very intense emotional state that changes the way our brain and body work for a short period of time in order to deal with the perceived threat. So, we need this fight or flight system for survival, but sometimes it causes problems, particularly if we were significantly wounded in childhood, because it can’t separate past pain from present reality.
If you were traumatized as a child and did not receive adult help to heal the wounds, then most likely you are carrying around repressed or suppressed memories and festering wounds that can be triggered at any moment by current stimuli, which then hurl you into fight or flight mode and literally take you back to the emotional, body, and thinking states of when the trauma occurred. Thus, in essence, you become that little child again, but in an adult body and in a current situation that most likely is significantly different from the one in which you were hurt. In fact, you literally go into a trance state - a WC trance - during which you feel small and powerless, and since it feels so real, it can significantly distort your normal Adult perception of what is actually happening in the present moment. Using the example above, the WC feels like the spouse’s comment that the picture is not centered will immediately lead to intense emotional pain and even abuse, hence the fight-or-flight knee jerk reaction of fear and anger, when in reality the spouse is simply trying to help hang a picture correctly on a wall. There is no threat, and yet the WC's mind and body are screaming that there is, hence, the over-reaction.
Since WC reactions tend to be over-reactions – seeing threat where there is none – you react in ways that are irrational, which is confusing to you and others. You feel out of control and bad about yourself for over-reacting, so you condemn yourself (and your WC), which only increases your sense of shame and isolation. After all, when growing up, the WC longed for love, acceptance, nurturance, and protection, and it still does. Thus, to heal yourself and become whole, you must bridge the gulf that separates the Adult from the WC, and to do this, your Adult must embrace your WC, which is called “reparenting the WC.”
How can you reparent your WC? Imagine you have a daughter (or maybe you do) who is panicky, angry, or just feeling bad about herself from being bullied at school. How would you as her parent try to help? Would you call her a failure and a worthless person and tell her that no one could ever love her? Would you be harshly impatient with her, rejecting of her, and condemning of her? Would you ignore her needs and feelings and tell her that she was stupid or selfish for having them? I doubt it, and yet many of us who were wounded in childhood do exactly that to ourselves. We treat our WC in ways we would never dream of treating another human being.
Reparenting the WC means learning to love, nurture, protect, and set healthy limits with your WC. It means learning to “own” the wounds that encompass your WC and healing them in exactly the same way you would if you had an upset son under your parental care - unconditionally loving your child, supporting him, protecting him, and nurturing him to work through his pain and grow from it, but also setting limits on any unhealthy impulses he may want to act out, like throwing temper tantrums, verbally abusing others, or beating up on self. If you want to see an excellent movie about reparenting the WC, then watch The Kid (2000), starring Bruce Willis.
Here is a common situation: You are driving the car that is your life with the Adult in driver’s seat and the WC in the back seat safely secured with a seatbelt. Suddenly a stimulus (for example, someone gets angry at you) triggers the WC’s pain and then, in an instant, the WC erupts and climbs into the front seat, throws the Adult aside, and screams “I’m driving this car now!” Then the WC desperately tries to manage the current situation, which she perceives as highly threatening, but most likely is not. As a result of this WC trance, she views the situation completely in black or white terms, blinded by the intense emotions triggered by past reminders of pain, often resulting in over-reaction and bad decisions. The simple fact is that the WC is too young to drive. She reacts from the maturity level of an eight-year-old’s comprehension of the world, completely based on past memories of pain rather than on an accurate perception of the present circumstances.
So, the keys to recovery are: 1) learning to recognize when the WC trance is triggered and 2) learning how to calm yourself down and get the Adult back in the driver’s seat and the WC in the back seat where she belongs. But in this process you must learn how to manage your precious WC in a loving but firm way - just as any good parent would do.
Sadly, if your childhood caretakers were unable to parent you in a way that met most of your needs, then the only option left for your Adult is to reparent your WC now. No one else can do this for you. You may try to put others in the role of reparenting your WC – a boyfriend, wife, friend, or therapist - or even continue going back to your biological parents begging them for what they can't give you, but once you are an adult, no one can do this for you. The only effective option is for your Adult to learn to reparent your WC. Here is a poem that reflects this truth:
My Child Within
I found my child within today,
For many years so locked away,
Loving, embracing, needing so much,
If only I could reach in and touch.
I did not know this child of mine,
We were never acquainted at three or nine,
But today I felt the crying inside,
I'm here, I shouted, come reside.
We hugged each other ever so tight,
As feelings emerged of hurt and fright.
It's okay, I sobbed, I love you so!
You are precious to me, I want you to know.
My child, my child, you are safe today,
You will not be abandoned, I'm here to stay.
We laughed, we cried, it was a discovery,
This warm loving child is my recovery.
By Kathleen Algoe
The most important relationship you will change on your path to recovery is your relationship with yourself. As the poem suggests, if you can develop a loving, nurturing, and protective relationship with your WC, then healing and growth will naturally follow because “this warm, loving child” is your recovery. Online therapy can help.
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Text and photos by Carl Benedict except where noted
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