#2 Inner Child: Ages & Stages

In the last TIFT (Tuesday is for Therapists), I talked about how inner children signal their unmet needs. They don’t expect the therapist to be any more willing than the parent was, so they tug at therapists in often covert ways. They are patient and persistent because they are fighting for their emotional survival.

This time, we’ll look at examples from different ages. Of course the inner child is a metaphor for problem solving frozen in time. What’s good about the child metaphor is that it expresses accurately the purposeful and dynamic nature of a campaign to get something from the therapist.

The Twos

Under three: The earliest inner children responding to deprivation use methods usually acquired before age 3. The grown-up is expected not to be willing and is not trusted, so these inner children often resort to manipulation (Definition: Bypassing the other person’s free will). Their skills may be honed by later development, but the general approach bears the mark of early development.

The Birth of Conscience

At the next level–say around age three–the conscience is formed along with the capacity for shame. Many of the stories of attachment to the therapist in the comments on Howtherapyworks.com come from this period. Here is where nonverbal signaling may include self-defeating or destructive behavior (to call out for rescue or help), passive waiting, giving great love with the hope of receiving some back, and attempts to suppress anger and disappointment due to fear of consequences.

The Age of Guilt

A little later, perhaps 5-7, guilt can become a key factor. Now we are talking about inner children who are sensitive about right and wrong. Perhaps they have given up on real parental love and have settled for some more physical comfort. But maybe that involves bodily closeness that the child has learned is “bad.” Shame and/or guilt could drive the seeking of comfort deep underground. I call these “guilty quests.” Seeking of comfort at this stage is covered by guilt but persistent and may be heavily disguised and accompanied by self-punishment. Psychoanalysts describe specific inhibitions in just those areas most important to the individual.

I have seen another kind of inner child, probably from this era. One who seeks to motivate the grown-up to do the “right thing” through moral suasion. By following a strictly moral path and emphasizing duty, the inner child hopes to get the grown-up to see the immorality of their ways and therefore, to be willing to fulfill the needs of the inner child. It is often painful for therapists, proud of their goodness and generosity, to hear accusations of immorality without becoming defensive.

The Age of Rules

Those familiar with 8 year-olds know they put great emphasis on “the rules.” They have discovered in a world of deprivation, that there are rules and everyone is supposed to abide by them. So they are scrupulous themselves in following the rules and hope that the grown-up will do so as well. And of course the rules call for the grown-up to take care of the young person in whatever way is needed.


One of the important dynamics of pre-adolescence is the powerful anxiety that goes with facing life without the protection of parents. Inner children in adults who have stopped growing at this age may follow the pattern of covering anxiety by exercising power over others. The cliques of middle school are about covering insecurity through power. Their victims can be severely traumatized. I have seen clique behavior in adult groups ranging from police departments to mahjong groups. (Cults and other “closed groups” are the extremes and may derive from earlier, more manipulative patterns.)


Adolescence is about giving up innocence and the protection of grown-ups in a positive exchange for the control and choices of adulthood. The desirability of the trade-off is not always obvious. For those who continue to struggle with unmet needs, the answer is often simply not to make the transition. From here on, the inner child shuns real responsibility (such as commitment) and lives a pseudo-adult life, at least in some areas.

What is pseudo-adulthood? My definition of adulthood is “Having the sense of full ownership of one’s own life.” Think here of adults who are stuck in blaming others for the state of their life or who feel that the only path to fulfillment is to change others. Full ownership beans solving problems by assessing the situation, designing a solution and putting it into practice.

Failed Rights of Passage

When the passage to adulthood is not fully traversed, I call it “failed rites of passage.” That’s because, as I understand it, in more “primitive” societies, there is often a ceremony in which candidates go through a difficult but formative experience of being alone and on their own. In doing so, they take on full responsibility for their lives and are then treated as adults. During such ceremonies, there is strong support from the group, but the young person ultimately has to face aloneness.

In my view, lack of a successful rite of passage in some or all areas of life is the core problem in most cases of “failure to launch.” The young person is too afraid and the task too daunting. The result is a childlike passivity, an exaggerated waiting for some grown-up to take responsibility. The young person demands the respect of adulthood, but may be genuinely unable to carry the concomitant personal responsibility that might be expected.

Jeffery Smith MD

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image at top: Bill Wegener, Unsplash

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