#1 The Stuck Inner Child

artur-aldyrkhanov, Unsplash

This post is reproduced from Issue #1 of Howtherapyworks.com’s Tuesday newsletter offering useful tidbits for clinical psychotherapy. If you like it, you can subscribe below to receive future issues by email before they appear on the website.

This post is about making sense of some very difficult problems in psychotherapy through a developmental point of view. For therapists and clients, a useful model can be thinking of an inner child confronted by some unsolvable difficulty, resulting in an area of developmental arrest. Not every patient suffers from this kind of problem, but the concept of the stuck inner child can explain some otherwise baffling behavior.

How to spot this dynamic:

Indicators include responses that have a childlike or immature quality and may be inconsistent with the person’s general adult personality. Another tipoff might be a surprising lack of engagement in the process of therapy.

What’s going on is that, at some point in development, the young person became stuck. Often the stuckness has to do with needing parental support when taking a scary step in development. This can come up at any age and is universal. Whether it’s taking first steps, stepping onto the school bus, or stepping into adult life, these are points when we experience a heightened need to feel emotionally supported by an approving, parental other.

When this kind of support is unavailable, growth stops, at least in some area, but problem solving doesn’t. Children cannot let go of some kind of hope. They find some way to hold onto hope, no matter how dire the reality. How do children plan to solve impossible problems? The same way they solve any difficult problem. They focus on getting some parental figure to provide the missing support.

How it looks in the transference:

How does this look in an adult? They may wait for the right person to come along (therapists are excellent candidates). When they have a candidate, they may engage in covert signaling to motivate the parental person to help. this is where the situation may be baffling until we understand what is going on. Usually the signaling is not overt because the actual parents were most likely not responsive or unavailable. So the child may signal by getting into trouble or by waiting patiently and passively, or by seeming helpless. In each of these scenarios, an adult who seems like they should be ready and able to attack the problem, instead fails to make progress.

This situation can generate a lot of countertransference. Therapists may not identify it, but feel the nonverbal tug to do something. They may feel uncomfortable either because of anger (residual from the child’s expectation of being rebuffed) or the feeling that they are being tested and that no amount of help will be enough to unstick the client.

What to do:

For both therapist and client, the answer to such a dilemma is understanding and compassion. Clients, especially, tend to harbor a very negative view of their “immaturity.” Therapists may feel irritated, too, by the seeming intractability of the situation. Understanding leads naturally to the compassion necessary to help the inner child engage again in growth.

Let’s think of what healthy, available parents do when a child is facing the scariness of stepping up to a new level of development. Development happens when we move out of our comfort zone, when we do things we didn’t dare to do before. A good parent acknowledges the difficulty and remains emotionally connected while the child experiences the intensely uncomfortable emotions. Fortunately, that is an ordinary part of the “job description” of therapists. It doesn’t require anything unusual for us to understand and allow the natural result of understanding to happen, namely, empathy.

There may be a drama around facing the uncomfortable feeling. Children, especially those who have experienced a shortfall of support, may want proof that the therapist is ready to provide the needed support. They may want tangible evidence of willingness. This is where the demands can go outside of ethical boundaries. As these issues come to light in a non-judgmental atmosphere, they can be identified for what they are and, hopefully, put to rest. Then the inner child will be ready to find the courage to take a deep breath and move ahead.

In the next TIFT newsletter, I’ll talk about the surprising range of ages and stages of development at which this phenomenon can appear.

Jeffery Smith MD

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  • Hi Jeffrey, I commented on a blog post of yours a few years back and I am back today to find out why I feel so stuck. I have a different therapist since I last commented, the relationship with my previous therapist broke down after she fell pregnant. I have not moved on from this and grieve for her every day. I have also developed a strong (dependent) attachment to my current therapist and fear the loss of this relationship. I think about both therapists daily and long for their love and mothering. I know I must nurture and love my inner child. When she’s lonely, I need to tell her I’m here and not leaving. When she’s sad, I need to tell her that it’s okay to cry and show her that she is safe. I find it very difficult to accept that I need to be this person for my inner child and when all I want is for my therapist to fill this gap. I know this is not the solution.

    Why does this make me so angry? Why can I not stop yearning for something that I will never have?

    I do not only feel stuck in therapy but in my everyday life. I work full time and surround myself with people I love, I’m active and spend a lot of time in the outdoors! However, therapy or thinking about therapy/the therapist (old and new) takes up a great deal of my thinking space. At 33, I’m lucky to have explored a lot of the world and I am now ready for (and would love) a partner and children here in my native New Zealand. I have a fear of intimacy related to my attachment wound and this is a focus of my therapy. I’m desperate to become ‘unstuck’ and look for healthy love in the form of an intimate partnership.

    I would love to hear your thoughts.

    Many thanks!

    • Dear Laura, Your experience is not uncommon. It’s an issue that gnaws at me, as it seems so hard to get through. This is worthy of a post in the near future. In the meantime, it’s clear that the problem is that acceptance of your mother role and your inner child of her loss, is a very hard one to face. Perhaps the next step towards acceptance is to begin to change behavior and act as if you are beginning to separate from your therapist and move your attachment towards the appropriate people in your life. I think that is what one would do with a child, not violently or abruptly, but firmly and steadily with compassion for the anger and pain it will necessarily generate. A micro-version would be when a child doesn’t want to end a play date. You want to help them accept the inevitable, but the friend does need to go home.

    • I’m with you Laura. Wanted you to know you aren’t the only one going through this right now. My heart hurts for yours.

      • Thank you, Jen. I really appreciate your message. It means a lot to know that I’m not alone. Take care!

    • Although I don’t wish this on anyone, it’s comforting to know that there are people like you who understand, thank you.

  • Hi Jeffrey

    What do you do with an inner child that keeps retreating whenever the therapist hits a tender spot? I find that whenever I feel the slightest bit of vulnerability, I start to feel like I’m dissociating and when I am able to be present again, the feeling (sadness / anger) is gone. It’s so frustrating because I really want to go to those hard places and feel those hard emotions, but it’s as if my subconscious mind won’t let me. It’s been almost a year of weekly therapy. Does it just take more time, will it slowly happen as trust builds up?

    • Dear NS, I have grappled with this problem, myself as a therapist. It is unique in that pressure of any kind backfires. When dissociation is the favored defense, it can slow progress or even stop it. The best answer I have is to make contact with the retreating part and work on strengthening that part and nurturing a willingness to stay and deal with the emotion. I know that is not a very helpful suggestion but it is the best I have. Has anyone found a better answer? Jeffery

  • I have struggled with the same difficulties described by NS and it’s a work in progress. I have actually been working on what Jeffery has suggested and it takes a lot of practice. It is very difficult to do. In the session I keep trying to switch states to try to feel the emotion related to what I am working on. I can only seem to manage sometimes a few seconds. Sometimes on my own I can manage a little longer by going into a relaxed meditative state first.
    Interestingly what I did find helped me was hypnosis, very permissive style, not directive style but with a therapist who is experienced with hypnotherapy and can deal with the strong emotions that may be expressed in that state. It is a little like guided meditation, but I personally was also able to still speak and explain what was happening. Weirdly it is also like a dissociated state from external surroundings with an internal focus. It feels like a state where defences are gone and a the is feeling of freedom to express myself. I can also imagine and see myself as a child and relate with that part in hypnosis much more easily, BUT only with someone that I absolutely trust to keep me safe both during the process and after I have experienced it. After experiencing that process and the strong emotions I then have to face and process the different feelings that may come up as a result, before allowing myself to go thru it again. The emotions that arise in that state can be unexpected, difficult and surprising. I must say tho that it has not been about specific detailed memory recall of certain events. I also take plenty of time, sometimes weeks to months between sessions, (sometimes not), to adjust and hopefully integrate what I have learned. I try to read as much as I can, such as Jeffery’s information which has explained so much, and I hope this makes sense.

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