TIFT #2 Inner Children of All Ages

Mar 09, 2021

Dear {{name}}

In the last TIFT I talked about how inner children signal their unmet needs. This article is to show how understanding the developmental context helps the therapist navigate. At every level, inner children are likely to expect the therapist to be unwilling, like the parent, so they may tug at therapists in covert ways that can cause transference / countertransference issues. They are patient and persistent because they are fighting for their emotional survival using tactics frozen in time.

Here, we look at clinical impressions from different ages. Of course the inner child is a metaphor for problem solving stuck in time. What is good about the child metaphor is that it expresses accurately the purposeful and dynamic nature of a campaign to get help from the therapist.Direct need fulfillment is not the kind of help the therapist had in mind, but the child doesn't know that.

The Twos

Before three, inner children use methods limited by black and white thinking. One version of the grown-up is seen as unwilling and untrustworthy, so these inner children may resort to manipulation (Definition: Bypassing the other person’s free will). Manipulative skills may be honed by later experience, but the overall approach bears the mark of early development. When this doesn't work, they may feel destructive rage turned outward or inward. Depending on attachment style, they may also be charming, loving, clingy, or dismissive.

The Birth of Conscience

At the next level, say around age three, the conscience is formed along with the capacity for shame and the desire to "be good."Inner children may feel ashamed of being so needy. 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. Stories from the comments in the blog give a vivid picture of what this is like.

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 type of comfort. But maybe that involves bodily closeness that the child has learned is “bad.” Shame and/or guilt could drive the seeking of illicit power or comfort deep underground. I call these “guilty quests.”Efforts to findcomfort at this stage are covered by guilt but persistent and may be heavily disguised and accompanied by self-incrimination. Psychoanalysts describe specific inhibitions in just those areas most important to the individual. Paul Simon says "The nearer your destination, the more you're slip'slid'in away."

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, at last, to take care of the needs of the inner child. Attempts to get the therapist to "reform" may be painful to the therapist who already takes pride in doing right.

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 disorder, 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 was needed long ago.


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. I have seen this in adult groups ranging from police departments to mahjong groups. (Cults and other “closed groups” are the extremes but may derive from earlier, more manipulative patterns.)


Adolescence is about giving up innocence and the protection of grown-ups in favor of the control and choices of adulthood. The desirability of the trade-off is not 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 while waiting.

What is pseudo-adulthood? My definition of adulthood is “Having the sense of full ownership of one’s own life.” Think 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 means 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 and 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. For young adults, today, there are too many ways to avoid such a passage and the more one avoids it, the more daunting the challenge.

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 scary. But who would admit to or even be aware of such fear? Consequences of covert avoidance include a childlike passivity, an exaggerated waiting for some grown-up to take responsibility, or some reason why the needed steps are impossible. The young person may demand the respect of adulthood, but is unable to carry the level of responsibility required.The answer may seem like a matter of simply deciding to do what is hard, but more often the fear is so great that getting unstuck really does require substantial help. And, sadly, too many young adults and their families get help for some diagnosis that isn't the real problem and stay stuck.


Jeffery Smith


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