Have you ever had the experience of seeing a fellow adult acting like a child? Perhaps you saw someone else burst into tears at a perceived slight, or fly into a rage at the drop of a hat.
If so, it’s likely that you had the thought, “Wow, that person is acting like a kindergartener.”
Guess what? You’re right. Not only is that person acting like a kid, but on an emotional level, he or she really is much younger. At that particular point in time, they’re operating as a hurt child.
The way forward in this situation is not to find a time machine and travel back to the past. Instead, it’s to learn how to reparent the younger part of ourselves right here and now.
What Is Reparenting?
Originally, reparenting was a form of psychotherapy in which the therapist played the role of a parent for a client who had endured dysfunctional or abusive parenting.
However, the way we’re using the term in this article is a bit different. Here, we’re referring to you reparenting the younger part of yourself.
A therapist or mental health professional can teach you how to do this, but ultimately the responsibility for reparenting yourself lies with you.
But how does it happen that we need reparenting in the first place?
The Frightened Child Within
When we go through trauma at a young age, a part of us gets stuck in right at that particular point in our emotional development.
Childhood trauma and addiction are often linked because we’ve never fully recovered from one or more traumatic events. We’ve kept it buried, and substances are one way to deal with the hurt that builds up over the years.
On the outside we may be functional adults, but on the inside there’s a part of us that is still a frightened child trying to deal with past trauma. As such, we are reacting with all of the skills and abilities of a kindergartner. Let’s face it, kids at that age don’t always respond to life’s stressors with maturity and grace!
Fortunately, learning to re-parent that younger part of ourselves gives us a way out of the emotional regression. When we give our inner children what they need to feel safe and loved, they can grow up and become integrated into our adult selves.
Why Reparenting is Important in Addiction Treatment
Childhood is a critical time. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson highlighted the importance of psychosocial development in early childhood by detailing the specific ages and stages of our personal growth.
For example, we learn these fundamentals during childhood:
- Infant (0-3): Trust
- Toddlers (3-5): Initiative
- Early childhood (5-11): Self-Esteem
- Adolescents (12-18): Identity
Reparenting is a key aspect of addiction treatment because it teaches us how to take care of the vulnerable parts of ourselves. It gives us a way to provide ourselves the support, encouragement, and love we’ve always longed for.
When we can do this, we no longer need to abuse substances or engage in addictive behaviors. These represent dysfunctional attempts to meet our unmet emotional needs. Reparenting gives us a chance to care for ourselves in a healthy, sustainable way. It empowers us to break the addictive cycle!
As we wrote in our post Understanding Bipolar Disorder and Addiction:
“The way out is for [us] to re-parent that part inside, to give that part what it needs to feel safe and loved. That way, it can grow up and become part of the whole.”
When we apply love to the parts of ourselves that hurt, we heal.
An Exercise to Connect with Your Inner Child and Learn Reparenting
At this point, many people start to get worried. “But what if I can’t help my inner child? What if I can’t do reparenting?”
The good news is, reparenting is fairly straightforward. The main principle is to offer yourself unconditional love.
When you love a child, you don’t judge, condemn, or hurt them. Instead, you give them your time, your attention, your encouragement, and your comfort.
You listen to what they say, and you treat them kindly. You won’t say yes to their every whim or request, but you will hear them out and work with them to create a solution.
One way you can start to connect with your inner child for reparenting is through opposite hand writing. When you use your non-dominant hand, you engage different neurocircuitry that allows you to bypass many of your usual blocks and express your deeper emotions.
Begin a dialogue with your inner child with your dominant hand (adult). Ask, “How are you?” Then, switch to your non-dominant hand and write as the child within. The main idea is to be a supportive, unconditionally loving presence for the vulnerable parts of yourself.
A few points to remember:
- Keep the writing mostly in the present tense, since you’re engaging with the child now. “How are you?” “I feel so alone”, etc. The child can talk about her own past if she wants, yet the overall idea is to connect with how that vulnerable part of you is feeling now.
- Pay attention to thoughts disguised as emotions. The four broad categories of feelings are mad, sad, glad, and scared. “It feels like you go to a lot of trouble to forget me” is a thought (or a judgment). That’s different from saying, “I feel scared” or “I feel lonely”.
- If the child expresses anger toward you, remember that you don’t need to justify yourself; you only need to offer the child comfort. You can say, “Oh honey, I hear you, I hear that you’ve been lonely, and I’m here for you now.” The child just wants reassurance and love. Offer praise, gentleness, and kindness. “Great job, sweetie.” “I’m listening.” “Tell me more.” “You’re just fine.” “I love you because …”
- At the end of the dialogue, ask, “So what do you want / need right now?” Then follow through on the request as best you can. This helps to build trust. If the request is not doable in the moment, keep the dialogue going until you find something that you can provide that the child needs. For example, the child might say, “I want my mommy here now!” and your mom isn’t there in the moment. So, you might say, “I hear that you want comfort, sweet girl, and I’m giving you a big hug right now.”
Be the Parent You Always Wanted
In our Non 12 Step rehab, we encounter many Participants who have past trauma surrounding their parents. Sometimes parents were physically, mentally, or emotionally abusive or neglectful.
In other cases, Participants had physical comforts and knowledge that they were loved, but still, they struggled to see themselves as lovable. Others grew up feeling very “other” and unlike the rest of their family members.
Regardless of circumstance, many of the people who come to us have spent years longing to have had a parent show them unconditional love. They’ve been working hard for approval, and they’ve been numbing out with drug use. Deep inside, they’ve been yearning for a parent to comfort and care for them.
During our time with them, we share a revolutionary principle: We can reparent ourselves. We can be our parents’ teachers, showing them what it looks like to show ourselves unconditional love.
This knowledge is extremely freeing. We don’t need to wait for anyone else to change in order for us to be happy! We can build our own happiness, one act of kindness at a time.