What are ‘Child’ Modes in Schema Therapy?
- Dr Gemma Gladstone
- October 27, 2019
Vulnerable Child Modes
Child modes are parts of self (or representations of the self) which came into being in childhood in response to the parenting you received and other experiences you encounted. Think about the concept of the ‘inner child’ that many therapists have written about. The term Vulnerable child (VC) is a general one used to described a part of the self which harbours all the emotional pain belonging to childhood. All the emotions, beliefs and behaviours which came about due to negative childhood experiences and relationships belong to the VC mode. The pain associated with physical, emotional and sexual abuse; abandonments and losses; and dismissive or neglectful parenting styles, are all stored here – within the VC mode.
There may be many different, more specific types of the VC modes, such as the ‘abused child’, the ‘abandoned child’, the ‘lonely child’, the ‘grieving child’ and so on. The VC is where all the unmet needs of the child reside. It very much depends upon your own personal childhood experiences, as to how you identify your VC part or parts. An essential part of therapy is to reconnect with and heal the VC mode, with the guidance of a skilled therapist experienced in the art of imagery re-scripting. With the help of your therapist, you will be able to meet and reconnect with these parts which you have previously cut off or disavowed in order to cope and get on with life.
It is very normal for people to want to ‘forget’ or dismiss aspects of their past in an attempt to get on with life and avoid feeling hurtful and uncomfortable emotions. However, when we do this we leave behind parts of us which continue to feel rejected and outcast and they can unconsciously influence the way we feel, the partners we choose and all manner of decisions we make.
There may be many ‘child’ representations of the self within all of us. That is, a person may have many painful or vulnerable inner children – so to speak. The thing to understand is that these ‘child parts of self’ often tend to get stuck in a time warp – as though they are stuck or trapped in the past (with only an awareness of what happen back then). Finding, reconnecting with and healing vulnerable child parts is an essential part of good schema therapy. It is only when we do this, that a person is able to truly accept and love themselves in a way that promotes long-term healing and real-life changes.
Angry Child Mode
This mode comes about as a natural response to not getting your childhood needs met or having them violated through mistreatment. It is the (child) part of self that feels the injustice of the unmet needs and gets angry because the needs were not met. During childhood, the anger was understandable. After all, if someone mistreats you, or stops you from doing something you really want to do, the normal human emotional response is anger. So the angry child mode is the part of self that develops out of wanting to defend or protect the child who was being mistreated, abandoned, invalidated or unloved. The underlying intention of the angry child is understandable, but it tends to be a disorganised and unhelpful mode when activated in the adult person.
You can usually tell if someone is in angry child mode because their anger outburst is excessive and appears to be disproportionate to the triggering event. Angry child mode often surfaces quickly after the person feels hurt, anxious or fearful. Angry responses come in to ‘over-compensate’ for an emotional need not being met.
The angry child wants to get a need met (they want understanding and connection) but they go about it in an unhelpful or primitive way (ie, it may look like a tantrum). For example, you could feel very hurt by a friend not returning your call and then flip into an angry mode. This anger usually feels very hot, intense, impulsive and out of control. In relationships, the angry child mode is triggered a lot. A person may feel abandoned by their partner and then pick a fight with them and get very angry, instead of expressing their true feelings of hurt. The angry child mode can be a destructive force in relationships and won’t win you any friends at work either. When the angry child mode is extreme and escalates into acts of impulsive (verbal or physical) aggression then a person may be in ‘enraged child’ mode. It is scary to be on the receiving end of the enraged child mode. The ‘trigger’ for the angry or enraged child modes is always some type of threat, criticism, abandonment, rejection or mistreatment – either real or imagined. The angry child mode is not an effective, healthy adult way of getting one’s needs met or resolving relationship disputes. If left unchecked it will most likely destroy relationships and leave you feeling very isolated and lonely.
Impulsive or Undisciplined Child Mode
A similar child mode is the undisciplined child mode. This part of self has developed either from a lack of discipline during childhood (ie, giving in to the child and poor limit setting) or the opposite whereby the childhood environment was very stern, rigid and strict with harsh discipline. So therefore, as a child – you either heard the word “no” too infrequently or not at all, or you heard it way too much. This is the “I want what I want, when I want it” mode and is usually quite strong in people struggling with addiction and other impulsive behaviours. Whenever we say to ourselves “I deserve this, I know I shouldn’t but I’m having it anyway” – we are usually in some degree of undisciplined child mode. Again, a person in this mode is usually trying to get some need met, but is probably going about it in an unhelpful way. One of the long-term negative consequences of having a strong undisciplined child mode is that it affects your ability to regulate yourself and your emotions in a healthy adult way. It is also linked with a sense of poor autonomy and a dependent personality style.
Happy / Contented / Authentic Child Mode
There is a mostly positive, ‘feel good’ child mode – referred to as the happy child mode. Can you think of times from your childhood when you felt free to express yourself, felt joyous and silly while also feeling safe and nurtured. Do you have times when you feel like that now? This might be your happy child mode – a part of you to be fostered and further developed. Sadly, some people don’t have any recollection of ever feeling this way in childhood because their early years were too marked by experiences of neglect, abuse or hardship. Therapy can help these people create a more positive, free, compassionate and joyful side of themselves. Intentionally, we can also help a VC part evolve into a happy or contented child mode.