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Internal Family Systems: A Child's Parts

Warning: This post contains information about behaviors at home, related to Reactive Attachment Disorder, Bipolar, Depressions, Mania, Psychosis and Autism Spectrum Disorder and may be triggering to some.

"Why do you HATE me so much? I know you do! Why are you so angry at me?" 

Sunshine's Devil part was front and center. I was so thankful for my knowledge of Internal Family Systems and how to understand a child's parts.

No matter how many times I reminded her that I loved her and that I wasn't angry, the part could not accept those truths.

Sometimes the Devil part will calm if I offer a hug, but not today.

"I don't want to be a part of this family! I HATE you all!" 

Internal Family Systems: A Child's Parts

I paused, sitting on the floor, so Sunshine could continue and know that this was not a threatening situation.

"Why aren't you listening to me?! Why aren't you talking?" The Devil part did not enjoy silence.

I repeated back exactly what she had just said to me to show I was listening. 

The Devil part seemed satisfied. 

Knowing which part I was talking to, and that I had its attention, I tried to ask questions.

"Are you angry with me?"

"YES!" the Devil part responded instantly.

"Why are you so angry?"

"I don't want to talk about it! Stop talking to me!" The Devil part was not in the mood to talk.

At this point I knew I just had to ride the wave.

Sunshine had now transitioned from standing, to sitting on the bed, and now to rolling around on the floor, like an animal, her limbs flailing in every direction. 

The Sabretooth part was here too.

Any time she ran into something, whether it be her bed, door, or wall, she would kick and scream even more.

The same conversations occurred again and again. At times the Devil and Sabretooth parts would threaten me or try to punch me. 

I let them know that I wasn't scared and called their bluff every chance I had the opportunity. 

Calling their bluff seemed to calm the parts down, as my response was not how others had responded in the past.

I set strict boundaries regarding how and when the Devil and Sabretooth parts could touch me and what was expected to move forward with the day, making sure the parts knew the consequences for any and all actions. 

Time was at a stand still until I knew Sunshine could be kind, safe, and respectful.

This episode lasted over an hour, but no one was hurt. No one needed restraining or intervention. I just kept talking to the parts.

It all started when I let Sunshine know it was time for her morning routine which consists of: making her bed, picking up her room, taking a bubble bath, putting lotion on, getting dressed, brushing hair, and brushing teeth.

None of this is an issue if many of her other parts are in charge, or if the Self is leading, but today, the other parts were nowhere to be found, neither was the Self. 

The Devil part loves to pick a fight and the Sabretooth part loves to jump in and attack.

How did we get to this point of understanding that not ALL of Sunshine feels one way or another, but instead just a part of her does?

Teaching a Child to Identify Parts

One day on one of our walks, Sunshine was explaining that a part of her brain felt and thought one thing, while another part felt and thought the total opposite. It was driving her crazy.

Sunshine was able to describe and name these two parts, the Devil and the Angel, who were completely polarized, and that's where her journey with Internal Family Systems began.

Since that walk, she's identified and named multiple parts that help us navigate her struggles and behaviors. 

When we know what parts are in charge, we are better able to navigate the situation and keep everyone safe. 

Each part feels and thinks differently. The goal is to calm the parts and not trigger them.

With Sunshine's permission, I am sharing her parts with you today. She feels that by sharing, she may be able to help others who struggle like she does.

Understanding how to respond to each of her parts, what calms them, and what provokes them has been what we've been working on most since she's been home, especially when two parts combine efforts, like the Devil and Sabretooth.

Please keep in mind that Sunshine has been diagnosed with:

  • Reactive Attachment Disorder
  • Mood disorder (bi-polar) with Psychosis
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • ADHD
  • Cranial Facial Microsomia
  • Vision impairment in her right eye
  • Intellectual Disability (IQ below 70)

Sunshine was adopted through foster care after being removed from her family of origin at birth and placed in a foster home where she was not cared for properly.

Everyone's parts are based on trauma they have experienced along with struggles and disabilities they have.

Internal Family Systems: A Child's Parts

The average adult is said to have 10 to 22 parts. 

Each part develops as a way to survive trauma the person perceives is occurring in their lives.

Every person is different in how they perceive trauma, how they cope with it, and how their brain and body respond to it.

So far, Sunshine has identified the following parts.

All of the names and descriptions of Sunshine's parts have come from her, and in her words.

Please be aware that children's brains are still growing and changing, so working with children's parts is different than working with adult's parts.

Devil (He)

Wants me to hurt other people and myself. Believes that I am ugly and worthless and that others hate me and don’t want to be with me.

Sabretooth (He)

Works with the Devil. Thinks about my birth mom and foster mom. Feels scared, gets angry, and attacks.

Angel (She)

Wants me to make great choices. Cannot defeat the Devil by herself.

Powerful Magical Creatures (They)

Multiple animals, both make believe and real, with magic powers to work with the angel to fight off the devil. They cannot kill him, but they can wound him. 

Some include centaur, dragon, lion, etc. They carry shields. (Sunshine becomes the creatures and they accompany her.)

Avatar (She)

Has magical powers to give to Mommy and Daddy for protection and to turn them into Avatars so they can help me fight against the Devil. 

With Mommy and Daddy as Avatars, I can defeat the Devil. (Sunshine also transforms into an Avatar.)

Scary Creepy Crawlers (They)

Capture people to keep them safe from the Devil. They are willing to do horrible things to the Devil and followers to keep “the people” safe like suck blood, cut off heads, etc. (Disturbing play scenarios may occur.)

Ice Powerful (She)

Dresses provocatively in whatever she wants. Walks on water. Talks to animals and can control the world around her. She is VERY strong and throws ice blocks at the Devil to help the Angel. 

States that she is bored or that there is nothing to do when she is unable to do what she wants to do, or do something that she likes to do.

At other times she can work with the Devil.

Scary Monster (He)

Becomes angry because he’s so sad, depressed and scared. Does not trust anything or anyone, and is slimy.

Love Bug (She)

Gives hugs, kisses, etc. to show others love. Physical affection helps me know that others are safe and happy.

Mulan (She)

Focuses on things needing to be perfect to the most exact degree. Shows up during learning time, craft time, etc.

Jessica the Kitten (She)

Loves, schedules, routines, and rituals. Gets VERY angry with the Devil when he sabotages her day by picking a fight and turns into a GIANT kitten.

Why Do we Use Internal Family Systems with a Child?

When we know Sunshine's parts, we are able to understand what she's thinking and how she's feeling at any given time. 

Actions and words that may be disturbing are less scary because we know what part feels them, and that it's only a part, not all of Sunshine.

Once we all know and understand her parts, we can provide the support Sunshine needs in situations to help her regulate her emotions. As she becomes more comfortable with her parts, she is able to start doing this on her own.

Eventually, Sunshine will begin to unburden her parts, which will help everyone, but that will be a long way off.

What Is Our Experience with Internal Family Systems Therapy?

After eighteen months of studying Internal Family Systems with a trained IFS therapist, reading Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard C. Schwartz more than once, and identifying my own parts, I felt that IFS was the perfect fit for our family, after all of the trauma we've experience.

My husband, a retired mental health therapist, worked with me, after he identified his parts to better understand how our parts interact. The improvements in our marriage have been SIGNIFICANT.

My older three children started to notice some pretty amazing changes in our marriage, and as individuals, and asked if they could also learn about Internal Family Systems and work to identify their own parts. 

These are the same kids who have been forced to participate in family therapy due to their sister's struggles and have despised it every step of the way.

Dinomite, Bulldozer, and Princess have chosen a mental health elective in our homeschool curriculum, so that they can focus on learning about their parts. 

Their discoveries and work, including identification and drawings of their parts, has been extraordinary. 

Our communication as parents and children since sharing our parts has improved immensely.

But if I had to choose one person that Internal Family Systems has benefited most in our home, it would be Sunshine.

No other therapist to date has used Internal Family Systems with her, despite having had seven therapists in her lifetime already at eleven years old. IFS was something we introduced at home.

Just in the last month, we cut her behavior outbursts during manic and depressive episodes from 20-45 minutes down to five minutes each. This is all because we knew and understood what her parts needed and wanted, versus what would trigger them.

All of us are made up of parts, because all of us have experienced trauma in our lives. When we focus on identifying and nurturing these parts, lives change for the better. 

IFS therapy works for everyone, including those with developmental disabilities, which has been one reason it's been fabulous for Sunshine.

For those who are interested in following our family's story and learning more about Internal Family Systems, be sure to subscribe to our free newsletter by clicking the link below.

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Internal Family Systems: A Child's Parts

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