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Understanding Your Adaptive Child: The Secret to Deep Character Change and Becoming Your Best Self

As a marriage and family therapist, I am continually amazed at the impact childhood experiences can have on our lives. It seems the last 60 or so years of our lives are often about learning and healing from the things that occurred in those first 20 years. And yet, despite so many of our best efforts, we often end up repeating generational patterns.  

A child and grandfather walking on the beach wearing similar hats

If you are one of those that has taken a stand against repeating those patterns, you likely find yourself on the opposite side of the spectrum from what you experienced growing up. Unfortunately, the other end of the spectrum can be unhealthy as well, just in different ways. For example, if you had authoritarian parents who focused on rules over relationships, then in your attempt to avoid repeating that you’ve gone to the permissive side of parenting. Here, you value the relationship so much that you struggle to hold proper boundaries and follow through with needed discipline.  

Ultimately, we typically end up either modeling what we saw or reacting to what we saw by going the complete other way. These relational stances that we take are what I call our adaptive child stance. I know for some this may sound a bit cooky. I was once skeptical of this terminology as well, but I’ve come to embrace it. I believe each of us has an inner wounded and/or adaptive child. I don’t care how good your childhood was, you have one. This inner child is adaptive in the sense that this is the part of you that learned how to manage emotions and feelings in such a way as to emotionally survive childhood.  

A person's face blurred in the background with their hand out signaling stop

Some examples to help you understand. Billy grew up in a good home with mostly kind parents. However, there was very little physical affection shown or words of appreciation given. Both of Billy’s parents were uncomfortable with big emotions and would often send him to his room to “deal with them” before being able to come out. Billy’s adaptive child part of him learned to wall off from others to process his feelings. He also learned to minimize his emotional expression because it wasn’t an accepted norm. This is an example of modeling what was shown. His parents were emotionally distant; he followed suit.  

Billy has a younger sister named Suzy. Suzy loved her parents very much and frequently sought their approval. As noted, though kind, her parents weren’t very expressive or forthcoming with praise. Every now and then, Suzy would be able to perform to an exceptional degree and would get that validation she so earnestly sought. This led Suzy to believe that her worth and value was based on things she could do, rather than based on her intrinsic value as a human. Her adaptive child leaned into perfectionistic traits. This led her to hang by every word and action of others, experiencing a wide range of emotions in reaction to others. She became incredibly expressive both physically and verbally, almost clinging to others who would make her feel good. This is an example of reacting to what was shown in the home, going to the other side of the spectrum.  

Now, these are pretty mild examples of someone’s upbringing. Imagine the impact of having a parent who was completely withdrawn or emotionally unavailable. Or a parent who was verbally or physically abusive. Those effects get magnified within that adaptive child experience. They become more entrenched within us. So much so that it can feel like this adaptive child part of us is actually part of our personality. It’s just how or who we are.  

I’m here to tell you that the adaptive child you experience is NOT who you are. You absolutely can develop control over and even heal this inner part of you. To do this, you will first need to build awareness around your adaptive child stance and experience. Terry Real, a well-known couple’s therapist, developed a tool that can help you visualize this stance called The Relationship Grid. Spend a moment looking this over. The grid combines the concepts of self-esteem and boundaries to explain what the adaptive child stance is like.  

The Relationship Grid, a tool for understanding your adaptive child stance

On the spectrum of self-esteem is grandiosity and shame. Grandiosity is like being on your high horse, looking down your nose at others. Shame leads you to feel small and insignificant, like you want to curl up in a ball and disappear. When our self-esteem is unhealthy, it’s often because we are relying on outside sources of esteem to help us feel good about ourselves. Some of these can include our performance, the things that we have, or how we think others perceive us.  

The other spectrum is boundaries. There are two important boundaries to consider, protective and containing boundaries. Protective boundaries are what keep us safe from the world. Containing boundaries are what keep the world safe from us.  

A child yelling, wearing a happy shirt

If you are boundaryless, you may be boundaryless in one or both of those boundaries. Being boundaryless in the protective boundary means you don’t have one, which leads you to be easily hurt and offended. If you are boundaryless in the containing boundary, this means you don’t have much of a filter. Every thought you think comes right out of your mouth.  

On the other side of the spectrum is walled off. This is too much protection or containment. Too much protection looks like keeping everyone at arm's length. Nobody gets close. Too much containment looks like keeping everything in. Nobody gets to see what you really think or how you really feel.  

Once you are able to identify which quadrant you go to on the relationship grid, you need to start building your awareness around what it feels like in your body and in your mind when that adaptive child takes over. A lot of times, this awareness begins in retrospect. To control this, however, you will eventually need to develop awareness of your adaptive child in the moment. The point at which you are able to build in-the-moment awareness of your adaptive child stance will be the same point in which you are able to develop control over it and begin to heal.  

One of the best ways to begin reigning in this adaptive child is to take timeouts. When you feel that adaptive child taking over (sometimes it’s like a physical whoosh that comes over you), you need to slow down and give yourself a break. Step away from the situation that is leading to your adaptive child stance. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, listen to music, or do something that helps you re-center yourself.  

A father holding his young son with their noses touching

What your adaptive child needs in this moment are the very things you deserved to get or deserved to not get as a kid growing up. Quiet the inner critic. Replace those thoughts with thoughts of self-compassion. Or take a step down off the high horse and remind yourself you are not always in the right. Healing your adaptive child will essentially require you to re-parent that part of you. Though seemingly simple, this is no easy work. However, I know, from personal experience, that it’s worth it.  

I’ve also witnessed many people heal this adaptive child. It's amazing and beautiful to watch. I’ve seen the out-of-control rager abruptly end their patterns of abuse and hurt. I’ve seen harshness transform into loving firmness. I’ve seen people lift themselves out of the pit of shame and learn to speak to themselves with love and kindness. I’ve seen the emotionally distant and disconnected reinvigorated with life and expression. Drastic change is possible because this adaptive child is NOT who you are! It’s a dysfunctional part of you that has been allowed to have their sticky little fingers on the steering wheel for far too long. It’s time to put them in the back seat where they belong and step up to take care of yourself and that adaptive child part of you in more healthy and functional ways.  

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