Little mirrors

Seven-year-old Manny, eyes sparkling with excitement, brought his paint set to me as I was engrossed in work at my computer. “I want to paint you!” he exclaimed. My initial internal response was a groan. Oh no, not the mess again, I thought, followed by a pang of guilt as I remembered my childhood joy in creative expression, stifled by a critical and depressed mother. This internal struggle, a clash of my inner parts, led to a deeper understanding of myself as a parent. I recognized the vulnerable child within me, longing for connection, and responded with a genuine “I’d love to paint with you, in a bit, in the play area.” We spent a joyful ten minutes immersed in shared artistry.

This experience was a powerful testament to the transformative potential of Internal Family Systems (IFS) in parenting. IFS, a therapeutic model rooted in systems thinking, suggests that we are not singular entities but a complex system of various parts – the inner child, the protector, the critic, etc. Each part has its own motivations and perspectives. By understanding these internal dynamics, we can navigate our interactions with our children more effectively, offering a hopeful and inspiring path to more empathetic and effective parenting.

Systems thinking reveals that our family, like any system, is interconnected. Our parts influence each other, and our children, as part of this system, often mirror our internal struggles. I could connect with Manny’s desire to paint by recognizing my inner child’s longing for creative expression. This understanding allowed me to respond with empathy and compassion rather than reactivity.

IFS also introduces the concept of Self—our core essence, characterized by Calmness, Curiosity, Clarity, Compassion, Confidence, Courage, Creativity, and Connectedness.  When we operate from the Self, we are less likely to be triggered by our children’s behaviors, offering a secure base from which they can explore their emotions and inner parts. This emphasis on the ‘Self’ in IFS can make parents feel empowered and in control, knowing that they can operate from a place of calm and compassion.

In my experience, recognizing the ‘exiled’ part within me – the child who felt unseen and unheard – was crucial in understanding my reactivity towards Manny’s (very childlike typical) requests for attention. By turning towards this exiled part with curious compassion, I was able to respond to Manny with more patience and understanding. This emphasis on recognizing and turning towards the ‘exiled’ parts can make parents feel validated and understood, knowing their past experiences can be acknowledged and healed.

The IFS approach to parenting involves cultivating a deep awareness of our internal landscape. It involves understanding that our children’s behaviors often reflect our own unresolved issues. By embracing our inner parts and connecting with ourselves, we can create a more harmonious and nurturing environment for our children to thrive in.

Returning to Manny, our shared painting experience became a turning point. By recognizing and integrating my inner child, I connected with him on a deeper level, fostering a relationship built on mutual understanding and love. Manny, my little mirror, continues to teach me about myself, and through IFS, I am learning to be a more present, attuned, and loving parent.


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