Split Off Parts

When children have been abandoned, neglected, abused or maltreated in early childhood, their brains physiologically hard wire their regulatory systems into fairly fixed and heightened states of neurochemical arousal. Essentially, they are perpetually geared-up and on their marks for a fight, a sprint, or an immediate shutdown in the face of real or even imagined hints of danger.  Not their fault.
 
Along with this biological imperative to survive at all cost, the child’s psyche is susceptible to shutting off parts of awareness in order to compartmentalize disturbing material into manageable emotional bodies we clinicians often refer to as “parts.”  When I talk about splitting off parts, I am talking about these emotional bodies of experience and reaction that can be in or out of a person’s conscious experience. Children usually have no awareness of these parts.  That is why they often don’t remember when they have done something awful to YOU or their sibling or their teacher.  It was a part of them, they do not yet know about, jumping into action, then just as quickly receding back into the psyche’s island of bad boys and girls until the next time.
 
I am not talking about complete splits, as in what we colloquially call multiple personalities with names and separate histories, though that is the result of similar severe circumstances.  I am talking about triggered moments of irrational meanness, viscousness, violence and vile verbal assaults.  I am talking about triggered moments of instant regression into a screaming 2-year-old, only the child is far from that actual age. I am talking about triggered impulsive acts of diving into pornographic darkness, sexual enactments, senseless stealing, attempts to kill an animal, or extreme expression of gory, bloody flashbacks.
 
These moments can scare us parents into survival modes of our own.  We become frightened of our children.  We start thinking in terms of good and evil. We pull back and self-protect. We start imagining the worst case scenarios and outcomes for the future. We lock our bedroom doors. We begin serious consideration of sending them to treatment.  Those are all normal responses to abnormal circumstances. 
 
While residential treatment may be necessary, it is not required to deal with most child “parts.” Trauma treatment is, however, necessary to help the child acknowledge and increase tolerance for the experience and intense emotions each part is literally holding for the child.  
 
In everyday life, we can begin to understand our children and become a trauma-informed parent.  We can begin to be therapeutic and healing with our children by being curious about what they thought happened just before they, for example, bit you, what they felt when biting you, and how they experienced the event afterward.  Identify their feelings to them if they cannot.  Ask them to feel their body sensations, so they can identify moments when they may be emotionally dysregulated.  Teach them about their own body responses and their actions.  Give them skills for managing these intense experiences. Be soothing, loving, empathic and informed about what is really going on and how YOU can be part of the solution.  Healing is possible.

Love Matters,
Ce Eshelman, LMFT
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Don’t let fear get in the way of being therapeutic.

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