Adult Children of Divorce


Adult children of divorce, alcoholics, or other dysfunctional families share some of the same outcomes in their lives: problems with chronic depression, intimacy, and fears of abandonment. The “Inner Child” evolved from Transactional Analysis, NLP, and Family Systems Therapy. In TA the Inner Child was referred to as the Adapted Child, the Natural Child, and the Little Professor.

All of these terms are metaphors for what has come to be known as various fragmented parts of our self. The terms “fragmented parts” and “self” are also metaphors or symbols we use to talk about something inside of us that we cannot see – neural networks. Confused yet? If not let me take it a bit further with a metaphor I call the baseball analogy…

The Metaphor of the Inner Child

How do adult children of divorce demonstrate this fragmentation of the self? For a moment, let’s imagine that our core self as like a ceramic baseball. When something bad happens to us during childhood it’s like that baseball gets hit with a bat.

When a ceramic baseball is hit by a bat, pieces of it break off and separate from the core. This is what we mean by “fragmentation of the self” because these fragmented parts of self are split-off and disconnected from the core self.

These fragmented parts are actually little neural networks that are disconnected from the internet-at-large. Adult children of divorce and other dysfunctional families tend to experience these fragmenting or traumatic events frequently. For those of you who know about computer networks, it’s like these fragmented networks develop a “firewall” or boundary around themselves. It’s thought that these firewalls protect networks containing the skills needed to survive the abuse or trauma.

By putting a boundary or firewall around these survival skills they are prevented from being modified or updated by other changes going on in the system as a whole -ie., growth and development. This is another example of the brain’s incredible ability to adapt to the internal and external environment to which it is continuously exposed.

Survival Skill Networks

Neuron ImageSurvival skills are actually networks of behaviors created by the subconscious mind in order to give the child a “cognitive map” for self-preservation…

Talk about your super-computer!! These fragmented networks operate independently and on cue. When they are “triggered” we can suddenly feel like we “flipped into a part of ourselves” that we don’t understand…

We may feel like a child, think like a child, act like a child and have all the resources of the child we were at the time this part was split off… enter the Inner Child. Actually, Inner Children is more accurate than Inner Child because all of us including adult children of divorce usually have more than one of these fragmented parts of self-created at different ages.

Depending on how dysfunctional our upbringing was, we may have only a few Inner Children, in other cases when the trauma was ongoing and severe enough, we may have felt “shattered” causing several fragmentations to occur. I have seen as many as eight fragmented parts or Inner Children identified… usually in cases of moderate to severe PTSD

Does This Mean I have Multiple Personality Disorder?

No, having fragmented parts does not mean we have Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD)…now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID is an extreme example of the fragmentation of the self that is very pronounced. It seems to occur only in children who experienced ongoing and severe abuse beginning in their earliest years – between one and seven years old.

This is during the Imprint Period when the primary neural networks are being laid down or “programmed” into the child. Adult children of divorce and alcoholic family systems undergoing varying degrees of dysfunction during this period develop Adult Children of Divorce and Alcoholics Syndromes.

DID gives us a good model of just how autonomous and distinct our neural networks can be. We can think of DID as one end of a continuum and the fully integrated person at the other end. The rest of us fall somewhere on that line.

I have yet to meet the fully integrated person although I know a lot who are moving in that direction…they’re the ones in recovery. Maslow would say they are self-actualizing.

Parts Integration Work

It is important to distinguish between regular “parts” and fragmented parts-of-self. The term “parts” is analogous to neural networks…”of-self” means networks having to do with identity.

A fragmented part-of-self is an adult child of divorce and other less-than-nurturing families survival skill network that is split-off and operating independently with little or no input from or connection to the internet at large. These parts do not get updated due to the boundary or “firewall” surrounding them.

A “regular” part is any neural network…or element of a neural network… that is connected, or integrated, into the mind’s “Internet-at-large” – i.e., parts that are connected to the whole. These parts do get updated as personal growth or new learning occurs.

“Regular parts” include not only regular parts-of-self but also any other part or neural network that can be updated whether is be an implicit network for playing the piano… or an explicit network such as seeing an old friend after 20 years… The old friend’s new appearance gets added to the database or memory network of that friend alongside the image you have of years earlier. Networks themselves vary in degree of complexity… the arm-crossing network is a simple behavioral network compared to the data stored on the network of identity.

Synapses imageThe “Internet of our mind” is actually very complex. Having integrated networks means we have networks…embedded in networks…embedded in networks…embedded in networks – It’s constantly changing and updating itself through new learning. The dendrite connections that are constantly changing or being reconfigured are the regular parts that are integrated or “wired into” the Internet-at-large.

The fragmented parts-of-self are somehow disconnected and unchanging until we specifically apply new learning to those networks in the form of therapy and/or recovery-oriented activities.

Recovery behaviors, values, and beliefs, along with many of the other therapeutic techniques on this website are designed to help heal, update, and integrate these wounded, fragmented parts of self back into the whole.

Positive Intention & Secondary Gain

In order to integrate them, we need to take ownership of the parts of self that we have so far disowned. The NLP principle of positive intention is based upon the concept of secondary gain. All parts of self exist to serve a positive function, even the parts that support our addictions or are part of being an adult child of divorce.

A friend of mine has a habit of asking, “What’s the payoff?” whenever he or someone he knows is struggling with letting go of problem behavior. It reminds him that every habitual behavior has a secondary gain. There may not be a positive intention for other people, but there is always a positive intention for self. Even gambling and over-eating have a secondary gain (comfort, intensity, distraction, take your pick).

This principle is critical in gaining internal permission to change and integrate conflicting parts or networks. Inner Child Work and Parts Integration Therapy are excellent tools for working directly with specific neural networks. TA, NLP (waking hypnosis), Gestalt Therapy, various levels of relaxed states of hypnosis and guided imagery, or Ego-State Therapy (working with “parts” or ego states combined with hypnosis) are all ideal therapies for “Parts Work”.

Perhaps the Gestalt Empty-Chair Technique is one of the most familiar forms of Parts Integration Work. In NLP it would be the Visual Squash Pattern along with a multitude of submodality shifts. NLP is focused entirely on a direct change to the coding in the neural networks.

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