Something you may see kicking around boards and forums is the concept of re-parenting. Many folk feel a need to experience proper parenting relationships to correct some of the damage done by detached and/or abusive caregivers, and reparenting is supposed to be something along the lines of finding another person (whether internal or external) whom you can trust to develop a healthy parent-child relationship with one or more of your system's residents. In a perfect world, you get all that you were denied by your guardians during your childhood, fill heretofore unmet needs, and replace the unhealthy dysfunctional parenting/authority model you gained earlier with a more secure, safe, and attached paradigm.
What is Re-parenting
Re-parenting is a very important concept for plural/multiple systems who have any hurt children and even teen residents who are poorly attached, hungry for love, or insecure.
The idea of reparenting is to find a safe person (or persons) who can provide the unconditional love and constant attention a young child should have, or in the case of older children, slowly transfer responsibility for their life (as it is earned and reasonable for their life-skill-level) to the child.
Sometimes a child in one's system will chose someone to reparent them on their own, without negotiation, clinging to someone, calling them by parental labels, pouring their attention, neediness, insecurity, etc. towards this person. There are many ways this can go wrong, or be inappropriate, so we will address some of the issues as candidly as possible. If you are currently in such a relationship with someone, please proceed with caution as the ideas on this page could be disturbing since they actually may apply to your situation. If you've had such a situation go sour for some reason, you may find yourself nodding in agreement.
I cannot stress enough how dangerous it could be to put yourself in that position with someone who may in fact reenforce the dysfunctional models you are trying to replace. Even someone who is well-meaning may have their own unhealthy models that they are working from. This may also apply to intra-system re-parenting arrangements.
When one considers the track record of some organizations which have made it their business and primary concern to place abused children in the hands of those who can be trusted, it should be clear that this is not something which should be jumped into without seriously checking the waters, if at all. (It is my personal opinion that one should have, implicit in the agreement, an understanding that the person is not truly your guardian, and that they cannot force you to remain in the circumstance. However, this is just my opinion, and I'm distrusting of authority in the first place.)
Let me repeat that!
As a person in part responsible for aspects of reparenting in many reality-contexts, I cannot stress HOW important it is to be cautious about this. Nonetheless, it's sometimes the only path. The key is knowing the prospective reparenter is utterly ethical and a skilled parent in a practical sense. - BP, for the Firewheel
There are several important items to note about what a little needs to be reparented.
- A little can easily soak up every available moment of their parental figures to get their needs filled. If these needs are being filled externally then they will front more often and throw the balance of your life off. Others (little or otherwise) may start acting out if they are unable to get front time, so littles need to have regulated front time like everyone else. But a little's attention and affection needs can't be put off. This creates a system-wide catch-22 between reparenting the inner children versus having time to adult or have hobbies or blow off steam or take care of setting and keeping appointments.
- The best reparenting relationships provide constant attachment parenting, monitoring, and leading a child through skills-development and developing self-responsibility, all balanced depending on the age of the child in question. A child needs constant care and needs to be able to explore their life's boundaries and their privileges, then anchor back to their parental figure for check-ins to get their security needs met.
- There is no known reliable timeframe for individuals with PTSD to fully absorb that it is safe to "age up" or move from one self-responsibility "level" (capability) to the next. It could be 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years before any given little is ready to age up to the point where they are an independent member of your system, no longer in need of reparenting.
- Losing a reparenting relationship can be an enormous setback for a little. Having already had lousy care when they were a body-child, the first time around (whether in terms of direct care, lack of care, inability or lack of protection from trauma or abuse, parental death or illness, etc.), there is often little room for extreme and sudden changes in the reparenting relationship. This goes for any reason that the little might lose their parental figure.
External Parental Figures
Putting this level of trust and responsibility into the hands of people external to the system might seem to have some benefits, but generally the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. Here's an example of 2 types of external reparenting relationships we have seen, and a list of some of the issues with relying on these people for reparenting.
- Reparenting with an intimate partner is inappropriate.
- In the case of a spouse or partner being a reparenting figure, it could unsettle the system if more co-consciousness develops (which is heading towards easier internal relationships and more functional dealings with the external world). Your little(s) may become aware of moments with their parental figure that perhaps they should not be aware of.
- In this day and age, marriage and partnership is not guaranteed to be permanent.
- It could create creepy crossover mental images that could disturb one's partner.
- Parents choose whether to make sacrifices for their children. Your partner may have chosen to make these sacrifices for physical children for the number of years expected for children to gain independence. This does not mean they are prepared for how long it could take a child frozen at some age to get unstuck and make progress.
- There are other people in your system who need your partner for a variety of their own reasons, to have their needs for intimacy, communication, etc. met.
- Having a partner who is constantly in touch during work hours, or where crises at home interfere with their ability to work could also strain partner relationships, interfere with a partner's ability to work or be away on travel for their career.
- As with any stressful relationship that drains energy, a parental figure needs some time off and a life of their own in addition to caring for a child. A traumatized child needs constant access. This isn't compatible.
- The little's time front could overpower or outshine time between partners and interpersonal connections and adult communications can easily take a back seat to the little.
- The little's needs for a caretaker could also prevent the partner from meeting their own needs to connect with their adult partner(s) in the system. This can create resentments and turn into a fight at some point which by its very nature could be extremely damaging to your littles.
- Reparenting with a professional is inappropriate.
- It is a violation of professional ethics.
- It's not a permanent relationship: professionals move, retire, change careers or get new jobs if their practice isn't working out, etc.
- It's not appropriate to have a child wait until an appointment to be able to get their reparenting needs met, and then only for a set amount of time.
- Filling the little's needs could completely usurp the professional relationship. Working on other issues can easily take a back seat to a child's sometimes literally bottomless needs for love, care and attention. This undermines a therapeutic relationship as no other needs for the system, such as processing trauma or learning new coping mechanisms, are being met.
- Reparenting with your actual parents
- This is rarely a good idea — they didn't get it right the first time around, and all their failings and habits are probably your system's triggers.
- No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how much more healthy or enlightened they are now, there will be a great deal of resentment from other internals around this.
- When it is a good idea, still find auxiliary parental relationships to back it up. Perhaps in your own mind, your physical parents are secondary parental figures with internal reparenting groups as your primary parental figures.
Healthy Reparenting Relationships
It's important to find people you can trust to develop a healthy parent-child relationship for your littles. Finding great external parenting role-models who are available in the ways that a little needs, and with ironclad guarantees that they're in for the long-haul can be difficult-to-impossible.
It's also important to caution that, in addition to backing out when the going gets tough, externals may accept this important position and then reenforce the dysfunctional models you are trying to replace. Or create new dysfunctional dynamics; even someone who is well-meaning may have their own unhealthy models that they are working from.
Given all the downsides of trusting the externals you should be able to trust the most (your professional care team, your chosen intimate partner, and in theory your own body-parents or adoptive parents), the situation would not be improved by relying on friends or other family members.
Since littles need permanence and security, constant access on an ongoing basis, etc. it's our recommendation that you find ways to work on reparenting internally.
- Build an appropriate environment to reparent littles in your internal landscape (using internal landscaping techniques).
- Partner adults or at least elder teens in your system in parenting relationships with littles and youngers.
- You can use a team model, like 3+ inner adults to one little if you have the numbers to support such a relationship. This guarantees that they can balance the load and also keep an eye on each other's styles of parenting.
- Provide consistency of care and boundaries/limits by making sure the caregiving team discusses their care methodology and the rules for what is and is not acceptable. Also, the team should be flexible about changes as the little's needs change and they begin to grow.
What are good qualities for reparenting caregivers in one's system?
- Impeccable ethics and trustworthiness.
- High empathy and nurturing ability.
- Time on their hands in the internal landscape i.e. not the host or major fronts of the system if that's at all possible. If not, at least have it so they can swap.
- They must be little-approved by their charge(s).
- Patience. This could take years, even decades.
You may be able to group reparent littles, but every little will still need their own 1:1 time with caregivers so the number of caregivers still needs to outnumber the group of littles they care for — if that's possible. Make it work for you.
Raising Your Parenting Game
How does one become a good parent? What should the caregivers in your system do to work on their own parenting skills, especially when they haven't been handed great role-models?
- Understand that these are not just children inside your plural/multiple system — they're traumatized children. They may have additional needs to those of children in individual bodies who are not traumatized.
- Spend time in therapy discussing good parenting, and specific problems one is facing in being a good parent and setting appropriate boundaries for your littles at their age/stage of development. This is a "teach someone to fish" model — one hour of therapy on this topic can lead to years of better parenting skills rather than one hour of good parenting for your littles.
- Take a class on parenting skills. If you can find an online course on parenting, no one will know that you've got internal rather than external children. (An example of a well-rated online course in parenting skills — prices on Udemy drop to about $9.99USD once a month. We have not vetted the course itself, so please note that it is not likely it is trauma-informed and to exercise self-care while watching. We get no kick-backs for giving this example.)
- Read up on child development and attachment parenting, discipline and setting boundaries. Argue with the materials. It's OK to disagree and come up with your own ideas.
This is just a starter list. There's many ways to learn better parenting skills, hopefully this is helpful.
Some Last Caveats
Others in your system may want to check in with the reparenting team periodically and help them out. Relieve them for a shift, make sure their needs get met, give them spoons or some hugs and gifts to help them stay energized and focused on their task.
If the others in your system are attentive to the needs of what is essentially a nursery school or school system in your head, then things could go much easier. Being on hand to do internal landscaping tasks to help compensate for the little's changing needs, or visiting for playtime is fine! Littles can have friends they associate with.
That said this is not a ploy to keep littles from fronting. When they front, their caregiver should be at their elbow, making sure to steer them away from trouble and perhaps help them understand what is going on in the world outside, also to guide them back to their care area when front time is done. They may interact with your therapist or spouse and even be affectionate and have moments of getting redirection or lessons and knowledge from external people. However, this puts those relationships into perspective as these people would not be parental figures — they would be more like adult friends or temporary carers.
Those who have insomnia due to little's evening antics: internal caregivers can also be put in charge of nap and bed-time including rituals that are carried out internally to help the little's fall asleep.
Reparenting for Middles & Bigs
Note that while reparenting littles is of the biggest concern, middles, teens, and adults in your system may want or need reparenting as well, and by no means are the concerns or techniques much different for anyone of any age in your system. The point is for the parenting relationships to be healthy and appropriate for the "child" party's current age and developmental milestones.
One thing that may be somewhat different, however, is that once Middles & Bigs have appropriate boundaries, are able to detach and reattach in an age-appropriate manner, can perform accurate reality testing, and have some means to know right from wrong in the world, it is easier to have and hold accountable external reparenting figures. It's easier for Bigs, however, since Middles still may want daily "check-ins" with parental figures, where Bigs may be perfectly find checking in with "mom" or "dad" once a week or every few weeks. Also, should something ever happen to the reparenting figure(s), Middles and Bigs can experience a more realistic grieving process and while surely saddened, they can learn and grow from even losing appropriate role-models for being a good parent.
In this way, Bigs and older Middles can themselves be reparented by appropriate external adults and taught how to be a better parental figure for littles within their system.
So it will depend on your particular system and your particular needs. Just remember that no one is perfect.