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IFS: Parts in Parenting

IFS: Parts in Parenting

Parenting, in all its complexity, offers us moments of intense emotions and experiences, sometimes in a way that feels polarizing or confusing. Perhaps it is deep frustration and deep love simultaneously. Or maybe a joined sense of loneliness and over touch. A need to be alone while also yearning for connection. How is it that we can feel such vastly different experiences at the same time? Let’s look at IFS. 

It can help to work with each emotional experience as individual, internal parts, each working hard to help you manage and survive by tapping into a skill set, defense or adaptation.


What do you mean by “parts”?

Working with parts is a key component to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapeutic modality. Founded by Dr. Richards Schwartz, IFS teaches us that every person is a complex human being whose personality is made up of various parts designed to help you adapt, manage and succeed in life. This approach is grounded in science, capturing the human brain’s ability to process what is going on quickly and efficiently by sending us a message about how we should think, act or respond. Said another way, our brains are trying to figure out how it can pull from what it knows to be true based on our past experiences (muscle memory), to help us figure out what to do in the present. In this sense, our personalities are a collection of learned ways of being. Dr. Tori Olds helps explain this concept in more depth in this video

What is unique to IFS is the compassion it offers to our parts, even when they have a way of sabotaging or hurting us. Perhaps there is a part that gravitates towards drinking alchohol, or excessive shopping when things get tough. Rather than working with this behaviour as unhelpful or distorted, trying to stop it in its tracks, we bring compassion and curiosity to understand how this part is designed to actually protect and support you. This is important because when compassion is given to our parts, they can finally feel safe, relax, and begin to understand that there are opportunities to shift because they are no longer in the same place they once were when they learned to cope in that particular way. In the words of Dick Schwarts, there are no bad parts


How our parts can show up in parenting:

Let’s work with an example. Your child is having a meltdown about their outfit for the day before school and a part of you may be trying to tap into compassion and patience, supporting them through their big feelings. But, as the clock ticks on and you become aware you are going to be late for school drop off (and eventually work), another part of you becomes present, perhaps frustration or agitation. It is as if these various emotions (or parts!) are having an internal struggle and then depending on how the situation played out, perhaps that frustrated part took over, causing you to raise your voice, feel heated or panicked. Maybe that triggered yet another part to show up, guilt or perhaps shame… feeling like a pit in our stomach or tension in our chest. Sound familiar? This domino effect can leave us feeling stuck and drained. 


How do we work with our parts?

In IFS we work to map out our various internal parts and each of their important intentions and functions, ones that are often designed to protect a younger version of yourself. When we do this with a therapist, this conversation feels curious, mindful and validating. Back to our morning meltdown example… Perhaps the part of you that felt guilty learned when you were little that it wasn’t acceptable to show big emotions because it led your caregiver to disconnect. You learned to shove it down as long as possible to ensure you felt safe and connected, but now it leads to an even bigger reaction when it finally gets expressed.  We can recognize this part as working hard to create a sense of safety and stability for you, then help the part realize it isn’t in that environment anymore and rather build on that skill set to have you feeling better set up to thrive in the present. 


There are “no bad parts”

But there is one more key component to this model. Underneath our learned ways of being, is a self that is innately confident, calm, creative, curious, courageous, compassionate, and has the ability to be connected to itself and others. This concept makes so much sense to me when I am with a child, in the way they unapologetically announce their needs, dance like nobody’s watching, focus on a task with utter determination and move through the world like it is a curious and exciting adventure. What if we still have all of those beautiful abilities and can work to shift them to the forefront?

If you are familiar with Dr. Becky and her concept of every child (and parent!) being “Good Inside”, you may enjoy this interview with Dr. Dick Schwartz. Together, they explain how our parts can show up in parenting, and how we can work to understand and update our parts that are stuck in a memory response from when they were first designed, such as a traumatic childhood event.


How do I get to know my parts?

Here at Acorn Counselling, we have therapists trained in IFS, who have also first hand felt the benefits of this work. In my own training and experience, the biggest impact is understanding and appreciating myself in a way that has me feel sturdy, confident and aware of myself. Setting boundaries comes more naturally, I feel a deep sense of compassion for my kids, especially during those morning meltdowns (yes, they happen to me too!), and I am better able to tap into my creativity on a regular basis. 

As you move on with your day, see if you can notice your different emotions as having their own distinct experience. What does it feel like in your body? Is there a distinct tone of voice? What emotion can you sense? Want more ideas? Here is a helpful list of ideas of how parts work can be applied in parenting, inspired by Paul Neustadt from IFSCA:

  1. Observe your child’s tough behavior as coming from one part of them and remind yourself there are many other parts that are not visible at the moment (for example, the kind, affectionate and confident parts).
  2. Focus on noticing the parts of your child that are already strong, how can you help your child identify them as well and work together to nurture them? How can you do the same with yourself?
  3. Notice and be curious about your own intense reactions as coming from one part of you. Is there an underlying need you can identify underneath this part? Can you do the same when interacting with your loved ones to better understand their perspective? 

If you are interested in getting to know your parts and how they show up in your parenting or any other aspect of your life, our team would be honoured to support you. Parts work can be incorporated into therapy with all ages including play-based therapies, parenting, family and adult individuals.