Content Warning: Language use on this page. To us a parental unit is someone installed in the parenting position or role who may or may not be filling the full idea of what "parenting" is. Deciding someone is a "parent" is an honorific that needs to be earned and includes nourishing, protecting, caring, attending, assisting, and role-modeling behavior that many parental units fail at. When we use the term "re-parenting" we are describing an attempt to do-over a failed or inadequate initial attempt to parent children (regardless of age) in every appropriate way. We only grant the honorific "parent" to people who do a good job at parenting. Our biological parental units never earned that honorific. Our internal parents have earned it. Your mileage may vary with the terminology used on this page, and until we have better terminology, we're going to consider what to do about this issue for some of our readers.
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.
The Crisses (and their system kids) talk about reparenting issues in a podcast episode here New.
To take this to the next level, check out The Crisses' 2020 Plural Positivity World Conference session Building a Reparenting-Focused Community.
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.
Choosing External Reparenting Figures
Sometimes a child in one's system will chose someone external 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.
Caution: choose healthier reparenting figures
I cannot stress enough how dangerous it could be to put yourself in a reparenting position with someone who may (deliberately or accidentally) reenforce the dysfunctional models you are trying to replace. Even someone who is well-meaning may have their own unhealthy parenting models or internal insecurities and needs for validation/attachment that they are working from. This may also apply to intra-system re-parenting arrangements, but with different potential outcomes.
When one considers the track record of government and non-profit organizations which have made it their business and primary concern to place abused, neglected, or orphaned children in the hands of those who can be trusted, it should be clear that external reparenting relationships are not something which should be jumped into without seriously checking the waters, and it should be avoided if at all possible. Raising children is an enormous responsibility, which challenges even the best of people. As we'll see below, raising traumatized system kids has it's own unique issues and challenges as well.
Let me repeat that! [from the original page, unedited]
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
It's very important to note that reparenting the youngest of inner children is a 24/7/365 job. There are no vacations or times off. A very young child can need intervention at any time of the day or night. Someone with office hours cannot be this for you. If your spouse has a job, they cannot be this for you. If your blood or adoptive parents have their own lives now they cannot be this for you.
What healthy therapists, spouses, or parents can do is help support the adults in your system by giving great advice, being great role-models, by giving loving and caring support as "grandparent" or elder figures to the adults in your system, by giving internal parents a little break by spending some time with the youngers in your system and playing or coloring with them, or giving them an occasional hug (for non-therapists), or taking them out for a treat or watching a movie with them, etc. At most, they can be co-parents with the children, but the internal parent should be the closer emotionally supportive parent figure that they go to when they have a nightmare or when they need hugs and cuddles, when they need emotional support and nurturing.
More about this below.
Myth Busting for System Kids
It's important to realize that the community and therapists have built up some unhealthy ideas around what small folk in the system need in order to make progress, and what they're capable of, that aren't true.
System kids do not need to front or age up to:
- live a happy and healthy life.
- get their emotional needs met.
- play or color or draw.
- have treats.
- work out insecurities or build self-esteem.
Some systems have difficulty regulating when their system kids front, and it threatens their stability, income, relationships, and may raise their overall anxiety level especially if the system kids fronting are trauma holders or triggered front, having panic attacks or anxiety attacks, etc. By helping your system kids to have appropriate internal outlets for exploration, art, healing, etc. you can help them grow and heal, both when internal and when fronting.
Fronting is a privilege. We discuss this more here. System kids deserve time out, just like anyone else in the system. That said, they also don't need to be given front at times that are inappropriate or create problems for your system, like any other system member. It would be inappropriate for a non-driver adult to front when driving a vehicle. There are times and places when certain internals should not front, and this becomes part of your system's culture and the negotiated agreements of your system.
That said, it's also fully possible to have system kids who can drive responsibly and should not be additionally restricted based on their age being a number. Each inner child should be assessed based on their abilities and ability to take responsibility for their actions, rather than the number that represents their age.
The overall idea is to regulate system kids' front-time, not to take it all away. Small children have both the need and the energy to be active and play or explore for many hours in the day, and they do not need to be front to do this. By building up to internal enrichment, exploration, learning, and needs-fulfillment, encouraging growth and healing, etc. internally so that they do not disrupt your external life at inappropriate times and you can negotiate fronting time as a reward and privilege for good behavior. It doesn't mean they will never front at all, it means they will take turns as appropriate along with everyone else.
There are several important items to note about what young system members need to be reparented.
- An inner child 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 (youngers or otherwise) may start acting out if they are unable to get front time, so these young folk need to have regulated front time like everyone else. But a young one's attention and affection needs can't be put off. This creates a system-wide catch-22 between externally reparenting the inner children versus having time to adult or have hobbies or blow off steam or take care of setting and keeping appointments. This is a major reason we suggest reparenting system kids within the system.
- The best reparenting relationships provide constant attachment parenting (especially for infants and toddlers), monitoring, and leading a child through skills-development and developing self-responsibility, all balanced depending on the age and abilities of the unique child in question. Young children needs constant care and need 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 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years before any given system kid 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 system child. Having already had lousy care when they were a body-child the first time around (for any of countless reasons), extreme and sudden changes in the reparenting relationship can set back progress and make it more difficult to build trust and rapport again, regardless of any reason that the system kid might lose their reparenting 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 system kid(s) may become aware of "adult time" 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 system kid 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. This creates additional conflicts of interest when you have time to spend with your partner.
- 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 system kid's time front could overpower or outshine time between partners and interpersonal connections and adult communications can easily take a back seat to the child.
- The system kid'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 inner kids.
- 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 system kid'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: proceed with much caution.
- 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 may be a great deal of resentment from other internals around this. You may need to do a great deal of soul-searching to make sure that everyone in your system, including system rebels and stuck residents most especially, is ok with this.
- Your bio or adoptive parents may have their own plans and have moved on as an "empty nester" assuming you are already an adult. Even if you are not an adult, they have likely planned a total of 20 years (give-or-take) to assist you in achieving adult-level functioning and were not expecting to be raising young children for decades. System kids aren't on a biological growth schedule. It is entirely reasonable to have a discussion around this factor, that your system kids could still be quite little and clingy or needy even when you are 40 or 50 years old.
- When it is a good idea, still find auxiliary internal parental relationships to back it up. We would suggest shifting relationships over time so that your physical parents are secondary parental figures with internal reparenting groups as your primary parental figures so that you can adult and take responsibility for your system needs internally.
Healthy Reparenting Relationships
It's important to find people you can trust to develop a healthy parent-child relationship for your inner kids. 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 inner children 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 the children in your internal landscape (using internal landscaping techniques).
- Partner adults or at least elder teens in your system in parenting relationships with your 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 accepted and approved by their charge(s). So you may end up with a group of caregivers and some kids may not work with certain caregivers.
- Patience. This could take years, even decades.
You may be able to group reparent your inner kids, but every child will still need their own 1:1 time with caregivers so the number of caregivers still needs to outnumber the group of youngsters they care for — if that's possible. Make it work for you.
Internal Landscaping for Reparenting
How do you set yourselves up for success in redirecting system kids to use internal resources instead of fronting?
You build internal landscape/inner world features that appeal to children and help fill their needs.
More info on how:
- Internal Landscapes or Inner Worlds
- Internal Landscaping
- Home Renovations
- Home Renovations: Intercom or Holodeck?
Reparenting Center: nursery, daycare, playground, etc.
Creating areas that are attuned to the care of system kids is important to help them remain engaged, distracted, and have their needs met internally. You can use external role-models such as a family room, nursery school, kindergarten classroom, daycare center, playground, etc. as a role-model for what you can create or build internally for your kids.
Whatever you create, we suggest a few features:
- An indoor area with doors & windows that can be shut/shaded to help shield inner kids from adult time or external activities that may be disturbing. The doors/windows should normally be open, and allow the children to experience coconsciousness while allowing them to distract themselves with toys, puzzles, art, activities, etc.
- A cuddle and low-sensory area where system kids can be consoled and calmed down. Loads of pillows, blankets, blanket forts, perhaps books to read to them, stuffies, etc.
- A more outdoor or outdoor-like area with larger activities for energy-draining fun like ball pits, slides, climbing bars, small rock walls for climbing, soft surfaces for landing, some self-powered rides like see-saws or swings, etc.
- You might consider other things like a petting zoo, a small amusement park that's age-appropriate, sports fields, etc.
- There could be a food prep area or a place to serve treats internally.
- Whatever would help the bigs or caretakers in the area be more comfortable being on-hand and monitoring the children.
Teen Center: recreation hall, amusement park, library, etc.
Older kids and teens in your system also could use some fun and amusements in-system. You might consider allowing them to create their own space and give them more responsibility and input into what they create.
If you need it, you could have agreements that there are "indoor times" when you have external adult time, etc. so that your teens are distracted and shielded when need be.
Here's some ideas:
- A large indoor building, perhaps multi-floor or multi-purpose, with rooms for their special interests (arts, sciences, etc.)
- a gym (basketball, handball court, etc.)
- outside sports areas (soccer/football, volleyball, tennis, baseball, etc.)
- a movie theater
- outdoor amusement park
- mini golf range, or even a full golf range if that's what they enjoy
- library or research center
- separate rooms for special interest clubs to meet
- kitchen for cooking and making treats of their own
- pool or water park
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 inner kids at their age/stage of development. This is a "teach someone to fish" model — one hour of therapy coaching on this topic can lead to years of better parenting skills for your inner adults to use with your inner children for the rest of your shared life, rather than one hour of good parenting experience for your inner kids.
- 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! Your inner kids can have friends they associate with.
That said this is not a ploy to keep youngsters 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 your system's children 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 the younger children within their system.
So it will depend on your particular system and your particular needs. Just remember that no one is perfect.