When My Inner Child Behaves Like a Brat

Lately I've been asking myself why the therapist isn't following her own advise. It's so easy to tell people to exercise a little every day, to stay away from sweets and alcohol, to get eight hours of sleep a night. Too easy.

So much harder to actually do it myself. Lately when I wake up, instead of doing my usual prayer of gratitude for the new day, I moan, "Why did you eat those cookies, that pie, those potatoes!"  I whine, "Do I really have to exercise? It's so cold!"  I kvetch, "You stayed up too late watching TV!"  I could blame the lack of sunshine, the busy schedule, the fact that I'm middle aged. It doesn't matter. It's got to stop or at least slow down or I will end up looking like Jabba the Hut in no time.

Remember when I got into my skinny jeans? Well, forget that!

Counting calories? Still a good idea but am I doing it? Uh….

David Rock, Are Our Minds Going the Way of Our Waists, apparently thinks the reason I have so much trouble with regulating my eating is that there is so much temptation in my face all the time and the part of my brain that provides restraint is puny. I don't doubt it.

How could the therapist help herself? There is a concept that seems to resonate when I'm counseling people.  When we have trouble doing the right thing for ourselves consider this simple idea: 

In theory our psyches are made up of three entities, the Child, the Parent and the Adult. Transactional analysis, a humanistic school of psychology, used these terms.  Sigmund Freud identified these constructs as the Id, the Superego and the Ego respectively. We get out of whack (scientific term for neurotic) when either the Child or the Parent stomps all over the Adult.

Like when I see a brownie. The child in me jumps up and down and demands the brownie now!  The adult might say, "You know, eating the brownie is contrary to your goal of losing weight. No brownie. Eat an apple instead!" The Parent is silent. At least it is until I've ignored the Adult, given in to the Child and gobbled down the brownie. Then it yells, "What is wrong with you! Don't you feel bad? Well, you should!" 

Our goal is to have a healthy balance between the three as long as the Adult is in charge, like a CEO with two assertive VPs. Sometimes the Adult will choose to let the Child have its self-indulgent, creative way, like dancing at a party, taking a nap or laughing too loudly at a silly joke. Sometimes the disciplining Parent is allowed to express restraint, judgment, remorse. The Adult is the decider.

Strengthening the Adult with good self-esteem is what helps us do the right thing even when it's not pleasant. Our inner Adult is the good, self-nurturing part of us that can be disciplined but also kind, gentle but firm, independent and strong.

When I need to be immediately gratified that's my inner Child being a brat. Then I can call up the Adult to say something reasonable like, "If you're good and do your exercise, I'll let you have half. How would that be?"

Yeah, maybe the therapist can follow her own advise after all.


  • SD

    Dr Aletta,
    When it comes to food my inner child usually wins the battle and then the parent gets mad at the child. Unfortunately I have not mastered getting the adult involved and I am not exactly sure the difference between the adult and the parent. I think the adult in me is getting mad as well, isn’t it?
    I do try the bargaining with myself using exercise as well. Sometimes with some success.
    Food is so hard because you can’t cut it out completely. You don’t “have” to smoke or drink alcohol to survive but you have to eat. OK I know you don’t “have” to eat brownies but you do have to eat.
    Good luck with your quest for moderation.

  • Dr Aletta,
    I find it’s much easier to eat correctly when I live on my own. I can buy what I need at the store, prepare what I need, and not be subjected to all of the yummy things my mom makes…but I know how hard I worked in the gym to get to how I look today, and I think that’s a big motivator for me to steer clear from a lot of the stuff that isn’t good for me.
    I know everyone doesn’t have the luxury of living on their own, but that’s what works for me….Also,I know how bad I feel and how horrible of a mood I get into when going through sugar withdrawl, and Yes, I do believe it does have something to do with increasing depression and depressive episodes.

  • I can understand your confusion about the adult/parent. The way I try to see it is, the Adult uses reason, the rational part of our brains to negotiate between the child and parent, at least that’s what we want it to do. Whenever you hear your inner voice saying, “You shouldn’t…” that’s the parent. Whenever we feel the sting of guilt, that’s the Parent. Let me know if this helps. It’s kind of late and I’m not sure this makes perfect sense.

  • Rob, You are probably right. The problem is, I’m the Mom in this household! While I was writing this post I was thinking how much easier it would be if I didn’t have two teenagers in the house but that’s just an excuse. Half the time I’m the one suggesting a snack or treat. Actually we eat very healthy as a family. No chips, or serious junk. Still we do have crackers and popcorn and this being Christmas, cookies.
    Keeping the Adult in tune, today I did exercise (a key to good body weight as you know) and didn’t overdo the cookies. I feel better physically and mentally as a result. That’s what I need to remember.

  • SD

    Dr Aletta,
    I get it as far as the parent and the guilt and shoulds, but then what does the adult say to stop the parent and the child?

  • Yes, And that’s part of your job being a mom!!!! Of course, my mom thinks she’s Paula Dean or something….always watching the Food Network shows and cooking up something good.

  • That sounds so yummy. Unapologetic comfort food is sometimes the best thing for Adult, Parent AND Child!


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