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The Power of Limited Reparenting: Complexities and Challenges

by David Edwards


Early maladaptive schemas arise when significant needs are not met as an individual grows through infancy, toddlerhood, early and middle childhood and adolescence. To promote schema healing, we help clients identify the needs that were not met and experience what it is like to have them met. We help them become aware of what they need in their present lives, and how to act so that their needs will be better met.

Working in the present is, however, often thwarted by schema driven behaviours resulting from maladaptive schema systems that retain the memories of the growing child whose needs were not met and whose psychological growth was damaged as a result. Reparenting in the therapeutic relationship is the basis for providing the client with corrective experiences that can bring about change in the client’s early schema systems.

To achieve this, the schema therapist must be like a good parent who is sensitively attuned and responsive to the needs of the Child, both in the therapeutic relationship itself and in rescripting childhood memories. This means providing the safety, nurturance, protection, guidance and support for autonomy that the real parents failed to adequately provide, as well as empathically confronting problematic coping modes. Offering reparenting is challenging and there are many twists and bumps in the road. Therapists need integrity, empathy and emotional balance, as well as mindfulness, good judgment and a capacity for firmness. Reparenting must be responsively tailored to the developmental stage of the Child and the kinds of unmet need being addressed. Reparenting is limited in that the therapist does not provide the intensity of care and responsiveness needed by an actual child, but managing this can also be challenging. Attempts at reparenting misfire when reparenting is offered to a client’s coping mode and not to the Child behind the coping mode. 

Therapists’ own early schemas get triggered in the process and they may mistakenly try to reparent from a coping mode: giving reassurance in response to the client’s reassurance-seeking, or being intent on fixing the problem to cope with their own triggered defectiveness. Therapists need to detect such triggering and work with their own schema healing. 

Further challenges are posed by clients’ dissociated child parts that are stuck in a suspended state out of reach of our reparenting efforts, and by child parts that only want to be reparented by their actual parents and are not interested in what the therapist has to offer. We need to detect and respond to these complexities and challenges, if we are tore fine our case conceptualizations so that we can fully realize the power and potential of limited reparenting and go ever deeper in the schema healing process.

    About the Presenter:

    David Edwards

    David Edwards lives in Cape Town, South Africa, where he runs a training program in schema therapy through the Schema Therapy Institute of South Africa. He presents basic and advanced training workshops in schema therapy in South Africa and internationally. He also has an active private practice offering psychotherapy and clinical supervision. He is registered as a Clinical Psychologist in South Africa and the United Kingdom. He trained in cognitive-behavioural, humanistic and transpersonal approaches to psychotherapy, and has a longstanding interest in psychotherapy integration. He was fortunate to be introduced to schema therapy by Jeffrey Young, the founder of schema therapy, in the 1980s and has followed its development from its beginnings. He is an Emeritus Professor at Rhodes University, where, for over 25 years, he taught cognitive-behavioural therapy (including schema therapy) to trainee clinical and counselling psychologists, and offered intensive workshops to students using expressive therapies including psychodrama, clay sculpture, drawing and dance. Since his retirement at the end of 2009 he continues to work as a researcher and research supervisor. He has over 100 academic publications in the form of journal articles and book chapters.

    The focus of many of these is trauma and complex trauma. Several of them are clinical case studies and he is one of the editors of Case studies within psychotherapy trials: Integrating qualitative and quantitative methods (Oxford University Press, 2017). He has also written articles and book chapters on imagery methods in psychotherapy and is the author, with Michael Jacobs, of Conscious and unconscious in the series Core concepts in psychotherapy (McGraw Hill, 2003). The focus of his current work is on the phenomenology of schema modes and understanding the deep structure of modes. This is reflected in a recent pair of articles on modes in a case of anorexia nervosa (Edwards 2017a and Edwards 2017b).

    Why Schema Therapy?

    Schema therapy has been extensively researched to effectively treat a wide variety of typically treatment resistant conditions, including Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Read our summary of the latest research comparing the dramatic results of schema therapy compared to other standard models of psychotherapy.

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