Healing the Vulnerable Child mode

Schema therapy was initially developed by Jeffrey Young in the 1980s, focusing on a client’s core schema, such as Abandonment or Defectiveness. But as the model became more sophisticated, the focus increasingly turned to working with ‘modes’ – different aspects of a person’s personality that can show up as distinct entities. This is a similar concept to self-states, parts or sub-personalities in other modalities. Everyone has modes – and probably hundreds of different modes – but there are a few archetypal modes that everyone has. And the most important of these is the Vulnerable Child.

Using a Mode Map

One way to explain this to clients is to draw up a Mode Map, with five or six modes drawn as circles and given idiosyncratic names. Typically these include the Critic, Healthy Adult and ‘coping modes’ such as the Detached Protector or Self-Aggrandiser (common in narcissistic presentations). When drawing up this map I always leave the biggest circle for the Vulnerable Child, which we call ‘Little X’ (so mine is Little Dan). I explain this part to my clients like this:

‘This is the part of you that feels all of the strong emotions, like anxiety, hurt, jealousy or loneliness. It’s like an inner child that gets triggered when you feel stressed, hurt or threatened – and in those moments you feel these overwhelming emotions, like a child feels them. So this is why you feel small and powerless when your boss is shouting at you, because this young, vulnerable, sensitive part of you has been triggered and you feel like you’re six years old again, unable to defend yourself against your angry dad.’

CONTACTING the Vulnerable Child

I also explain that this is the part we want to heal, as it holds all of a client’s painful schemas and emotions. And I ask people to bring a photo of themselves when they were young, so we know exactly what Little Jane or Robert looks like. When we are doing imagery rescripting, I am directly contacting the Vulnerable Child, which is held in a person’s memory as they recall and re-experience an upsetting or traumatic incident from childhood.

I find some people just get this concept and love it, while others struggle with it. But over time everyone seems to relate to it and start saying things like, ‘Little Gina got really triggered at the weekend, because I felt left out by friends planning a trip,’ or ‘Little Tom was super-anxious before I made my speech, so I did a lot of calming him down and felt much better.’

Conceptualising people’s vulnerability, or painful emotions in this way can be incredibly powerful. It gives a voice to the part of them that they may have been ashamed of, or a dissociated part that they weren’t even aware of. It’s one of the signature ways of working that makes schema therapy such a warm, compassionate approach and means we can hold and help with even the most complex, hard-to-treat presentations.

If you would like to know more about working with your clients’ Vulnerable Child mode, come along to my one-day workshop, Working with Modes: Embracing Complexity & Achieving Integration.

And if you would like to know more about any of my workshops, call me on 07766 704210 or use the contact form to get in touch.

Warm wishes,

Dan