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Internal Family Systems (IFS) with Children: A Playful Approach to Parts Work!

Have you heard of Internal Family Systems (IFS)? It’s an incredible therapeutic model which has completely transformed the way I work with clients, AND the way I look at the world (click here for an introduction to parts work!)

In this blog post, I’m going to introduce the idea of Parts work with children, and share practical examples and techniques to help bring it to life.

A child and adult putting together puzzle pieces. Representing the different parts inside from an IFS perspective.

Why an IFS-Informed Approach Works So Well with Children

Children tend to naturally grasp the idea of having ‘parts’, as it speaks to their innately creative, metaphorical, and imaginative minds. Externalising the different parts of themselves makes the issues they’re facing easier to talk about, and removes some of the judgement they may otherwise feel. Speaking in ‘parts language’ allows children to keep a safe distance from the issue, externalising it somewhat, which can allow them to stay with any difficult feelings and thoughts long enough to begin to process them.

How to Introduce Parts Work to Children

Use puppets, toys or symbols to help children visualise as you explain the following:

"Did you know that inside our minds, there are lots of different characters. It’s a bit like in the film, ‘Inside Out’. Each character in your mind makes up the team of You!

You might have a brave part that loves going on adventures, a happy part that likes to play and have fun, and a shy part that feels a little nervous sometimes.

Sometimes, these parts can have different ideas about what you should do or how you should feel. It's like having lots of little voices inside your head, all wanting different things! Sometimes, one part might want to be brave and try something new, but another part feels a little scared and wants things to stay the same.

A child lying on the grass, surrounded by emoji feeling faces, representing different parts of themselves.

The amazing thing is, we can get to know these different characters, and eventually become friends with them, even the ones that might seem a little scary at first!

All of the little characters inside want to try and help you, even if they get it wrong sometimes. It's like having your own special team inside your mind, working together to make you the amazing person you are!

I’d love to get to know some of these parts of you better, shall we try?”

IFS and Parts Work Activities for Children

Invite children to give their parts names and personalities. Let them know that their parts can be anything, they might look just like they do, or they could be animals, objects, people or magical creatures! They might even change as we get to know them.

Some children might dive in straightaway without much need for prompting, and tell you all about the fire- breathing dragon that lives inside of them and gets very, very angry.

Other children may need a little more guidance. Start with a feeling, or a thought they are aware of, or are trying to work through, and help them to represent it. It might sound something like this:

“OK, so can you find that anxious feeling inside? What do you notice about it? You can close your eyes if that helps.”

“It feels like something is squeezing in my chest!”

“Ooft, that sounds uncomfortable! I wonder if there’s an anxious part that lives there, inside your chest? What do you think?”

“Maybe! It feels very worried.”

“Yes, I bet it does. I wonder, if it could speak, what might it say to you?”

“Hmm… It says, be careful! That’s scary!”

“OK, so it’s really worried about you getting hurt, it doesn’t want you to feel scared.”

“No… It just wants to hide.”

“So this little part inside your chest that is very worried and wants to hide, what do you think it might look like? You could draw it if you want to, or maybe it looks like one of these toys?”

Three children playing with their handmade puppets, representing an IFS art activity.

They can then draw/paint it out, or use puppets, toys, or symbols to represent this part of themselves.

This can lead to lots of different creative and playful explorations with the part.

Staying Open and Compassionate

It’s absolutely key that while doing this work, you do your best to stay open, curious and compassionate towards any and every part a child bravely reveals to you. Consistently modelling this will help a child to become more self-compassionate and accepting of themselves too.

Here's a little example script that can help to foster more self-compassion:

“When we find parts inside of us that feel tricky, it's normal to want to make them go away. We might think that if we ignore them or try to get rid of them, everything will get better. But the truth is, pushing them away can actually make us feel worse!

It’s a bit like having a friend inside who sometimes feels upset. If we ignore them, they sometimes end up getting even louder because they really want you to listen!

So, instead of pushing these parts inside of you away, we can take some time to listen to them. If we can explore why they're there and what they need, we can find better ways to help them!”

Hands with Self Energy words like Calm, Curious, Caring, Compassionate, Patient, holding a raincloud with words like despair, sadness, grief.

Even as a therapist, it can be challenging to fully accept and be compassionate towards certain parts of our clients. We might see our clients suffering, and feel frustrated or judgmental, wishing those parts would change or go away. When this happens, engaging in our own parts work can be incredibly helpful, allowing us to explore and understand the reasons behind our reactions. By cultivating self-compassion and curiosity towards our own parts, we can develop a greater capacity to extend the same acceptance and understanding to our clients. It's through our own ongoing work that we can deepen our ability to provide a compassionate therapeutic space, to better support our clients' journeys of self-discovery and healing. If this is something you would like to explore for yourself in more depth, you can contact me here.

In this blog post, I've shared how you can begin to incorporate IFS-informed ideas and parts work with children in a playful and child-friendly way. By using parts work language and activities, children (and adults alike!) can get to know all the different characters inside their minds, and develop a deeper understanding of themselves, allowing them to grow in not only self-awareness, but self-compassion too.

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