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The time of life when a human being is most vulnerable is early childhood, so that is when the most extreme adaptions can occur. Phil’s story illustrates the way a small child handles vulnerability by adapting, the various steps involved and what can sometimes go wrong.

1. The Natural Child

External protectors – no vulnerability - early childhood 0-12 weeks

As a very new baby, Phil felt secure and loved. He ‘knew’ he was special because people who were with him gave him all kinds of positive signs that he was lovable.

It was as though everyone was telling him "You don’t have to do anything except be who you are, we’ll take care of you."

He felt safe and protected 24 hours a day. There was nothing to worry about, no insecurity and certainly no sense of being vulnerable or in danger.

‘I am special’

He also had a sense of liking himself, part of which was his sense that he was unique, there had never been another person in the history of the world just like him. He had the special gift of being able to give love unconditionally and he knew he was receiving unconditional love from his protectors especially his mother and father.

Best of all, there were no conditions attached to all this. Phil didn’t have to do anything to be loved. It was a time of joy.

‘I am OK just the way I am’

At a deeper level Phil felt a close and very direct connection with a higher or spiritual energy. He was too young to understand what this meant, but that did not matter, it was just a lovely feeling. The feeling did not require logical thought, it did not need to make sense. It just ‘was’.

This added to his sense of being both special and protected and his wonderful sense of ‘being Phil’ and knowing for certain that who he was and what he did was always OK with people because that’s how things were meant to be.

2. Loss of external protectors - 6 Months To 2 Years

After a while, Phil notices there are times when he feels less loved and less safe. Sometimes he just feels alone or abandoned because no one is there to give him love and protection. At other times people get angry about what he is doing or even just who he is being.

Phil is beginning to experience a different kind of love and protection, called conditional love, which is withdrawn when he does not meet other people’s conditions.

Conditional protection

It seems to Phil as though his family are saying "Unless you are special or perfect in exactly the way we want you to be, we don’t want to take care of you any more."

These are very frightening times for Phil but for a start they do not last too long. Then gradually Phil notices that what started out as temporary feelings of vulnerability now seem to be the usual situation. Phil finds himself regularly facing the fear of being unprotected and unloved.

3. Phil learns more and more about adapting - 2 to 4 years

Phil is already very much aware of how his sense of vulnerability goes up each time he feels wounded, and like all living creatures he will automatically respond to the pain and that scary vulnerability feeling by trying to change his behaviour.

Early adaption by trial and error

Part of Phil’s drive to adapt is also his feeling that he alone is responsible for discovering just how he has to change his behaviour to fit in with what his external protectors (his parents) want.

So he starts searching and experimenting, trying out ways to adapt or change himself that will make his parents (his external protectors) love him and look after him again ( the way they used to) that is unconditionally. In his child’s mind this is what ‘adaption’ is supposed to do.

He tries to stop doing the ‘wrong thing’ and instead to do something (anything) different in the hope that if he changes it will make his parents and other external protectors want to take care of him again. From Phil’s point of view, adapting is the only way to survive his wounding and reduce his feelings of vulnerability.

Phil’s natural parts seem to ‘get it wrong’

For example, Phil’s natural pattern is to be very independent and adventurous. Quite early in life he discovers the joy of trying out new things and doing things differently.

Phil’s natural parts also include a very competent ‘I can do it’ attitude, which is particularly good at helping him solve his problems and do things the way he wants to do. Phil’s parents who are uncomfortable with this, often express concern about his being ‘too strong willed’.

Each time he acts in his natural way all by himself, his joy is cut short by his Dad’s reaction. "Don’t do it like that, you silly boy, that’s the wrong way", and his Mother’s "Stop doing that, you bad boy. You’ll hurt yourself!" Both parents constantly seem to be saying things to Phil like "How many times do I have to tell you not to do it that way?"

These messages tell Phil that unless he adapts or changes away from his natural independent self, he will always be in some kind of trouble and not very lovable in his parents’ eyes.

As a very small child, even before he can speak, Phil knows how to listen intuitively and work out when things are not going well around him.

Like all small children he ‘knows’ that whatever goes wrong in his world must be in some way his fault. And already he is beginning to realise that he has to do something about this .....

The Story of Phil’s Adaption

The basis of the adaption approach (which is supported by many internationally recognised therapists including psychologists Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone, Dr. John Bradshaw and Pia Mellody) is that our environment has a greater effect on the way our personalities develop than the effects arising from our genetic make-up. In this way we are like all other living creatures.

Regardless of our genes, when we feel vulnerable we naturally change or adapt in whatever way we can, in order to help feel less endangered.