Dysfunctional ‘Parent’ Modes

Dysfunctional ‘Parent’ Modes

The Demanding, Punitive & Guilt-inducing ‘Parent’ Modes

These parent (or ‘inner critic’) modes are learned thoughts and beliefs (about yourself and others) which are negative in nature. They might sound like this: “I’m ugly, I’ll never get anywhere in life; I’m worthless, I’m not as good as others; no one could love me; I’m useless if I make mistakes; I’m boring, I’m going to stuff it up again, I’m just not good enough, If I don’t put other’s first I’m a selfish person, I’m responsible for other people’s happiness” and all sorts of other harsh and negative or unrealistic words. These are the messages from your inner critics or dysfunctional ‘parent’ modes. It is your voice speaking, your inner dialogue, the words or phrases you say to yourself in a tone and manner that is judgemental, demanding or nasty.  But you weren’t born with these thoughts, they were all learned, directly or indirectly from your earlier experiences. These parent modes come from messages you received from parents and other early life events like bullying or other forms of social learning.

We all, depending on our natural temperament, internalised or introjected these ‘messages’ during our formative years and they became woven into the fabric of our evolving personality. That’s why we don’t tend to question them – because by adulthood, they are a fundamental part of our identify.

In schema therapy we divide the inner critic into three types: one is a fear-based part (we call this the “demanding parent” or critic), another is a nasty, mean part (we call this the “punitive parent”) and the third is a ‘guilt-tripping’ part – the guilt inducing parent mode or critic. This distinction is important because in therapy we target these parts in different ways and they can affect a person’s mental health to different degrees.

The Demanding Parent Voice – your inner perfectionist!

The demanding parent mode is fear-driven because it tells you that if you don’t do something or be something, then everything will fall apart. This part is unrelenting in its effort to get you to be better in some way. “Don’t stop studying because if you do you’ll fall behind and then you’ll fail and then you will be unemployable and have no money…….” “You have to look perfect all the time because if you don’t you’ll never meet anyone and you’ll be alone forever!” “Whatever you do don’t make a mistake because if you do others will see that you are an imposter and that you don’t have what it takes!” Basically, if you don’t follow the ‘advice’ of your demanding parent then you are doomed to failure or loneliness or some other sort of misery. People who are very perfectionistic have a strong demanding parent mode. They have huge amounts of anxiety which they manage by attempting to control every outcome with all sorts of coping behaviours (eg, being a ‘workaholic’; a ‘control-freak’; doing all the work and not delegating anything; checking their work excessively and countless more). If you’re a perfectionist you may have already realised that your inner critic never shuts up and you’re always listening in for its updates.

The Punitive Parent Voice – the nasty side!

The punitive parent mode is not fear-driven and it’s not trying to frighten you into doing something because it believes (albeit flawed) you need it. Punitive parent is a nasty voice that is demeaning and tells you that you are worthless, useless or defective in some way. This voice is often formed from direct and blatant verbal/psychological abuse from care-givers or others who hurt you in some way. It can also be formed because you did not receive positive messages about being valued, ‘seen’, respected & loved. It can often come about from a combination of early experiences where the child felt unseen and worthless because their emotional needs were not met. It’s important to remember that we are not born into the world with a sense of self-worth (psychologically speaking). We develop this sense of worth only if we are cared for in a way that makes us feel emotionally understood and validated. We need to be seen as a separate person with our own needs – physical, emotional and social.

Someone with a strong punitive parent mode may believe deep down that they don’t deserve good things, that they are worthless and unworthy of love. The person may feel as though they deserve punishment and they display signs of self-loathing such as self-mutilation and suicidal fantasises. Sometimes the punitive parent voice can be extremely strong and can cause people to hurt themselves or try to take their own lives.

Generally speaking, the louder this voice, the more at risk a person is of suffering from recurrent or persistent depression. It is the presence and strength of the punitive parent voice which often predicts how people cope over time and how much they struggle with persistent low mood. People with chronic or recurrent depression often have a strong punitive parent mode.

The Guilt-Inducing Parent Voice – the, if I win, then you will lose dilemma!

There is also another type of inner critic voice which we call the ‘guilt-inducing’ critic or parent mode.  It sounds something like this: “If I ever put myself first, others will suffer”; “If I can’t always help others, then I’m lazy and selfish”; “If I say no to a request, then I’m just being self-centred”; “I am the one that has to help, it has to be me!”; “Disappointing others is unbearable for me, I feel so guilty” and so on, you get the picture!

Basically, this style of inner dialogue usually develops when a child grows up being somehow responsible for one or more of their care-takers or another ‘vulnerable’ person within the family unit.  There is usually some type of pattern whereby the parent or parents gave the child a message that they must somehow take care of or protect the parent.  These messages can be either direct in nature (eg, direct requests or directions from parents that the child must be responsible or take care of them), or indirect (eg, more subtle messages where the child learns that a parent needs to be taken care of or protected).  In this regard one or more parents are very likely to be dependant on the child, either emotionally or physically.  The parent does not have to directly make the child feel guilty explicitly, as the guilt is often more gradually and subtly acquired by the child.  The ‘guilt-inducing’ voice can also come from experiences where a parent did try and manipulate the child’s emotions and actually make them feel guilty to a greater or lesser degree.  This can be a more robust or toxic form of the guilt-inducing parent mode.  For example, whenever the child or adolescent attempted to be independent of separate from the parent, the parent may have responded with messages which implied that the child would ‘hurt’ them, it they were to ‘separate’ and attend to their own needs (eg: “I don’t know what I’d do without you, I’d never survive without your help”; “go out with your friends if you like, I’ll just sit at home feeling lonely all night”; “It’s OK you have your own life to live, I’ll manage somehow I suppose”).  As you can see, the development of the ‘guilt-inducing’ parent mode can be quite complex and can develop gradually over the years without any apparent parent-child conflict or trauma.  If you have a strong ‘guilt-inducing’ parent mode, then you will generally have a lot of trouble setting healthy limits with others and even agonize over letting others down or saying no, even when you have to.  Guilt is a very familiar emotion for you!


Your own demanding, punitive or guilt-inducing parent mode can come out and be directed towards other people, like your partner and your own children. If this is happening you need to gain insight into when it happens because ultimately it will destroy relationships. A child who grows up with a demanding or punitive parent will harbour a lot of resentment towards their parent and will have a strong angry child mode that they will have to work on.

In relationships, critic or parent modes can play out with negative consequences.  For example, you may feel yourself flip into punitive parent mode if you feel the need to harshly berate your spouse if they have not done something to your standard, or you may say harsh, critical things to your child when you feel they are not listening to you. Afterwards, when you calm down, you might see that you have been excessively harsh or unreasonable and you may regret your words.

Fortunately, we can do something about all these types of inner critics! The goal of working on the demanding parents is to tame it, to dilute it down to an acceptable level where it helps you instead of hindering you. Because the punitive parent voice does not help you in any way, the goal is to override it in therapy with proven strategies. In schema therapy we can use all sorts of creative ways to destabilize the punitive parent, so that it’s ‘presence’ is either fully eradicated or reduced significantly. One of the key antidotes for all forms of inner critics is of course self-compassion. In Schema Therapy we refer to this as the ‘Healthy Adult’ mode. In schema therapy we want to heal the childhood vulnerabilities that believe the negative critical voices and also bolster the self-compassionate part of the person – their ‘Healthy Adult’ mode.

In schema therapy, the therapist can use different experiential methods including chair-work to externalise the inner critics to see how they play out in a client’s life and also how they might hinder progress in therapy.  Being able to identify your inner critics and the types of message they express is an important first step towards healing in schema therapy.

Changing Lives with Schema Therapy