“Mom, can you please get me another snack?” my six-year-old daughter asks in a syrupy voice.
“A surprise snack,” she adds, meaning she wants me to decide which food to bring her.
I sigh loudly.
I’ve just sat down on the couch after fetching my son a snack, and just before that, I’d finished loading up the dishwasher and setting up the coffeemaker for the morning. I’m tired, and my only life desire right now is to snuggle up on the couch and read the thriller I’m halfway through. Why do my kids need so many snacks? Why can’t they get their snacks themselves? Why can’t I read more than one paragraph without being interrupted?
“I’m sorry, Mama,” my daughter says in response to my dramatic sigh.
As she apologizes, I realize what just happened. I reacted to my daughter’s innocent request not as an adult, but from my adolescent chair.
Last year, through listening to several episodes of the podcast “The Adult Chair,” I realized just how often my behavior was being driven by much younger parts of me.
Developed by therapist Michelle Chalfant, the model of the adult chair breaks down the three chronological phases of our lives into separate chairs:
>> The child chair, where our true emotions and needs live. This chair is based on our experiences from birth to about age six.
>> The adolescent chair, based on our experiences between the ages of 6 to 25. In the adolescent chair, we’re fear-based, living in the past or future rather than the present, and we rely on stories and assumptions to make sense of our lives. When we’re in the adolescent chair, we’re reacting rather than responding, and it’s the seat where anxiety, depression, codependency, and addictions are developed.
>> And then there’s the adult chair. “When we sit in our adult chair, we learn to love ourselves. We get unstuck, and we transform,” says Chalfant. “Doing this work helps us uncover all of the negative programming, limiting beliefs, and all the masks that we wear, so we can understand who we truly are.”
It may not be a big deal that I slid into my adolescent chair and threw a tiny, mostly internal temper tantrum when my daughter asked for a snack. But when it comes to more substantial areas, like how I communicate with my husband, how I respond to challenges at work, and whether I deal with strong feelings instead of turning to unhealthy habits or addictions, it becomes much more consequential.
Chalfant has found that most adults spend much of their time in the adolescent chair without even realizing it.
“If we had healthy modeling—if you’re one of about 10 people in the world whose parents taught you how to sit with your emotions, then you naturally slide into the adult chair in your mid-20s,” she says. “But the rest of us end up making big decisions, like who we marry, from our adolescent chair—and that part of us has the average emotional age of a 12 to 14-year-old.”
Chalfant says our inner adolescent is the part of us that, when faced with intense emotions, decides that eating a big piece of cake is the solution, rather than actually experiencing our emotions and then moving on.
So how do we get our bottoms into the seemingly elusive adult chair so we can live an empowered life? How do we make sure our inner child or adolescent isn’t running the show?
1. Observe our feelings and thoughts instead of reacting to them. When we’re having strong emotions, we can slow down and ask ourselves, “What am I thinking and feeling?”
“When we’re in our adult chair, we’re in the moment, connected to our higher self, and our pre-frontal cortex is engaged,” says Chalfant. “From there, we can decide what to do—if anything.”
2. Ask ourselves, “What is fact and truth?” When we find ourselves making up stories and assumptions, we can instead focus on the facts and truths that we know for sure. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I know to be true in this very day and moment?’” Chalfant recommends.
For instance, if a good friend hasn’t responded to a text I sent, I might jump into my adolescent chair with the assumption that she’s mad at me, and waste a lot of energy trying to pinpoint what I might’ve said to upset her. But if I step back and remember that all I know for sure is that my friend hasn’t responded to my text, I’m back in my adult chair, free from the adolescent drama.
3. Connect to the child part of us. If we’re overwhelmed by emotion, we might drop into our child chair, where our deep emotions live, and sit with the feelings until they pass—which usually happens much quicker than we think. Once those feelings are released, it’s much easier to shift back into our adult chair. “When we ask ourselves how we’re feeling, and what our child’s true needs and emotions are, we’re activating our adult and child chairs,” Chalfant says.
4. Practice meditation, mindfulness, or deep breathing. Meditation or deep breathing can also help move us into our adult chairs. “Because our adolescent is often anxious and fearful, slowing down can help get us back into our adult,” Chalfant says. Having a mindfulness practice trains us to be able to respond to situations instead of reacting to them—a quality of our adult self.
5. Move a muscle, change a thought. Sometimes we get flooded with emotion and it feels like none of our usual tools are working. Chalfant recommends physically changing states if we feel stuck and dysregulated. “If I’m in the kitchen, I might move to the living room. I might stomp my feet to help shake myself out of it,” she says.
I love the accessibility of the three chairs model—having the visual of the three chairs representing the different parts of me is easy to grasp.
As I practice the tools above, I’m able to notice more often when I’m in my child or adolescent chair. As I do so, I’m softening more and more to the highly emotional child and the reactive and anxious adolescent—both of which have lovely, important qualities like creativity, openheartedness, and spontaneity.
Getting into our adult chair isn’t about leaving behind our younger selves—it’s about making safe spaces for them to live within us, while learning how to be in our adult chair as we make decisions and face our responsibilities.
I’ll be shoring up on the five tools above—tomorrow is going to be a snow day, and there are sure to be many, many requests for snacks.
The One Buddhist Red Flag to Look out For:
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Image: Brooke Cagle/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Callie Rushton