Communication Skills and Our Adaptive Child

In sessions, partners often ask me for tools to help with communication. In our formal education we are never really taught effective ways to communicate, and such tools are very important; if we practice communication skills, our relationships will improve significantly.adaptive child

However, if just learning communication skills was all it took for healthy relationships, then we wouldn’t have so many relationship problems.  

But when we are live with our partner, sometimes there is a part of us not interested in using communication skills. This part of us has been referred to as self-protection mode or the adaptive child.

The adaptive child develops in proportion to childhood trauma.

The more trauma one experiences, the greater the need to adapt defensively in response, to exercise self-protection. But no one makes it out of childhood without acquiring a set of defensive responses.

Part of relational growth is learning that our adaptive child is no longer needed in most of our relational interactions.

It is learning that we can work through difficult feelings instead of fighting or withdrawing from our partner. If we stick with it, eventually we will appreciate our partner, and it starts with being open, vulnerable, and flexible. (More on appreciation)

When we are willing to embrace those qualities in our relationship – and that can be scary – then we are willing to apply communication skills.  Here are three such skills (based on Terry Real’s work) that are effective:


When you say you are sorry, just say that; own it. Don’t say, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand…” When you screw up, validate your partner and don’t nullify an apology with a qualifier.


When you are angry or feel defensive, communicate what is underneath the anger. For example: “When you do that, it makes me feel like I don’t matter to you.” Basically, don’t lead with your first feeling of anger, as nothing productive will get accomplished.


Before you speak, think, “How is this going to feel for the person receiving this message?”

These are some basic communication skills to help you in your relationship. When you feel unwilling to use these, it may be a good time to take a break and cool off. Don’t let your adaptive child run the show, as that will prevent you from giving and receiving love.

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