When life hands me a very difficult time, and I feel defeated and overwhelmed, I enter a hopeless and helpless state of mind I think of as The Little Orphan girl. This is the way I felt, as a teen, when I lost nearly my whole family, father, aunts and uncles, between the ages of 12 and 18. Needless to say, I was devastated; and I also survived and eventually, thrived. But little orphan girl doesn’t remember that I made it through – she sinks into despair. When I realize this is going on, I know I have to snap out of it, get into adult thinking mode, and comfort and reassure that sad little part of myself.
Everyone has a similar mental place they can get stuck in—sometimes, people call it “depression” although it’s not really clinical depression. It’s just a form of mental exhaustion, perhaps due to grief, frustration, disappointment or some other problem. Transactional analysis calls this sad and anxious child part of the psyche the little professor, and here’s how it works, and what to do about it.
Everyone laughs when they describe a small child as “four years old, going on forty.” Small children can often seem wise and capable beyond their years. If a child has parents who are absent, incompetent, immature or neglectful to the point that the child’s well-being is neglected, the child often takes charge and tries to keep things together. He or she uses observation, imitation, experimentation and pretending to solve problems and keep things together when the parents are not functioning well. Often this is an oldest child, who also takes responsibility for younger siblings, and becomes a substitute parent for them as well as I or herself. Eric Berne, M. D. the developer of Transactional Analysis theory, called such a child a “Little Professor.” Robert Phillips, M.D., describes how this happens in his monograph, Structural Symbiotic Systems:
“When Tom reaches twenty-four months of age, he has had sufficient healthy parenting so that he is generally willing to relate to others pleasurably and to explore his small world with enthusiasm.
“On a particular day he toddles into the kitchen where Mother is baking a cake for Father’s birthday. His senses excited by the sight of Mother’s busily relaxed body and by the combined smells of her body and bubbling chocolate, he looks up at Mother and smiles. She smiles in return and, permission granted, he scurries happily to another room to explore, experiencing more stimulation from eye-catching and tactily-differing objects. Soon he returns excitedly to the kitchen, bent perhaps on his first show-and-tell, alive with sensation and awareness.
“But—what is this! There sits Mother in the corner of the kitchen, hunched over in a tense position and crying, with sharp edges on her sobs. Tom’s world is suddenly disrupted—he whimpers and gets no response from Mother.