Child Counseling with Internal Family Systems Therapy

Although Internal Family SystemsSM (IFS) therapy is most commonly associated with adult clients, child counseling is another effective application of this form of therapy. Child counselors, as well as others in the counseling field, may not be familiar with ways to apply the IFS Model to child and play therapy, so we asked Pamela Krause (LCSW, ACSW) to write an introduction to IFS child counseling. Pamela is an IFS lead trainer in private practice, where she works with children and adolescents in addition to adults. One of her specialties is the adaptation of the IFS Model to child therapy. Pamela’s informative article may inspire professionals to consider using IFS with their young clients, and it may also spark interest in using toys, games, and art supplies to explore their own parts!

IFS with Children | by Pamela Krause, LCSW, ACSW


This article discusses some ways in which the IFS Model can be applied to work with children. Therapy with children requires a multifaceted approach that includes the actual therapy with the child, therapy with the family and/or parents, addressing school and educational issues, possible medication management issues, and behavior management strategies, to name a few. Obviously, it would be impossible to cover every aspect of the work in a short article. The focus of this article is how the IFS Model and can be utilized as a framework for play therapy.

Basic Assumptions of the IFS Model

As a first step, it is helpful to remember some of the basic assumptions of the IFS Model. It is the natural state of human beings to be subdivided into parts. In addition to parts, everyone has a Self, which contains the qualities of calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, clarity, connectedness, creativity, patience, presence, perspective, and perseverance. We come into the world with our parts, either manifest or in their potential to manifest, as well as our Self-energy. The Self is meant to be the natural leader of the system. When the Self is, in actuality, leading the system (resulting in what is termed Self-leadership), every part is in relationship with the Self and is able to act as a resource for the Self, resulting in a balanced, harmonious system.

Unfortunately, most of us are not parented in ways that allow the Self to emerge as the leader of our system. As a result, our parts become burdened, which forces some into exile and others into a protective stance. As protectors jostle for influence in the system, polarizations arise, leading to an internal system with little or no balance and harmony.

Since we all enter the world with parts and Self-energy, the IFS Model can be a useful therapeutic approach, regardless of the age of the client.

IFS and Play Therapy: Getting Started

IFS is a client-centered model of therapy. This means we follow the client’s curiosity about his/her parts, engaging parts as they appear. Therefore, IFS-informed play therapy is not directed by the therapist but rather by the child. We allow the child to choose the nature of the play, trusting that parts will emerge. We trust that each part knows exactly how to express itself and that it will emerge when it feels safe enough or welcomed. I have found that a few simple steps can help a child’s parts feel safe and welcomed.

First, since a child’s parts will be expressed through play, I have a wide variety of objects available that could reflect a range of feelings, from fear and loneliness to anger and aggression. The selection of toys should also be varied and can include (but is not limited to): games, animal figures, other figures (monsters, snakes, bugs, mythical creatures, and so on), clay, rocks, shells, puppets, dolls, doll houses, dress-up clothes, soldiers, play guns and knives, stuffed animals, a sand tray, and drawing supplies.

I have developed a few Self-leadership rules that seem to help parts feel welcomed and safe in my office. They are:

  1. You are the “boss” here; you decide to play or not play, what we play, and how we play.
  2. This place is different from any other place you go in your life. You don’t have to have manners here (you can burp, pass gas, swear).
  3. It is NOT okay to intentionally hurt either yourself or me (the therapist) while you’re here.
  4. It is NOT okay to break anything on purpose.
  5. You can play with anything you want, but everything must be put away before you go.

The rules indicate that it’s okay to feel what you feel (all parts are welcomed), but it is not okay to take those feelings out on others (the rules about not hurting or breaking). These rules allow parts the freedom to express themselves as they choose (the “no-manners” rule), as long as that expression is not designed to hurt someone or something.

Direct Access and In-Sight

The concepts of direct access and in-sight are the foundation of IFS therapy with children and adults. As Richard Schwartz describes in his book Internal Family Systems Therapy, “There are two ways of entering and working directly with a client’s internal system. One of these is called ‘direct access.’ In it, the therapist talks directly to one or more parts.… The other is called “in-sight” and involves having the client look inside to find and work with parts that he or she sees or senses…” (p. 95)

When the therapist uses direct access, he/she speaks directly to a part or parts of the client while the therapist is in Self. In other words, there is a Self-to-part relationship between the therapist’s Self and the client’s part or parts. Direct access is not a conversation between a part of the therapist and a part of the client—this is a crucial distinction to make.

In-sight refers to a Self-to-part relationship between the Self of the client and a part of the client. When using in-sight, we ask the client to “go inside” to get to know his/her parts.

Both modalities require a Self-to-part relationship—one between the therapist’s Self and the client’s part (direct access) and the other between the client’s Self and part (in-sight).

Some children can “go inside” and use in-sight in the same way that older adolescents and adults can. With these children, you can use the IFS Model in the same way you would with adults. However, a significant number of children have difficulty “going inside.” The reason for this has not been studied, but it need not be a deterrent to the use of in-sight. It is possible to gain all the benefits of in-sight by using externalizing techniques to facilitate a Self-to-part relationship. Some externalizing techniques will be discussed in greater detail later in this article.

IFS Play Therapy

When I meet with a child for the first time, I take him/her to my office and welcome him/her. I have large toy closet, and I make sure the door is open before the child enters the room. I let the child know that he/she gets to decide what we do when we’re together. Then I wait and observe his/her parts.

I start by observing a child’s reaction to me and to the environment. I notice how or if the child approaches the toy closet. Is he/she eager, enthusiastic, playful, or more reserved, shy, or even anxious? Does he/she need or want to be encouraged or reassured before playing? Does the child seem concerned with what I may be thinking or feeling? Through observation, I track the parts as they appear.

At the same time, I track my own parts. When I am aware of my own parts, I can ask them to step back so I can be Self-led during the therapy.

I also notice whether the child’s parts stay blended or whether they are externalized during the play. In general, one of two things will happen: 1) a part or series of parts will blend with the child and dictate his/her actions, or 2) a part or parts will be naturally externalized into objects (figures, puppets, and so on). A description of these two scenarios follows.

Blended Parts and Direct Access

How does it look when a child’s parts stay blended during the therapy session? Theoretically, it means that a part is “in control” of the system, and every thought and/or action is a manifestation of a particular part. As with adults, when parts are blended and can’t/won’t unblend, direct access is the modality of choice. An example may be helpful.


During his first visit with me, a 6-year-old boy name Jason decided to play the board game Sorry. As we played the game, I was aware of a series of parts that blended with Jason. At first, Jason was winning, and he was excited and enthusiastic. Then he started to gloat and told me I was a loser. As the tide turned and I started to do better, Jason grew quiet and withdrawn. Finally, when it looked as if I might win the game, Jason swept all the pieces off the board and declared that he was quitting.

I also observed my own parts during the game. At first, I noticed a part of me that was sad about losing and didn’t want to play, especially after Jason called me a loser. Then I noticed a part that was excited when I started to catch up. Close on its heels came a part that reacted to Jason’s sadness and wanted to tell him not to feel so sad. Finally, I noticed a part that was scared when Jason swept the pieces off the board.

Since Jason’s parts were clearly blended throughout the game, direct access was the appropriate modality. As I observed my parts, I asked them to step back so I could be Self-led while we played the game. That way, Jason’s parts could interact with me, not one of my parts. This would be an unusual if not unique experience for Jason. From this place of Self-leadership, a wide range of options are available for how to relate to a client’s parts. One can choose to speak for (not from) parts as they arise or choose to be silent. There is no right way to respond; it’s more important to trust your own intuition about how or when to engage a part.

Since this was a first session, I was silent until the end of the game, when Jason swept the pieces off the board. At that point, I reassured him that it was okay with me for him to stop the game any time, and in whatever way, he wanted to.


Abby was a 4-year-old girl whose mother described her as “painfully shy.” Abby never spoke at preschool and had few friends.

When I invited Abby into my office, she went to the door in the back and stared out the window. She did not look at me or talk to me. I asked her if it was okay if I sat on the sofa, and she nodded. I quietly told her that she was free to do what she wanted when we were together, that she could talk or play or not, and that I wouldn’t try to get her to do anything. Abby didn’t respond. She stared out the back door for the entire session.

The second session was very similar; Abby stared out the window, and I sat on the couch after asking if that was okay with her. About halfway through the session, she said, “You can’t make me look at you.” I responded that I understood and that was fine—she got to decide what happened, not me. The third session was a repeat of the second, although this time she told me that I couldn’t make her talk to me. I reassured her in the same way I had in the second session.

Finally, in the fourth session, she came in and went straight to the closet where I kept the toys. She was cautiously curious and began to play. I asked if I should sit on the couch or on the floor near her, and she indicated that I should stay on the couch. Things stayed this way for many sessions: me sitting on the couch watching her play. She played with animal figures but spoke so softly that I couldn’t hear her.

Eventually she asked to me play with her. We started to build forts in my office with blankets and pillows. This play was always dominated by a part of Abby that wanted to tell me what to do. The part was clear about what it wanted with regard to building the forts. Her parents started to notice this part at home and described it as “bossy.” It felt like the polar opposite of the shy part that had originally entered my office.

Eventually, a more aggressive, physical part appeared. The part needed to hit, and it wanted/needed to hit me. Since we had the rule about not hurting herself or me, I was presented with a dilemma about how to witness the part in a Self-led way. I finally got clear that I could sit in a chair, put big pillows on my legs and lower body, and allow Abby’s angry part to hit me there. Abby’s part agreed to the guidelines, and for several sessions Abby hit me. Occasionally Abby’s hand would stray to my arm; I would remind the part that it was not okay to hit me there, and she’d return to hitting the pillows.

One day Abby arrived and did not want to hit. Instead she asked me why she always had to come to “my house” to play (my office was in an old home) and why I never came to her house. It seemed important to Abby that I come to her house to play. We talked with her mother and made arrangements for me to go to Abby’s house to play.

The day I visited her was sunny and warm. We played a board game, built a fort in her playroom, jumped on her trampoline, and played wiffle ball. The next week, she told me she didn’t need to come visit me anymore.

When we finished the therapy, Abby’s mother no longer described her as shy. She was much more talkative with friends and at preschool and had starting taking ballet lessons.

Externalized Parts and In-sight

For some children, parts will unblend naturally while they play; for others, we can facilitate the unblending. When parts unblend, we can use in-sight.

Parts that are naturally externalized in the play: Let’s start with the child whose parts are naturally externalized objects. This is the child who might pick up two dolls and have the dolls engage in a conversation, each doll representing a part. In this example, the parts may be two protective parts or a protector and an exile. I often start by observing the conversation between the two parts (dolls). I may even ask some questions to help clarify whether the parts are protectors or exiles.

If the parts are protectors, I ask how they are trying to help and what they’re afraid would happen if they didn’t do their jobs—the same kinds of things we’d be curious about if we were doing in-sight in the “traditional” way.

Eventually, I ask the child how he/she feels toward one or both of the parts. This question is the first step in facilitating a Self-to-part relationship in the child that leads toward in-sight. An example of this approach follows.


Ellie came to me at age 7 because of her “uncontrollable anger.” Ellie’s parents were divorced, and Ellie lived with her mother and siblings but stayed with her biological father every other weekend. Ellie’s biological father had some very angry and intimidating parts that were often directed at Ellie. Ellie was angry at both of her parents’ homes as well as in school. She had no friends because most children were afraid of her anger.

Ellie loved to play with figures in my office, especially a brown horse and a velociraptor (a dinosaur raptor). The raptor was angry and aggressive, and it dominated the horse. As I helped the horse and raptor talk with one another, it became clear that the raptor was a protector, and the horse was an exile. The horse said it was terrified of the raptor and hated it. The horse wanted the raptor to stop being so “mean” because it made everyone hate Ellie, and then the horse felt even more scared, alone, and unloved.

Initially, Ellie could feel compassion toward the horse but not the raptor. Ellie had many parts that were either afraid of the raptor or hated it, and they would not let it speak. These parts were externalized into other creatures. Over time, we reassured the other parts that it was okay to let the raptor talk.

When Ellie was able to be curious about the raptor, she found out that it was quite sad. It told her that it didn’t want to be so angry, but it had to be. Without the raptor, there was no one who could keep Ellie and the brown horse safe when she visited her father on weekends. When Ellie’s father “yelled at her,” the brown horse got scared and felt unlovable and unprotected. Ellie and the other parts began to understand that the raptor wanted to protect the brown horse, not hurt it.

Once Ellie witnessed the raptor and felt compassion for it, it was able to relax. It trusted Ellie to take care of the horse in most situations, so it was less active at her mother’s house and in school. However, it did continue to jump in when Ellie was with her father and he started to rage at her. After doing this work, Ellie even began to have some friends.

Inviting parts to be externalized: When parts don’t unblend naturally, they can be “invited” to unblend. The therapist can invite a blended part to select an object to represent it. For example, when a child comes into my office with a noticeable feeling (such as anger, sadness, or anxiety), I often ask if he/she would like to let that feeling pick an object to represent itself. The key point is that when the child comes into the office, the part is blended, and ITpicks an image to represent itself.

(A side note: Drawing or sculpting the part is also an option. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on objects, but please use whatever modality is most comfortable for you and the child.)

Once a part selects a representation of itself, it can unblend into that object, and we can begin to use in-sight. As with “traditional” in-sight, the first step is to ask the child how he/she feels toward the part. If the answer sounds like Self energy, I invite the part to let me know about itself. As the part reveals information, I can determine whether the part is a protector or exile, and I follow the “traditional” steps of in-sight. If the part is a protector, I listen to it and reassure it that I can help it with the part (exile) it protects. Once protectors are reassured, they will step back and allow the exile to come forward to be witnessed and healed. As with “traditional” in-sight, a series of protectors may need reassurance before the exile is revealed. It’s important that eachpart be allowed to select an object to represent itself.


I had a young client named Simon (age 9) who had a very angry and sometimes destructive part that would break things in his bedroom. As you might imagine, neither of Simon’s parents liked this angry part very much, and they wanted him to stop behaving in that way.

Simon often came to the office with the angry part in the lead. On one of those days, I asked Simon if he’d like to know more about the anger, and he said yes. I asked him to feel the anger and let that angry feeling pick an animal figure that could represent it. He picked a large gorilla and placed it on a table in my office.

I asked Simon how he felt toward the gorilla (part), and he responded that he wondered what it was (curiosity). I invited Simon to ask the gorilla what it wanted Simon to know about itself. It told Simon that it was trying to help him and that it came out to protect a “howling emptiness” that was inside Simon. The gorilla said the emptiness was weak, almost nothing, but that it (the gorilla) was strong. As Simon understood the gorilla’s positive intention, it relaxed and agreed to step back and let Simon talk with the howling emptiness.

As the emptiness emerged and Simon felt it, the emptiness picked a howling wolf to represent itself. Again, Simon was able to feel curious toward the wolf and feels its emptiness, loneliness, and despair. As Simon witnessed the part, he was able to feel love (compassion) for it. He told the wolf he loved it and that he was there, but the wolf was too far away to feel Simon’s love. It had been pushed into Simon’s right heel—as far from his heart as it could get so that Simon wouldn’t have to feel it.

Following my intuition, I asked Simon to put one hand on his heart and the other on his heel and to let the love (compassion) from his heart travel from one hand, up one arm, down the other arm, and into the other hand on his heel so the wolf could feel it. When Simon did that, the wolf felt calmer. The wolf was able to move into Simon’s torso and be less distant from his heart.

At the end of the session, Simon told me he had the same wolf figure at home and that he was going to find it when he got there. He planned to keep the wolf with him in his book bag because the wolf said he wanted Simon to remember him. Simon carried the wolf in his book bag for about two months, looking at it when he needed to. After that session, Simon’s angry outbursts disappeared.


The IFS Model can be utilized as a framework for play therapy using direct access when parts are blended, and in-sight when parts can’t/won’t unblend. Externalizing techniques can be used to facilitate the unblending when children cannot utilize the “traditional” form of in-sight.