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.

“What has he done or not done to account for this catastrophe, Tom wonders in his small magical mind. Tom does not know and might never know that during his brief absence Mother received a telephone call from Father who angrily criticized her for omitting his habitual salami sandwich from the lunch-bag. Bewildered and fearful, Tom waits and waits and finally takes a desperate dare for survival. He awkwardly moves toward Mother, awkwardly extends his arm, and awkwardly pats her shoulder, uttering the magical words “I love you.”

“And with the suddenness of magic, Sobbing Beauty immediately comes to life again in Tom’s world. Mother catches rapturous Tom up in her arms, wets his face with her redemptive sadness, and pronounces the words which will become the curse of grandiosity, “You’re my wonderful little man! I couldn’t get along without you.” Tom’s small chest expands with pride, his head swells with self-righteousness, and he is immersed in a lethal mixture of liquids which someday might drown him—environmental tears, in combination with an internal bath of both adrenalin and acetyl-choline.”

Little Tom has now taken over the role of comforting and parenting his mother. If this only happens sporadically, he will learn some useful skills, and still have a mother who is capable when he needs her. But, a child with a mother who is habitually helpless, perhaps drunk or incompetent, soon forms a habit of caretaking. Highly intelligent and resourceful children can do well enough at caretaking to get a lot of praise and gratification from their accomplishment.

Further problems arise when the Little Professor is smart enough to be successful at the caretaking. For such a child caretaking and “acting as if” he or she knows what to do become strongly ingrained habits. A child with this background often grows up to be a highly competent, but stressed and anxious adult. The anxiety is a result of pretending. No matter how successful and competent the person becomes, no matter what he or she achieves, it never seems real. The Little Professor feels like a child who’s pretending to be a grownup.

Until you do the work to separate your childlike self from the past, bring it into the present, and acknowledge all your adult experience and expertise, you will feel as if someone else must be running your life.

Recovering from Little Professor syndrome is not difficult, once you realize you’re behaving in this way. The key is to recognize your competence as an adult, and to learn to identify the difference between using your adult intelligence and using your childlike ability to “fake” what you’re doing. Reassure yourself that you survived whatever was devastating in the past, and you can get through this difficulty, too.

Guidelines for using grownup thinking
1. Pay attention to signals: Notice when you feel anxious about what you’re doing, especially if you’re having anxiety attacks with rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath. This is a strong indication that you’re in “Little Professor” mode. With practice, you can learn to identify the signals that you’re anxious.
2. Use logic: Ask yourself some logical questions about what you’re doing and feeling: Is there a good reason to be so nervous? What am I afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? How can I make sure I’m OK? Simply asking these questions, or questions about the facts, such as who, what, when, where, and why; will help you think more like a grownup.
3. Move into adult mode: Remind yourself of all your adult experience and competence. Remember you are not a child.
4. Consider your reasoning: Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Can you explain it logically? If not, perhaps it’s a reactive, rather than a rational decision.
5. Develop a plan: Make a reasonable plan to accomplish whatever you want to do, break it down into steps, and stick to it. This will reduce the chances of being sidetracked by emotional reactions.
When you stay in adult mode, you’ll find that it’s much easier to distinguish your true responsibilities from those that belong to others. You’ll feel much more competent, and much more in charge of your own life.

(Adapted from "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction)

Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Long Beach, Calif. since 1978 and author of 13 books in 17 languages,  including The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again and Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.