Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a complex psychological condition characterized by the presence of two or more distinct identity states or personalities. These alternate identities, referred to as alters, can have their own names, voices, personal histories and mannerisms that are distinct from the host personality.
One aspect of DID that is not well understood is the age of alters. Alters can have ages that differ greatly from the biological age of the individual with DID. This brings up important questions about how old an alter can be, and what factors influence their apparent age.
The reported age range of alters
According to clinical research and accounts from people with DID, alters can appear to range in age from very young children to the elderly. Here are some examples of the reported age range of alters:
- Infant or toddler alters that are non-verbal or have limited language abilities
- Child alters that appear ages 3-12 years old
- Adolescent alters ages 13-17
- Young adult alters ages 18-35
- Middle-aged alters ages 35-55
- Elderly alters over age 55
So in response to the question “how old can an alter be?”, alters may present themselves as being any age, from babies to the elderly. Their apparent age does not necessarily correlate to the biological age of the body or the age of the original personality.
How is the age of alters determined?
If alters can potentially be any age, how is their age determined? There are several factors that influence the apparent age of alters:
Age at the time of trauma
Many clinicians believe alters form as a result of childhood trauma as a coping mechanism. Alters tend to reflect the age the individual was when the traumatic events occurred that caused the dissociation. For example, an 8 year old child alter may have split off at age 8 in response to a traumatic event.
Role and function
The perceived age of alters often relates to the role they play in the DID system. Younger alters may hold memories of abuse or painful emotions. Adolescent alters may emerge to handle social situations. Adult alters tend to be protectors, helpers or persecutors.
The emotional maturity displayed by an alter also influences their apparent age. A younger alter may act like a child and have childlike emotional responses like a 6 year old, even if the body is 25 years old.
Alters develop a sense of personal history and identity separate from the host. They may describe memories and life events consistent with a particular age that shapes their internal experience of being that age.
Do alters age like people?
An important question is whether alters age over time like regular people. The answer is complicated, because alters may or may not experience a sense of aging:
- Most alters maintain a consistent apparent age and do not age like the body ages.
- Some alters may experience themselves aging gradually if that is part of their identity.
- The trauma survivor cannot choose to age up their alters. Their age is based on their role and origin.
- Younger alters tend to stay the same age rather than mature over decades.
So while the external body grows older, alters maintain the same age identity overtime in most cases. However, some degree of maturation is possible if it aligns with the alter’s role and sense of self.
Can new alters form at any age?
DID systems tend to stabilize in adulthood, but new alters can form at any point across the lifespan in response to traumatic events or stressors. However, most clinicians agree that genuinely new alters are rare beyond childhood and adolescence.
Some key points about new alters forming include:
- Chronic childhood abuse leads to most alter formations.
- New alters forming in adulthood is less common.
- Alters do not seem to form via intentional choice/will.
- Apparent new alters may be ‘covert’ alters revealing themselves.
- Genuine alteration of the DID system rarely persists across decades.
While trauma at any age can destabilize the system, major alteration and formation of new alters becomes less likely over time. The DID system tends to solidify into specific identity states that persist as the person ages.
Can alters die or be destroyed?
Alters are psychological constructs rather than living beings, so they cannot die in a physical sense. However, alters can be intentionally destroyed or fused back into the mind through therapeutic work. Destruction of alters is highly controversial though, and not recommended by most clinicians. Here are some key considerations:
- Alters are viewed as serving a protective purpose even if their actions are destructive.
- Destroying alters could have negative psychological consequences.
- Integrating alters in therapy is preferable to attempts to destroy them.
- Alters tend to fuse together or become dormant naturally over time in recovery.
- The goal should be functional integration rather than alter destruction.
Trying to force an alter to ‘die’ or destroying them outright is widely viewed as harmful to the DID system. With trauma therapy, patience and internal communication, dormancy or fusion can occur organically without attempts to kill off identities.
Are there limits on how old an alter can pretend to be?
There are no clear limits on the age an alter may present themselves as or identify with. However, alters tend to represent the typical age range of trauma survivors, based on their role and origin.
While any claimed age is theoretically possible, clear fabrications that stretch credibility should be examined therapeutically. For example:
- An alter claiming to be 100 years old in a 20 year old’s body may signal fantasy.
- Alters presenting as famous historical figures from decades past are highly suspect.
- Claims of being an animal alter, ghost, alien or mythic creature reveal a functional psychosis.
Such extreme claims of age or identity are rare even among alters. They may represent harmful fantasizing, delusional thinking or factitious DID claims. Therapeutic scrutiny helps determine if unlikely presentations represent genuine alters.
What are the implications of child alters in an adult body?
The presence of child alters in an adult body has complex psychological and social implications:
- Risk of revictimization due to childlike trust and behaviors
- Difficulty functioning appropriately in adult situations
- Legal and ethical issues around child alters engaging in adult activities
- Child alters being parented internally by older alters
- Stigma and judgment if behaviors are perceived as ‘role playing’
Child alters emerging unexpectedly create challenges for functioning and requires vigilance by protectors. Their needs and limitations must be accommodated, and they may benefit from having inner child therapy tailored to their emotional age.
Should the body or documents be aged up/down to match an alter?
Legally changing the body or documents to match a child or elderly alter is never appropriate, though some individuals request this. Reasons why this should be avoided include:
- It causes identity confusion regarding legal status and actual age.
- Practical challenges arise around expectations based on apparent age.
- It reinforces dissociation rather than integration of identities.
- The body does not physically change in aging to match an alter.
- It could allow avoidance of adult responsibilities.
The body and documents should reflect the person’s biological age. Psychotherapy, not legal changes, is needed for alter age conflicts. Grounding techniques help remind child alters the body is an adult, even if they feel childlike subjectively.
Are dramatic age differences between alters common?
It is fairly common for DID systems to contain alters ranging from young children to adults. Exactly how much age variation occurs between alters depends on factors like:
- The age of initial abuse and length of trauma history
- Number of distinct traumatic events across childhood
- The severity and frequency of the trauma
- The emergence of new trauma responses over time
More chronic and varied trauma often leads to a wider spectrum of ages among alters. However, even with severe abuse, alters tend to cluster around certain developmental stages and roles. Huge age gaps like 80 years appear quite rare.
Can alters and the body have different physical ages?
While alters may feel a different subjective age, the physical body does not change its biological age:
- Alters remain psychologically age-regressed versions of the body.
- Outward physical aging is based on the body’s chronological age.
- Child alters cannot become physically younger than the adult body.
- The body does not suddenly age up or down when alters switch.
- Apparent differences in posture and mannerisms account for changes.
So while alters demonstrate emotional, cognitive and behavioral traits of different ages psychologically, the physical body remains fixed at its actual age. Switching alters does not cause shapeshiftingtype bodily changes.
In summary, alters appear able to present themselves as any age, though limitations exist based on the DID system’s history. Their age stems from the time of trauma, their role, and emotional maturity more than the body’s age. While alters tend to stay fixed at an age, some natural maturation is possible. New alters rarely emerge after childhood. Alters should not be intentionally destroyed, but rather integrated to restore a coherent sense of identity. And while alters feel different ages internally, the physical body remains its actual chronological age.