Taking care of your inner child can be daunting, but the practice has profound ripple effects. Parenting expert Dr. Becky Kennedy’s new book explains how the healing starts.
Many of us on a quest to live more peacefully and joyfully have discovered the benefits of examining the beliefs and coping mechanisms we developed when we were young and vulnerable. Looking inward, we often find a frightened inner child banished to our subconscious, seemingly frozen in time. To truly thrive as adults, our inner child must be coaxed out, heard, validated, and embraced. This process is often called “reparenting.”
Since most of us have been conditioned to care for ourselves in the same way we were cared for growing up, we often find ourselves repeating similar patterns of rejection and repression toward our inner child. To develop healthier ways to reparent ourselves (as well as to care for any children in our lives), we can learn a tremendous amount from clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, author of the revolutionary parenting book Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.
What Does a Truly Healthy Childhood Look Like?
Dr. Becky teaches that childhood is ideally a time for developing emotional resilience, which she describes as the ability to find ourselves amid our feelings, thoughts, and urges, rather than having the feelings overtake us. “Feeling satisfied with oneself, tolerant of failure, firm in boundaries, capable of self-advocacy, and connected with others … all of these important adult dynamics come from our early wiring.”
Since our earliest experiences greatly influence which parts of us feel lovable and which parts we feel ashamed of, Dr. Becky believes that one of a parent’s most important jobs is to be their child’s emotional caretaker, which means providing validation and empathy. “Validation is the process of seeing someone else’s emotional experience as real and true, rather than seeing someone else’s emotional experience as something we want to convince them out of or logic them away from.”
Empathy is about understanding and connecting with another person’s feelings without trying to make those feelings go away. “Empathy comes from our ability to be curious: It allows us to explore our child’s emotional experience from a place of learning, not judgment. When a child receives empathy—in fact, when any of us receives empathy—it makes them feel like someone is on their team.”
The Sweetness of Caring for the Inner Child
Showering our inner child with validation and empathy sends the message that it is okay for them to be who they naturally are and to feel what they naturally feel. For me, simply reading the dozens of examples in Good Inside of what validation and empathy look like has been powerful and impactful. It feels as if my inner child is peeking out from behind a closed door, intently listening to narratives so different from the ones she was raised with. I can feel her ears perk up, her eyes widen in wonder, and the tight knots in her belly loosen as she breaks into a big smile.
In one example below, Dr. Becky outlines the impact of two different responses to a child who is clinging to their parent, hesitant to join a birthday party:
Parent Response #1: “You know everyone here. Come on! There’s nothing to be worried about!”
Attachment Lesson #1: I can’t trust my feelings because they’re ridiculous and overblown. Other people know better than I do how I should feel.
Parent Response #2: “Something about this feels tricky. I believe you. Take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready.”
Attachment Lesson #2: I can trust my feelings. I’m allowed to feel cautious. I know what I am feeling and I can expect other people to respect and support me.
The Power of Learning to Tolerate Discomfort
Dr. Becky’s goal is to have children learn to trust themselves—an important lesson for people of every age. We often banish our inner child to our subconscious because we’ve been conditioned to believe that certain feelings are unacceptable, especially those that have repeatedly brought rejection, such as anger or upset.
To learn emotional regulation, children need to repeatedly learn that emotions that feel scary and overwhelming to them are not scary or overwhelming to their parents. This requires that parents also develop an increased tolerance for emotional discomfort. Believing that discomfort is wrong and should be eliminated as quickly as possible builds very different nervous system circuitry than the belief that discomfort is part of life and nothing to be afraid of.
“Parents don’t so much need to protect kids from having tough feelings as much as we need to prepare our kids to have those feelings,” writes Dr. Becky. “When we aren’t able to cope with emotions like disappointment, frustration, envy, and sadness … our bodies initiate a stress response.”
Anxiety, Dr. Becky explains, comes largely from an intolerance of discomfort. “It’s the experience of not wanting to be in your body, the idea that you should be feeling differently in that specific moment.” She writes, “Avoiding your feelings never ends the way you want it to. In fact, the more you avoid distress or will it to go away, the worse it becomes. Our bodies interpret avoidance as confirmation of danger, and it triggers our internal alert system. The more energy we use to push emotions like anxiety or anger or sadness away, the more powerfully those emotions spring back up.”
Acknowledge, Validate, Permit
Rather than avoiding emotions we’d rather not face, Dr. Becky explains that we should remind ourselves to allow emotions like fear, anger, or sadness to be experienced when they arise and not view them as something dangerous we need to escape from. In Good Inside, Dr. Becky offers a three-step practice for dealing with our emotions called AVP—Acknowledge, Validate, Permit:
1) Acknowledge: When feelings come up, acknowledge and label them. For example: “I’m noticing anxiety right now.”
2) Validate: Respect your feelings, and assume they hold some truth for you. Remind yourself why you may be feeling this way, such as, “My boss yelled at me and then my friend canceled on dinner plans; it makes sense this day feels rough.”
3) Permit: Dr. Becky says, “Give yourself permission to have your feeling in whatever way it’s showing up … Tell yourself, out loud or internally, ‘I have full permission to feel like life is hard,’ or ‘I’m allowed to feel exactly as I do.’”
Dr. Becky explains that so many of us constantly question whether our feelings are actually valid or overreactions. These signs of self-doubt tell us that “at some point, our own experiences were met with invalidation, aloneness, or attempts to convince us out of our feelings.” Fortunately, she assures us that it’s never too late to rewire our circuity: “The human brain is remarkably malleable and can rewire, unlearn, relearn, and change.”
The advice Dr Becky gives to parents is beautifully transferrable to how we can lovingly and effectively parent our own inner child. Our wise, grown-up self can continually send the same message to our frightened inner child that Dr. Becky advises giving the children we caretake—messages that wire self-compassion and self-trust: “It’s okay to be you right now. Even when you’re struggling, it’s okay to be you. I am here with you, as you are.”
Dr. Becky Kennedy offers a constant stream of helpful advice and inspiration on Instagram, where she has close to 2 million followers. Visit her website to learn about her Good Inside membership community and other offerings.