I’ve worked with children as a teacher and tutor for about 20 years. A very common first session begins like this: The child hides under the kitchen table. Their mother has our materials laid out, along with snacks and beverages. She’s embarrassed, but I always think, “Good job, Mom. This kid knows they have the power of refusal.”
[Want the basics on inner child work? Read Dr. Wood's "How to Work With Your Inner Child.”]
I give the child the option of either coming out or not, and I let them know I will be reading a story aloud. If they would like to join me, they are always welcome.
I have never ever seen a child not come out when they’re ready. They are deciding if it’s safe, and that’s okay with me. Their learning is their own. When they get to choose it, they get to have some dignity. And we get to have a relationship that’s empowered by choice.
This same interplay of dignity and choice shows up in my work as a coach helping people with inner child healing. Sometimes, when our inner child work isn’t progressing, we think we do not have an inner child. We do. They’re just hiding under the table.
So, what do you do if your inner child work isn’t working? What are the typical blocks to inner child healing, and what are the solutions?
“I’m Sadder Now”
Acknowledging old hurt can make it more intense, temporarily, which makes sense: You’re suddenly paying attention to feelings and parts of yourself long ignored!
Sometimes when our inner child work begins, and we’re met with someone crying inside us, it feels like a failure. In many cases, sadness is progress.
I’ve had multiple clients show up and cry through the first half of their sessions. Their sadness doesn’t mean their inner child work isn’t working. It is often an indicator that the client finally has a place to let their inner child express themselves.
Underneath the sadness and anger is a child who knows what they deserve and is now ready to create the life they want.
To reach that child, first let them know you’re there and that you’ll continue to comfort and show them compassion for as long as they need. Self-soothing is a skill we can use for a lifetime.
Next, extend the invitation to yourself to feel your feelings and pay non-judgmental attention to how your feelings show up in your body. Let yourself know that you’re allowed to feel any feeling you have. You’re also allowed to notice your feelings and not do anything about them. You do not have to make any changes or moves because you feel a certain way.
You are a person in progress. If you’re sad, it probably means your inner child is sad, which manifests in more of your own tears as you begin reparenting yourself. Be patient with yourself and be on your own side.
How does it feel to be this patient with yourself? Just notice. Even if noticing your feelings provokes anxiety, it will eventually settle. You’re allowed to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. And you and your emotions are allowed to hide under the table sometimes.
Over time, exploring and returning to our feelings with compassion and curiosity teaches us that our feelings are good, even when they don’t feel good. Learning the language of our emotions is a process that can feel like being stuck, but that stuckness has great power behind it. Stuckness often leads to breakthroughs in the present-day adult’s life.
Many of my clients who begin in tears move on to laughter and play and planning before too long. And, yes, sometimes more crying. But we get to a place where modulating between these states feels more integrated. We get to come out from under the table.
“I’m Just Talking to Myself”
It’s not uncommon for clients to bring skepticism into the room for their first few sessions. They intellectualize the experience and wind up second-guessing their capacity to connect and heal. Thinking over feeling is something we learn to do, in part, when we’re trying to avoid pain. I say “trying” because it doesn’t really work.
The problem with disconnecting from your feelings is that you also get disconnected from the joy you want and deserve. It distances you from the most open and vulnerable part of yourself, which in my experience is your inner child. If you get the sense that you’re just talking to yourself, you might be. What you want to aim for is feeling for yourself.
Giving your inner child the compassion you’ve always deserved—and celebrating the power to do that as an adult—offers you a road inward. For example, if nobody ever acknowledged your achievements when you were younger, now you can take yourself out to dinner when you achieve things. If your parents encouraged you to “toughen up” when you cried, you can gently tell yourself, Gosh, that did hurt, when you stub your toe.
Believing in your capacity to heal starts with the little things like self-talk and small gestures. But these little things gradually build our relationship with our true selves—our most important relationship.
“I Feel the Need to Produce Something”
A client recently told me, “Growth becomes something to work at, and I shut down.” This dynamic isn’t unique to inner child work, but it certainly affects it. It comes from a desire to be loved and seen as good; along the way, many of us learn that what makes us good is to achieve.
Pressure to achieve can be a primary childhood wound even if we were the golden child who got everything right. Alternatively, if we felt like the family failure, then we may be trying our whole lives to make our families proud of us by showing them what we can do or produce. This pressure shows up in our self-development work as well.
Unfortunately, the changes and shifts that happen in your life will not look like an unstoppable upwards trajectory towards perfection. Healing is non-linear, and perfection doesn’t exist. (I know, I hate that too.)
[Read: “6 Holistic Tips for Unhealthy Perfectionism.”]
Your inner child is an authentic being, not a project you can complete. They are unpredictable; some days they will beam with joy, and some days they will hide under the table. Loosening the expectation of constant productivity and progress is one way we learn to love and nurture ourselves.
Through practicing self-compassion and releasing your attachment to the outcome, you will continue to grow and change organically. The change may not look how you expected, but you and your inner child are just getting acquainted. You have the rest of your life to see where the relationship might take you.
If you’re finding your inner child work isn’t yielding the results you wanted or expected, begin the relationship there. Let your inner child know that where they are is fine. You will be reading a story aloud, and they can come out and join you when they’re ready. And there will be snacks.
For more inner child work: Try writing as your inner child to a person you felt hurt by as an 8-year-old.