What is an inner child, anyway? Being in touch with your inner child lets you be “fiercely on your own side.”
Everyone has a version of themselves that acts out when they’re hungry or balks at doing boring “adult” tasks. But is that the same thing as your inner child? Does that part of you need to be healed? What does it mean to do inner child healing work?
Without context, it’s easy to imagine inner child healing as giving yourself a hug while wrapped in your childhood blanket. But the concept becomes much more useful and actionable after a quick lesson on a developmental psychology model called Lifespan Approaches.
Lifespan Approaches frees us of the false narrative that we exist as developing children for a while and then, at age 18, suddenly become static adults for the remainder of our lives. Rather, life comes in chapters with developmental themes that progress in a somewhat predictable order.
Your inner child is the part of you that survives and travels with you throughout all the stages. It’s the part of you that your parents or caregivers could not reach or even fully know. It’s the part of you that you are left to raise because only you know it.
There comes a point in your adulthood when attending to this part of yourself, your inner child, becomes essential to moving forward in your development. Even though humans are interconnected beings by nature, having a relationship with yourself will transform your other relationships and your experience of being alive. Everything starts with the self. Every self starts as a child.
Everything starts with the self. Every self starts as a child.
No Child Is an Island
My training in human development research and my work as a parenting coach have led me to believe inner child healing is essential for everyone. I have seen this work powerfully transform how parents interact with and enjoy their children. For people without children, I have seen it unlock feelings of stuck-ness in unhappy relationships and living situations. Your inner child is a powerful being!
Most children grow up as part of a family system of some sort. That does not mean that system was fully functional! In fact, inner child healing has a lot in common with trauma-informed healing practices that invite us to identify and process internalized messages and patterns projected on to us by others.
The harms that grow within our family tree don’t have anything to do with who we truly are, but they still impact us. If we don’t engage in our own healing, our inner child can feel like an “other” whom we burden with unfair responsibility. For example, if someone has an abuse history, their inner child may hold a sense of blame. As adults, we know logically that this was not our fault, but that traumatized part of ourselves still feels it played a part to make bad things happen.
As adults, it’s easier to comprehend what children need to thrive (often we notice this as parents, but not always). This understanding equips us to look back and see what we needed and did not receive. Once we see it, we can start to give that to ourselves.
One place to begin is by noticing how we respond to things. To extend the example above, you may notice how frequently you apologize for things beyond your control. Over time, you may connect this noticing to the realization that you believe you had a role in being abused.
Such realizations are an invitation to begin reparenting yourself. You can be fiercely on your own side, possibly for the first time in a very long time. You can start to talk to yourself in a way that is present and reassuring. You can remind yourself that punishing yourself does not make you safer or more lovable.
When the Parent Becomes the Child
Parenting can be a powerful motivator to do inner child work. Parents often become emotionally activated when children behave in ways they find distressing because they worry it means one of two things: Either something is wrong with their child or the parent is somehow ruining them. It’s extremely rare that either of these is the case. What is much more common is that the three-year-old is acting three years old—and so is the parent.
Say the parent in this scenario is a mother. What I see when I look at her is actually three people: The mother, her physical child to the right, and her inner child to the left (usually the same age as the physical child).
The quickest, most revelatory way to improve the outcomes for both this mother and her child is to go through the inner child to the patient’s left. To move forward we must go back. This is what discourages some people from inner child work; we think going backward is the equivalent of a setback. In reality, going backward allows all of you to move forward toward what you want, which, for most people, is some sense of peace.
Have you ever tried to have peace when there was a kid around who needed you? It’s very difficult. Even if you are not a parent, you will feel unsettled if your inner child needs attention. That part of you still needs the things kids need to be healthy: rest, nutrition, community, love and care, and work you find meaningful (think of how much kids want to HELP). If you do not attend to these needs as the adult in charge of you now, it will be very difficult to live in a fully present and embodied way. It will also put you at risk of handing down unaddressed trauma.
Think of inner child healing as preventative care that can affect generations. Inherited patterns of harm are not our fault, but they are our legacy. As adults, we can decide to heal and move forward, to reparent ourselves the way we need, and to become healed ancestors within our families. Once we do, we open worlds of possibility, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us.
Navigating the intricacies of child-rearing? Try these 10 affirmations for mindful parenting.