Inner Child Work: What Is It And How Can Therapy Help?
The term "inner child" is often used to describe the connection you have within yourself to your child self and your childhood memories. At times, you might find that certain behaviors or emotions mimic those you experienced as a child, causing you distress as you try to navigate an adult world. In inner child work with a mental health professional, the inner child is a symbolic child version of you that can be talked to, saved, supported, and guided to help you make changes in your adult life and feel compassion for your current and past selves.
What Is Inner Child Therapy?
Through inner child therapy, all adults are said to have an inner child.
Through guidance from a mental health professional, you can start an open dialogue with your inner child to connect with your past.
Inner Child Psychology
Not everyone may feel in touch with their child within. However, their childhood self may come out in behaviors, emotional reactions, or communication styles during times of extreme emotion. These behaviors might look like trying to receive reassurance from a partner, crying from overwhelm, or having the urge to yell when you have a bad day. An inner child may also show themself positively through playful behaviors, joking, adventurousness, impulsivity, creativity, and imagination.
Often, when people connect with their inner child, they might do so without meaning to. It is also common to explore inner child therapy due to a traumatic childhood event. The concept of an inner child often stems from internal family systems therapy (IFS), which posits that all adults have an inner world or system of "parts" that make up who they are, including protective adult parts and younger child parts. These parts are facets of a personality and are not to be confused with dissociative identity disorder (DID). They are not "multiple personalities."
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "Your kid within is part of your personality that still reacts and feels like a child." Many adults experience these patterns, and it may not only be those who have experienced a traumatic childhood event that benefit from inner child work. Past experiences such as deflection, comments made by your family or classmates, and feeling misunderstood as a kid are topics you can discuss through inner child work that may not be traumatic but can still impact you.
Is The Inner Child Real?
As you read the definition of "inner child," you may wonder whether this concept is genuine or just a technique. Inner child work does not refer to an actual child within you; it is a psychological theory. However, many clients find this theory beneficial as they address symptoms in therapy. At times, placing compassion and self-love onto a child can feel more reachable than loving your present self, and through the act of loving who you once were, you may find yourself growing compassion for yourself throughout therapy.
Although no one can physically see the "inner child," they can be metaphorically real, allowing you to imagine them and call on them at any time. People change as they grow, but their minds and bodies can carry memories, feelings, and patterns from the past. The child within and their memories may sometimes be at the root of how an individual feels as an adult and can impact relationships, life milestones, and connections with parents and family as an adult.
Understanding Trauma And Healing
Childhood trauma can take many forms. Childhood traumatic events may include but are not limited to the following:
Abuse or neglect*
Substance use disorders within the family**
Other mental or physical health conditions within the family
The death of a loved one
Domestic violence in the household
Being a refugee
Lack of predictability
Separation from caregivers
Treatment center abuse
Childhood sexual abuse or assault
Significant life changes or moves
*If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
**If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.
How Can Inner Child Work Heal Trauma?
When clients partake in inner child therapy, they may address experiences like feeling unheard or unseen, not fitting in, feeling inadequate, and feeling as though their emotions don't matter or won't be appropriately addressed. These feelings can be connected to childhood experiences and attachment. The beliefs formed by adults can be directly tied to the beliefs they had as a child. Connecting with this child can allow them to see that they are an adult now and can care for themselves in the way they needed as a child.
In some cases, trauma memories may be difficult to retrieve due to where they are stored in the brain. Inner child work may help clients connect to these memories without directly remembering them and feeling retraumatized. Trained mental health professionals are available to offer support in soothing childhood fears, helping you learn more about your child self, and assisting you in treatment that focuses on your inner child's needs and fears in the present day. Some internal child therapy may involve age regression techniques such as coloring, play therapy, or art and music therapy.
How Can Inner Child Work Benefit Clients?
Identifying what you experienced as a child that continues to impact you may be one of the first steps in the therapeutic process. You might have learned to hold your feelings inside if you were told not to express emotion as a child. Children often require support when learning about emotions and may react in the safest way to protect themselves. Emotional repression can cause mental and physical health consequences, so inner child work can help clients learn to express and feel their emotions healthily.
Clients without traumatic experiences or difficulty with caregivers can also benefit from inner child work. This therapy process can increase self-awareness, self-love, and connection. Some common themes in adulthood that people may address or discuss when they do inner child work include:
Emotional suppression or repression
Difficulty letting go of the past
A few benefits you might experience from inner child work can include the following:
Understanding your past
Feeling connected with yourself
Forgiving your caregivers or parents
Imagining an ideal childhood
Feeling safe in your body and home
Feeling able to parent and care for yourself
Feeling able to be alone and independent
How Can Inner Child Work Be Used?
Children are often sensitive to emotions and environmental factors. If services and resources are unavailable to them as a child, fear, shame, and guilt may occur. Your inner child may still hold these emotions as they did when you were younger. Connecting with them may bring up challenging feelings.
If you're drawn to inner child work, you might notice patterns in yourself or your life that you want to change or understand more in-depth. For example, someone with an insecure attachment style might worry that if they get close to someone, that person will leave. Feelings of inadequacy from childhood might stop you from pursuing hobbies, work, or relationships. Not having an opportunity to address your emotions as a kid could mean that you hold them in, take them out on yourself, or aren't sure how to control and validate them healthily.
By seeing your inner child as a child you can nurture, you can provide to them what you may have once needed. For example, if an actual child was crying near you out of fear, you might choose to console them and provide them with safety. You can do the same for yourself when you notice your inner child crying in fear. Doing so also provides this coping mechanism for your adult self. Whether you start the process on your own or with an established therapist, a few techniques may be beneficial in the process, including the following.
Understanding Your Pain
For some, childhood pain, patterns, and responses come from an identifiable source. For example, if you know you experienced abuse as a child, you can identify that as a source of pain for your child self. For others, however, the source might be less clear-cut; a series of microtraumas might've led you to develop some patterns and feelings you now have as an adult, which may impact your daily life and relationships.
People in both situations might benefit from identifying the source of their emotional dysregulation, validating themselves, and understanding how these experiences affected them. Seeing a therapist can help individuals validate what they experienced and forgive themselves for any shame they carry. Therapists can also offer emotional control skills between sessions, including guided imagery, art therapy, writing poetry, and journaling, among others.
Regardless of what caused childhood distress, your inner child may continue to feel the impacts. For example, your needs may not have been met in the past, or perhaps someone important to you failed to show compassion. Having experienced a lack of sympathy from others may make you want to avoid closeness or ask for reassurance from external relationships.
However, as an adult, you can use inner child work to show yourself the compassion you needed as a child. One way to tune into this compassion and heal these wounds to your emotions is to imagine the event or situation from your inner child's view. Even if it makes sense to you that your caregiver may not have been able to meet your need, you can still feel compassion for your painful experiences. Consider telling yourself the following phrases:
"You deserved to have your needs met."
"I will protect you now."
"You were too little to go through that, and you're safe now."
"I will keep you in my heart."
A challenging past might have made you doubt your caregiver's love for you as a child. Beliefs about who you are as a person and what you mean to others can be developed as a young child. Asking yourself what beliefs around self-love developed may help you connect with your inner child. If you felt unlovable as a child, it may transfer to adult feelings about yourself.
As you identify your childhood needs, including emotional needs, social needs, boundaries, and the need to rest, you can start to meet those needs in your current life. Self-care can increase feelings of self-love and show yourself that you can fulfill your needs now and are not the labels you once gave yourself as a child.
Connecting With Imagination And Creativity
Playing as you did as a child may help you feel more connected with your inner child. Try playing some of the same games and activities you enjoyed when you were young. Alternatively, do the activities you wish you could've done as a child or engage in activities that exist solely for enjoyment now. It can be normal and healthy to partake in an activity exclusively because you find it fun.
Taking Responsibility For Healing Your Inner Child
In inner child therapy, you may take responsibility for healing yourself. You may not be able to get an apology from those involved in your childhood experiences or trauma. They may not be able to help now, and even if they can, they may not be willing to help. No matter the level of social support, validation, or love you receive from others, you can give yourself these aspects to help you feel in control. If you believe you are not worthy without external validation, it may be a sign that you seek closure for a childhood experience. Inner child work can be beneficial to process this feeling.
Reparenting yourself can involve giving yourself what you wished you had as a child. This process might be beneficial if you have experienced neglect, abuse, or an emotionally distant parent. Communication with your child within— whether you speak it out loud, in your thoughts, while journaling, or through other means — can be advantageous in this process.
Ask your inner child what they need throughout your day, and try to give it to them. Imagining this process or visualizing it in your head may also be effective. Try to see the world from your child self's eyes. Hug yourself, buy a cheap treat, and walk in the park. If you're looking for validation, validate yourself. Give yourself the space to listen to yourself, understand any symptoms you might be experiencing, and make the best decision for your circumstances.
Read the study here: A therapist-assisted cognitive behavior therapy internet intervention for post-traumatic stress disorder: Pre-, post-, and 3-month follow-up results from an open trial
Understanding childhood trauma, reparenting, and inner child work can take time and may accompany challenging emotions. Whether in person or online, a therapist or counselor can help you meet your goals and provide emotional support and guidance.
If you face barriers to receiving in-person care or struggle to find an inner child therapist in your area, consider meeting with an online therapist. Signing up for an online platform like BetterHelp can be a fast and convenient way to find support. After finishing a questionnaire, you can be matched with a licensed, experienced provider within 48 hours.
In addition, online therapy comes with various benefits. Through a platform, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions, and your therapist can share worksheets, educational materials, and videos. You can also check out studies that show that internet-based interventions in treating post-traumatic stress disorder are as effective as in-person therapy and can assist in developing strong therapeutic alliances between client and therapist.
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