Inner Child: What Is It, What Happened To It, And How Can I Fix It?

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated October 20, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kelly Kampf

Pop psychologists have a lot to say about 'the inner child,' and why not? It's a simple idea to understand and discuss. This child within you is needy, just like any child you know. Why is it needy? To start with, it's a child, which means it can't meet its own needs. Also, the child has been damaged, leaving it even more vulnerable.

"Therapists use several different techniques to help you identify the scars from your childhood. They can even give you tools to continue the work between sessions."

Doing inner child work isn't as easy as understanding that it must exist. The truth is that healing your inner child can be a long, arduous process that requires guidance from a qualified therapist who understands the true nature of the inner child. We all lose touch with our inner child at one time or another.

Your Inner Child is A Unique Part Of You That Still Feels Young On The Inside
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What is an Inner Child?

Not everyone is in touch with their inner child. Often, when people connect with their inner child, it's because they're dealing with a problem rooted in an early wounding. Even if your inner child is healthy and happy, there is a part of you that feels and reacts to life the way a child does. Everyone experiences this. The challenge is to know, accept, and connect with that part of your personality. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "Your inner child is the part of your personality that still reacts and feels like a child."

Inner Child Quotes

As awareness of the concept of the inner child has grown, people from all walks of life have commented on it. Some of these inner child quotes can be quite funny and as playful as a happy inner child. Others are sarcastic, deflecting the pain their inner child still feels. Some of the best quotes about the inner child remind us why it's an important part of us. Here are a few quotes to consider:

"My quest these days is to find my long lost inner child, but I'm afraid if I do, I'll end up with food in my hair and way too in love with the cats." - Kenny Loggins

"In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play." - Friedrich Nietzsche

"I'm happy to report that my inner child is still ageless." - James Broughton

"I think my inner child wants to take over the world." - Mark Foster

"A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him." - Pablo Neruda

"The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius." - Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

"When I grow up, I want to be a little boy." - Joseph Heller

"It sounds corny, but I've promised my inner child that never again will I ever abandon myself for anything or anyone else again." - Wynonna Judd

"Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity of humor." - Stuart Brown

"A grownup is a child with layers on." - Woody Harrelson

"Caring for your inner child has a powerful and surprisingly quick result: Do it and the child heals." - Martha Beck

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So what is this inner child that everyone's talking about? How can you have a child inside of you when you're a grown adult? Does it mean that you haven't grown up? Before you can do inner child work, you need to understand clearly what your inner child is.

Is the Inner Child Real?

As you read the definition of the "inner child," you may wonder whether your inner child is real or just a psychological concept or theory. Certainly, there's not a physical child inside of you (unless you're pregnant). What you need to remember is that, although no one can see physical traces of your inner child, it is nonetheless real. Most psychologists agree that your inner child is part of who you are as a person.

The Damaged Inner Child

When a young child experiences trauma, wounds are created that must be healed eventually. Much healing can be accomplished immediately following the trauma if the child has a parent who takes steps to reduce the damage caused by the situation or event.

However, if the child has no one reliable enough to parent them lovingly and appropriately through the situation, the wounds don't heal, and they can cause problems in adulthood. However, therapy as an important solution to childhood trauma. 

Your Inner Child is A Unique Part Of You That Still Feels Young On The Inside
Learn More About Who You Are In Online Therapy - Get Started Today

Read the full study here: A therapist-assisted cognitive behavior therapy internet intervention for posttraumatic stress disorder: Pre-, post- and 3-month follow-up results from an open trial

How the Inner Child Is Hurt

What is it that hurts the inner child? The list is long. Some of the items on this list might seem like normal childhood events, but if the child is left to deal with them alone, it can affect their development. Here are some of the events and situations that can cause emotional injury to the inner child:

  • Loss of a parent or guardian
  • Physical abuse or neglect
  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Serious illness
  • Severe bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • Family breakup
  • Being a victim of violence
  • Substance abuse in the household
  • Domestic violence in the household
  • Mental illness of a family member
  • Being a refugee
  • Feeling isolated from their family


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How the Damage Affects You as An Adult

Minor trauma is common in childhood, so even the healthiest childhood doesn't mean you won't need to do inner child work at some point. If you experienced major trauma, however, the results are likely to follow you into adulthood. Furthermore, if no one helps you heal when you're still a child, serious effects are likely to plague you until you do this work. The most common effects of having a hurt inner child can all be classified as destructive behaviors. They include:

  • Self-sabotage
  • Self-defeating behavior
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Violent behavior

It's no wonder these effects are common. The damaged child is impulsive, narcissistic, dependent, needy, and afraid of being abandoned. They haven't learned how to regulate their emotions or act from logic and reason. Such a child is likely to act out, and a damaged inner child is no different. However, healing the inner child can eliminate these feelings and behaviors, even in adulthood.

How to Heal Your Inner Child

You can't necessarily fix your inner child. Once the damage is done, it becomes a part of your history. For most people, it changes the way they feel, thinks, and behave. That said, you can help it heal. When you've accomplished that, the scars begin to fade and become lighter, so you can explore healthier ways of being.

You might wonder about the point of doing inner child work. Well, suppose a child is suffering from a wound, and you do nothing to help them. How do you feel ignoring the needs of this innocent, dependent person? How would the child feel? Wouldn't it continue to suffer until the wound was healed? This is how your inner child feels, and its wounds can affect you well into adulthood. Inner child healing can put an end to internal suffering, which can help you change maladaptive behaviors. Working with a therapist, you can do several things to reduce the suffering dramatically.

Why It Doesn't Help to Deny the Existence of Your Inner Child

Your first task in healing the inner child is to commit to knowing your inner child. That starts with accepting its existence. Certainly, you are a free individual. You can choose to deny that you have an inner child.

But if you refuse to think about having an inner child, be prepared to have a difficult time changing your feelings and behaviors. Doing inner child work, whether you do it alone or in therapy sessions, is a wonderful way to heal that child inside you and ultimately change the way you think, feel, and behave.

Understanding What Happened to Your Inner Child

For some, childhood pain comes from easily identifiable sources. For example, if you know you were physically abused as a child, that situation probably caused many of your emotional problems as an adult. Others find it more difficult to locate the source of their suffering, yet they know it exists because they struggle with feelings like unexplained anger or worthlessness. These feelings have to come from somewhere.

Both kinds of people need to understand what hurt them as a child if they want to heal. Therapists use several different techniques to help you identify the hurts from your childhood. They can even give you tools to continue the work between sessions. Some of these include using guided imagery, art therapy, writing poetry, and journaling, so you can visualize those painful moments.

Your Inner Child is A Unique Part Of You That Still Feels Young On The Inside
Learn More About Who You Are In Online Therapy - Get Started Today

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After you know the source of your emotional pain, you'll need to ask yourself a series of questions. These questions can help you sort out who contributed to causing the pain, whether they inflicted it intentionally, and how you responded to the situation or event at the time. You can also explore how that event or situation damaged your inner child and what role it plays in your life today.

Building Compassion for Your Inner Child

Regardless of what caused of your childhood pain, your inner child is still feeling the effects. Your needs were not met in the past. Perhaps someone important to you failed to show compassion for you, either by not being available when you needed them most, by not giving you the love and nurturing you needed, or by inflicting pain on you directly.

Since that time is long gone, and you're now an adult, it's up to you to show your inner child the compassion you needed as a child. One way to tune into this compassion for that small, frightened child is to imagine the scene of the painful event or situation from the inner child's viewpoint. Then give your inner child the support it needed in the past. In addition, therapists often model compassion, making it easier for you to do the same for your inner child.

Loving Your Inner Child

Perhaps members of your family loved you deeply and showed it often. Even so, a traumatic event might have made you doubt their love for you when you were a child. On the other hand, if your parents and other important people rarely showed their care for you, you may have grown up feeling distant, unloved, and perhaps, unlovable.

How do you learn to love your inner child? A therapist can help you with this process. As you identify what you love about your inner child, you'll be able to feel it more strongly and unconditionally.

Play Like You Did as a Child

Playing like you did when you were a child can help you feel more connected with that part of you. It can also encourage healing. Try playing some of the same games and doing the same activities that you enjoyed when you were young. Approach these games and activities with the expectation that they were fun once and can be again. Throughout your healing process, come back to playing as a child often. You'll likely find that the happy feelings come back to you more and more, helping you to connect with your inner child.


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Communicate Verbally with Your Inner Child

Many therapists will guide you in communicating with your inner child through spoken or written words. This can happen in a therapy session, or you can do it at home. You can talk to your inner child in the mirror, expressing your feelings and thoughts about what happened in the past as well as your hopes for the future. Or you can write a letter to your inner child. Is there something you like to tell that small child? Now's your chance to do it.

Take Responsibility for the Care of That Inner Child

A key component of healing the inner child is to take responsibility for them. While you might feel anger toward anyone who hurt you, it doesn't help to blame them or expect them to solve your current problems.

They may not be able to help now, and even if they can, they may not be willing to help. Only you can take charge of caring for the child within you now. Your therapist can help, and others can lend support, but it is you who needs to take responsibility.

Parenting Your Inner Child

A child not only needs to be loved, protected, and to have their needs met, but they also need to be taught how to live successfully in the world. At some point, someone failed to teach you how to nurture and care for yourself.

Now, even if you're managing many aspects of your life just fine, you still need to find the gaps in parenting that are causing you trouble in the present. You may struggle to regulate your emotions or behave in inappropriate or self-destructive ways. Parenting isn't an easy task for anyone. For someone who is parenting an inner child, this process might seem strange or even incomprehensible. However, with the help of a licensed therapist, you can become a great parent to your inner child.

Becoming a Psychological Adult

So what happens when your healing is complete? What is the goal? First, you may want to change certain behaviors. If so, inner child work can be combined with cognitive behavior therapy to help you make those changes.

You may also want to become an emotionally healthy adult. Or you might resist becoming an adult. After all, so many people talk about how boring or stressful it is to be a grown up. The good news is that even as an adult, your inner child is still a part of you. You can become more relaxed, find more pleasure in everyday life, and experience life with the same joy as a healthy child while being a responsible adult.

As an adult, you know when it's important to be serious and thoughtful, even if that's something you may have struggled with before healing your inner child. Now you can take responsibility as needed, but you also release the responsibilities of others back to them. When you make the choice to become a true adult, you can make decisions that are both helpful to you and enjoyable for you.

How BetterHelp Can Help

A licensed therapist has the psychological training to guide you through healing your inner child. They can teach you techniques for every part of the process. Furthermore, they can help you avoid causing your inner child any more pain. Their instruction and support can be invaluable as you work toward becoming a happy, healthy adult. Read below for some BetterHelp counselor reviews, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Tracy Thiem Is amazing. She is absolutely well versed and attuned in doing inner child work. I benefited a lot from her and I hope more people find a way to meet her in their healing journey. Thank you Doc for being awesome."


"Natasha is a very insightful, kind and compassionate counselor. Her gentle, professional approach to guiding you through a problem shows her empathy and understanding. She helped me see some childhood issues that I hadn't addressed in years."


Conclusion

Healing your inner child will take work and determination. A therapist or counselor can support you along the way, making the process much easier and more fun. All you need to do is reach out, and you can be well on your way to changing your life. Take the first step today.

FAQs

What is the inner child theory?

The term "inner child" is used loosely by quite a few people. Colloquially, it may refer to the sensation you feel when you're enjoying something that's seen as for children. For instance, an adult enjoying Disney World may say that their inner child is coming out. In psychological terms, an inner child is the childlike personality everyone has. In this case, a child is someone who hasn't reached puberty yet. The inner child personality is said to be its own personality, independent of your main personality.

What is the wounded inner child?

The wounded inner child is the part of your inner child that has experienced unresolved childhood trauma. Some of your behaviors you have as an adult could be due to your wounded inner child. Your childhood didn't have to through severe trauma to be wounded; there are common childhood events that could have led to your wounded inner child. For example, your best friend in elementary school moving away.

What are the symptoms of childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma, or childhood abuse, can have many different symptoms. Everyone copes with trauma in their own way, and you can experience these symptoms deep into adulthood. Something may have brought up your childhood abuse that you put in your subconscious until now. Here are a few symptoms.

In general, signs to look for as an adult that you suffered unresolved childhood trauma include but are not limited to:

  • Depression or anxiety that has no clear cause.
  • A distrust of other people.
  • You have mood swings.
  • You can't keep relationships.
  • You're unable to sleep, focus, and you feel stressed all the time.
  • You go into an addictive personality, taking drugs or alcohol.

So as you can see, various mental illness symptoms can be a sign you have childhood abuse. If you're unsure, it's important for you to speak to a therapist about your inner child today.

How do you fix childhood trauma?

Childhood abuse is not something that you can fix overnight. It is a healing process that goes for a long while. Here are some ways to help with your childhood trauma.

  • Speak to a therapist. If your childhood abuse trauma is making you unable to function, you need professional help.
  • Mindfulness and meditation. By mastering both of these, you can learn to live in the here and now rather than letting the past consume you. With meditation, you can learn how to push any thoughts out of your mind that are self-defeating.
  • Reenact your childhood trauma, and the reenaction result in solving the trauma.
  • As you heal, stay healthy. Eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid any triggers. If you find yourself experiencing trauma related to your life as a child today, think about why it happened. Are there any triggers you can avoid?

How do I heal my inner child?

The inner child is a part of your subconscious, and if it's wounded, you may end up with unresolved trauma. Here are some ways that you can heal your inner child.

  • Don't be afraid to partake in activities you enjoyed or never got to do as a child. For example, rewatch some old cartoons you loved as a kid.
  • Find your ideal childhood image. A childhood image is what you imagine your childhood being like. Is there any way you can improve your childhood image, or at least relive some aspects of it?
  • Have some childlike traits. Don't be afraid to be a little curious and have some wonder about the word.
  • Practice self-love. Don't be afraid to do something because you like it.
  • If you have a child, make sure they live a good life and explore your inner child while around them. Your child can be a child who lives in the here and now. A child who lives that life can have a great childhood.
  • Seek therapy if your inner child is extremely wounded. Techniques such as reparenting therapy can help you with any unresolved childhood trauma.

What is Reparenting therapy?

Reparenting therapy is a form of therapy where the therapist acts as a parental figure to the client. Therapists in general can be seen as a wise parental or authority figure, but in reparenting therapy, this idea is taken even further. Reparenting therapy is for those who have experienced a traumatic childhood, usually with parents who abused or abandoned them. A therapist can help to re-parent your inner child and make you feel like you have a second chance at life.

Why is self love so important?

Self love is an important mindset to have, no matter who you are. Some people may confuse self-love with being egotistical, but this isn't what it is at all. Being egotistical or narcissistic means that you think you're above everyone else. Meanwhile, self-love involves accepting who you are, respecting oneself, and looking out for one's health.

Self love is important because it helps you make healthy decisions about yourself. It also prevents you from dealing with some of the consequences of having low self-esteem. For example, you're less likely to succumb to peer pressure when you practice self-love.

A person with self-love also has boundaries. They can be empathetic and help those who need it, but they also won't be used and can learn to say no every once in a while.

How do you love your self?

Here are some ways to love yourself:

  • Eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Tackling your basic health needs is always an important way to start self-love.
  • Don't let people take advantage of you. Be assertive and have boundaries.
  • You're going to make mistakes. Make sure that you forgive yourself and learn from them.
  • You can realize your flaws and want to make improvements, but also make sure that you acknowledge your strengths, too.
  • Have your own set of goals, values, and beliefs that you want to pursue.

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