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The idea of becoming your own parent may sound a bit out there at first. But what if inner child work is essential for emotional healing?
You may think of yourself as a grown-up just because you reached a certain age. The truth is, many adults carry wounded children within themselves. Often, we don’t see it. We cover up childhood trauma by staying busy and dead-serious about everything we do.
Meanwhile, your inner child holds the key to endless joy, freedom and creativity. To access these, reparenting yourself may be necessary. Your inner child needs you to acknowledge and process its painful experiences.
Only then will it feel safe enough to come out and play the game of life freely.
The degree of childhood trauma differs from person to person. For some, it may come from severe childhood abuse. Others experience subtler forms of abandonment, parental neglect, or simply struggle to fit in their peer group.
Whatever the source of your trauma, working with your inner child can help you heal it. This work isn’t so much a journey “back in time” as it is a journey within. As Michael Brown, the author of The Presence Process, writes:
“Our past no longer exists as something “behind us” that we can “go back to.” The past is past. However, these unintegrated emotional charges continue to exist as energetic conditions imprinted within our emotional body. In essence, we aren’t “going back” but “going in.” The answers are all within us now.”
Your inner child is with you all the time, waiting to give you those answers. Will you listen to its voice and allow yourself to be guided by it?
What Is Inner Child Work?
The concept of the “inner child” originates in Jungian therapy. Carl Jung proposed that the “Child archetype” is the first milestone in the process of individuation — or, forming the Self.
Today, inner child work is a well-known idea in many schools of therapy, such as Transactional Analysis or Gestalt.
Working with your inner child draws on one simple observation: all adults were children at one time. Those children within us don’t simply disappear as we grow older.
Your child self stays with you as a part of your unconscious. It represents your childhood qualities and ways of being. You can think of it as your “subpersonality” — one of the multiple dimensions of being human.
The inner child often gets activated when you’re faced with challenges that remind you of a traumatic childhood memory. Until you consciously process and integrate those memories, your child self is calling the shots.
The definition of the inner child from Harley Therapy’s blog reads:
“The inner child reflects the child we once were in both his or her ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ aspects. Both our unmet needs and suppressed childhood emotions, as well as our childlike innocence, creativity, and joy, are still waiting within of us.”
This tells us that inner child work (aka reparenting yourself) has two aspects to it.
One is about reclaiming all the positive qualities of the child within. It’s becoming playful and joyful for no reason at all. It’s making silly jokes and having fun with your own kids, carefree and present in the moment.
This side of inner child work is about expressing yourself freely. However, most people need to deal with the suppressed memories of their inner child, too.
This is the second and often more challenging side of reparenting yourself. It’s a bit similar to what some people call “shadow work.” In short, it’s about consciously processing painful feelings and experiences that you suppressed a long time ago.
This may feel overwhelming — especially for those who didn’t have their basic needs met as children.
In his theory of psychological development, Richard Barrett explains that as we enter the human experience, we all need two things before everything else. These are physical safety and a sense of acceptance and belonging. If parents or caregivers fail to provide that, these unmet needs may chase you along your life path.
As an adult, you can meet those needs by reparenting yourself. This is about stepping into the role of exactly the kind of parent your inner child needs.
“[I]nner child work is any form of self-discovery that helps you access the child you once were, along with the experiences and emotions that child was taught to repress. The general idea of inner child work is that that if you make an effort to contact, listen to and communicate with, and nurture your inner child, you can find and heal the roots of your issues as an adult.” — Harley Therapy Blog
You may think: “But this isn’t me! I had a happy childhood. My parents didn’t abuse me. They loved me. We always had food on the table and a safe place to live.”
The tricky part is, your parents didn’t have to do anything spectacularly wrong to leave an imprint on your child self. Childhood trauma sometimes has roots in the most innocent-looking family dynamics.
To the adults, it’s just another day of trying to balance family, work and social life. To the child, it may be the day they get deeply wounded. They may then carry those wounds into adulthood — and unknowingly pass them on to their children.
What Is Childhood Trauma And How It Happens
The word “trauma” brings horrible things to mind. But you don’t need to go through severe childhood abuse to become traumatized.
The psyche of a child is so fragile it can be affected by what seems like a minor event. In the child’s view of the world, everything looks different. Because children are fully dependent on their caregivers to meet their needs, they may interpret minor negligence as an enormous threat.
What’s more, children can’t recognize their limited perspective. They believe everything they see. Their interpretation of life instantly becomes their reality.
Let me give you an example. Recently, I spoke to my Mom about our family relations. We talked about childhood trauma and inner child work, too. As she shared her childhood memories, she asked me if I wanted to know something about my early years.
I asked about a possibly traumatic event that I’m unlikely to remember.
Without hesitation, she said there was something that stuck with her until today. When I was around 10 months old, my dad drove my mom and me to grandma for a couple of weeks. Then, he went back to work.
This was the first time in my life I haven’t seen him for so long.
When he finally came back, I was lying on the bed as my mom was dressing me. In that moment, I turned my head to look at him. My mom swears I recognized him — and became upset that he left us for so long.
I started crying. I cried and cried, and then cried some more. I didn’t want him to hold me for hours.
I don’t know if that particular event traumatized me. What I do know is that, as an adult, I struggle with abandonment issues. Particularly when I enter a romantic relationship, I immediately fear that I’ll be rejected.
When going through these kinds of painful experiences as children, we’re often taught to hide our pain. A lot of parents discourage their kids from crying or expressing anger. We’re only told we’re being “good” when we’re cheerful, smiling and polite.
This is how childhood trauma becomes unconscious. If you hide it long enough from others, you eventually also start hiding it from yourself. This way, you can cheat yourself that you’ve “overcome it.”
In reality, the wounded child inside you keeps running your life. It pushes you into behaviors that sabotage your happiness, without you being aware of it. Usually, this continues until you address the problem through inner child work.
All this talk about childhood trauma isn’t to blame your parents — or anyone else who may have caused you pain. Most probably, these people were doing their best with what they had and knew.
But, due to their circumstances, they may have failed to give you the attention you needed.
It’s in the nature of human experience to suffer. However, we all get a chance to grow through — and out of — that suffering. Reparenting yourself is a powerful way to do that.
And, you can start even today.
How To Reparent Your Inner Child And Heal Trauma
To reparent yourself is to give your inner child what it needs on the emotional level. As Stephen Diamond explains in his book Psychotherapy for the Soul:
“[T]he adult part of the personality learns (…) to relate to the inner child exactly as a good parent relates to a flesh-and-blood child, providing discipline, limits, boundaries and structure. These are — all along with support, nurturance, and acceptance — indispensable elements of loving and living with any child, whether metaphorical or actual.”
Some of us still try to find someone “out there” to comfort their inner child. It’s easy to believe that once you find a perfect partner, a soul mate or a spiritual community, everything will finally be alright.
But this is usually a band-aid solution. Other people only comfort your inner child as long as they act according to your expectations. The moment they do something that’s not on your agenda, old wounds are brought to the surface. You go back to suffering.
That’s why inner child work is so powerful. It allows you to become your own parent by consciously working with the trauma you experienced as a child. You learn to give yourself as much loving attention as you require to heal.
And, you don’t need to depend on anyone for that.
Although reparenting techniques come in all shapes and sizes, there are three general steps to work with your inner child: connect, communicate and nurture.
- First, you need to acknowledge the child within. As long as it goes unnoticed, you can’t begin the healing process.
- Then, you start communicating with it. Finding a way to hear what your inner child has to tell you is key to access the source of your trauma.
- Finally, you step into the role of a nurturing parent. From your adult self, you give your child self exactly what it needs.
Inner child work is often done with a therapist. However, if your trauma isn’t too heavy, or you’ve already done a fair share of inner work, I’m confident that you can do a lot of this work on your own.
Below, I give some practical tips on just that. Although I haven’t completed my healing process just yet, I’ve learned a fair amount on my journey.
These suggestions are based on my personal practice and the inner child work I did with my therapist. I hope they can be helpful to you.
Step 1: Connect
When you decide to reparent yourself, you may not know where to begin. If connecting to your inner child sounds vague, I have good news.
The first step can be very practical.
The main point is to increase your awareness of who you were as a child. To do that, unearth as many details as you can about what you did, where you spent your time, what you enjoyed and what you were like.
To collect more insights, speak to people who knew you back then — for example, family members and childhood friends. You can also look at old photographs of yourself. Pay attention to details. Notice what you’re wearing, how you’re standing, who you’re interacting with, and so on.
The more you immerse yourself in childhood memories, the more you’ll tap into the feelings from that period. Having a good idea of how you looked can also help you in the next step of the process — communicating with your inner child.
Step 2: Communicate
Although your inner child communicates with you on a daily basis, those messages may be hard to notice. When we’re sucked into our busy lives, we overlook even the most obvious clues.
That’s why to communicate with your inner child, it’s best to assign time for just that. This can be done through self-discovery practices, such as meditation or journaling.
I did it with my therapist through a visualization exercise. She guided me through it — but it’s simple enough to do on your own.
Sit in a quiet, comfortable room and close your eyes. In your mind’s eye, picture yourself as a 5–7-year-old — or whatever age you suspect your trauma happened at. Then, allow the child in front of you to express their pain. Let them cry, yell, or do whatever else they may want to do.
It may help to also visualize a specific setup or people that you feel are connected to your trauma — for example, your parents. The more details you bring into this exercise, the easier it will be to empathize with your inner child.
Once you see your child self vividly, you may ask some questions:
- How is the child in front of you feeling?
- What do they need?
- What are they judging/blaming/shaming themselves for?
- What can you forgive them for right now?
- What could you say to support that child?
You don’t have to ask all those questions at once. Even if you only ask one, your child self will already feel a difference. It will feel that someone cares.
Step 3: Nurture
The last step is to give your inner child what it needs most. Often, this is about meeting the two basic emotional needs we all seek to fulfil in the first years of our lives: safety and unconditional love.
You may do that by continuing the visualization exercise from the previous step. In your mind, hold the child in your arms, stroke their hair or do another loving gesture for them. By visualizing this, you position yourself as your own parent.
You spark feelings of love and safety that your inner child so desperately needs.
Another way to nurture your child is by reinforcing positive self-talk and beliefs. I like to do that in front of a mirror. This way, I get a visual cue that helps me externalize my inner child — and take care of it as a loving parent.
Sit in front of the mirror and look yourself in the eye. Remember, these are the same eyes that belonged to the child you once were. You can treat them as a portal to access your inner child.
What is it that they need to hear?
Tell that to your child, either out loud or in your mind. Whichever it is, make sure you use the soothing words and tone of voice that a loving parent would. Remember: your inner child is listening. What you say has the power to free it from its trauma.
Soon, it’ll come out to play, innocent and joyful.
All of us were children once.
Those children are still with us today. Many of them are hiding. They’re waiting for someone to come and acknowledge their pain.
Once that happens, they’ll be ready to enjoy every moment, carefree and light. They want to express themselves. For that, they need to feel safe and loved.
When they can’t, it’s usually because of unresolved childhood trauma. These are the painful experiences from the past that you learned to suppress. You may not notice them in everyday life. But this doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Your inner child may sabotage your adult experience by trying to get you to heal its unresolved issues. You can do that through reparenting yourself. This means providing a loving presence and self-compassion that you wished you had received as a child.
This usually happens in three stages:
- connecting with your inner child,
- listening to what it has to say,
- nurturing the child and meeting its emotional needs.
You may do that on your own or seek professional help from a therapist. Whichever you choose, make sure you don’t just ignore your inner child.
It has many lessons to teach you.
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