What is the inner child?
“Inner child” is a psychological term used to describe the part of our adult psyche or personality that remains from our childhood self. It represents the child we once were and it remains with us throughout our lives regardless of our age. Consequently, every adult has an inner child within their psyche that was created from their childhood experiences and relationships. For this reason, everyone’s inner child is different with their own personalities, needs and struggles. However, at the same time, there are often similar themes and needs for each inner child such as needing to feel loved and safe for example. Each inner child is also a different age depending on one’s experiences and traumas.
Typically, our inner child is the age where we experienced the most difficulties and hardships. These “difficulties” and “hardships” don’t have to be particularly big or profound to have made a permanent impact on us either. Small and seemingly inconsequential events, experiences and interactions can have huge impacts on our psyches and developing selves. For some, their inner child may be 2 or 3 years old, for example, while for others they could be 13 or 14. The appearance, voice, emotional state, vocabulary, etc. are also specific to each inner child. One inner child might be very young, scared and crying for example, while another might be a teenager who is extremely angry and hostile. These differences give insight into the struggles of the individual, what difficulties they faced and what they need in order to let go of any traumas or negative emotions. Regardless of your belief in the existence of the “inner child,” we all have a part of ourselves left over from our childhood that has unresolved issues and emotions and if we continue to ignore this part of our selves, we are ignoring the most important part that we need to understand.
Why do I need to know about my inner child?
The inner child is extremely significant in that most of our deepest beliefs and fears about ourselves, the world and others reside here. It is our inner child, in fact, that is often unconsciously guiding our lives, decisions, reactions and emotions. Most people are unaware of and disconnected from their inner child which often leads to a lifetime of relational, emotional and personal problems. This occurs because our inner child, like a real child, needs attention, to be listened to, to feel understood, validated, praised, nurtured, loved, etc., and when it doesn’t, it can become angry, depressed or anxious, for example, and begin to act outward or inward leading to a multitude of emotional and behavioral issues like depression, anxiety, anger issues, inability to maintain healthy relationships, lack of confidence, self hatred, inability to maintain employment, legal problems, addiction and the list goes on and on. Additionally, like a real child, our inner child is also immature and narcissistic as part of the normal developmental process. And, when a child receives a balance of love and boundaries it’s able to flourish and grow into an emotionally balanced adult. Without the child’s emotional needs being met, however, the child cannot successfully complete all the necessary developmental stages of childhood, leaving the person chronologically older, but still “stuck” in a previous developmental stage and essentially emotionally trapped.
This is why we have all at some point come into contact with people who were chronologically grown adults, but emotionally, they still behaved or lived like a child or teenager. Or, you may know someone who has the same ongoing struggles in their lives with relationships, emotional problems, addiction, financial issues, etc., never able to let go of issues from their childhood, perhaps, make their own decisions or express love for themselves or others, for example.
You may even recognize emotions in yourself that you don’t always understand where they come from and why they are so intense. Feelings such as anger, rage, grief, guilt, sadness that show up on a regular basis in your life without a real explanation. Or maybe you’re able to identify the trigger to the emotions but the emotions seem very exaggerated and intense for the situation and you find yourself unable to calm them down or let go of them easily.
Many difficulties also typically arise from unresolved issues with our inner child when we become a parent. This is because our children act as a mirror and a trigger for our own unresolved childhood issues. As a child grows, each age and developmental stage the child passes through in which we ourselves didn’t receive the necessary love, affection, attention, guidance, encouragement, boundaries, etc., that we needed, resurfaces for us to look at again. If we are unaware of what is happening, we may inadvertently and unconsciously reenact the same dynamic with our own children- thereby “passing on” similar emotional struggles. It’s for this reason, that we often see a generational family pattern of similar emotional issues and behavioral problems. By remaining unaware of your own childhood needs that were unmet, you are highly likely to keep repeating them- even with the very people whom you love and want to protect.
So how do I connect with my inner child?
Connecting with something that is in our minds can be a strange and uncomfortable idea for many people. You may be thinking, “this is crazy,” “that was years ago, it’s not possible to connect to myself as a child.” Or, you may even feel slightly nervous or possibly scared to connect with this part of you not knowing what you will find and how you will handle old emotions and wounds. You might be thinking it’s better to leave these parts and memories alone because it will only cause more pain and hardship for you.
With these very common reactions, remind yourself that they are just a defense due to fear. Although an understandable fear, it is a fear that is not beneficial or based in reality. Our inner child can only cause us “harm” if we leave it unchecked and ignored. It is simply a part of yourself that wants and needs your attention. Yes, it may express a lot of anger or sadness at first for being forgotten and unattended to for so long, but once the inner child knows you are serious about giving it love, listening to it and protecting it, it can resolve old issues much faster and offer a lot of joy and love.
To give you a visual of this, imagine a child who is happy, playful and loving versus a child who is angry, scared or withdrawn. The laugh and energy of a happy child is infectious and life-affirming. A happy child is also loving, affectionate and expressive. Therefore, when your inner child feels happy, safe, balanced and loved- you feel happy, safe, balanced and loved. Of course life is still challenging and difficult at times, but it is much easier to manage and to stay balanced during difficult times when your inner child is secure.
So how the heck does this all work? What do you do? Below are some simple exercises to begin to connect with your inner child and communicate with it. Inner child work is done through a lot of visualization along with other techniques such as writing, drawing and talking, but the more you can really visualize and see your inner child as an actual part of you, the better your connection with it regardless of the technique.
If it feels uncomfortable, awkward or strange at first, know that this is very normal and perfectly ok. Try not to judge yourself during this process or to be impatient with your inner child and progress. Your connection with your inner child is not a one-time activity or something that you “do” and then are finished with. It’s a lifelong commitment and connection with yourself essentially. Your inner child will require more attention at different times in your life as different stressors and triggers appear. Issues that you thought were completely “resolved” can reappear at different moments, as well, depending on how balanced you are feeling and how deep an issue is in your psyche.
The main thing to remember when working with your inner child is to go slowly, listen to what your inner child is telling you without judgment and not to minimize the emotions of your inner child. If your inner child is very angry or self-destructive, set loving boundaries as you try to build your relationship and understand the child’s underlying anger. Connecting with your inner child, as with a real child, does not mean you allow it to act out however it wants to. Rather, it’s extremely important for you to really listen to it and acknowledge what it’s feeling regardless of whether or not you agree with or understand how the inner child is feeling. In essence, be the parent you wished you had had to your own inner child giving all the love, affection, acknowledgement, praise, boundaries and protection that you needed growing up. If you don’t know what it looks like to be a “healthy” parent because your upbringing was so traumatic, think about someone you admire as a parent and emulate them.
Working with our inner child, understanding and making peace with it can be a powerful and deeply healing process. Although not always easy to face our inner child and to hear what it has to say, the time spent connecting with your inner child can have profound and long-lasting effects on your life, your ability to be joyful and to truly love and accept yourself. For these reasons, don’t wait any longer.
Exercises to Connect With Your Inner Child
1) What does your inner child look like?
- First and foremost, before you can connect with your inner child you need to see it or have a sense of it. To do this, find a quiet space by yourself and close your eyes. Think about yourself as a child and what do you see? Whatever image comes to you first is most likely your inner child. Remember that it can be any age between birth to 18 although typically it will be between ages 5-10.
Some questions to illicit your image more clearly are:
- What age are you?
- What are you wearing?
- What are you doing?
- What is your facial expression? Emotional state?
- Are you saying something?
- Are you somewhere particular? If not, it’s ok.
Pay attention to all the details of your inner child. The more you know your inner child the better. If the picture of your inner child is not very clear or specific, don’t worry about this. Get as best a picture in your mind as possible.
Once you have visualized your inner child, another option is to find a photo of yourself at the same age that reminds you of your inner child. This is for people who prefer to have a concrete photo to look at, but it’s not necessary. For those who like to draw or paint, you can also create a picture of your inner child to work with. Do what feels right for you. You can’t do this wrong.
Feel free to write down the details about your inner child and what you observe and hear. Again, this is not required, but if it helps you then go ahead.
2) Acknowledge your inner child
- Let your inner child know that you are present and listening. Depending on the emotional state of your inner child, you may need to apologize to it for having ignored him/her for so long. If your inner child appears very upset, this is probably a good place to start.
- Sit closely to your inner child and offer a hug if it will allow you.
- Tell your inner child that you love him/her very much and you want to understand how it feels.
- Ask your inner child how it is feeling and why. Depending on the age of your inner child, you may need to help it identify the feeling(s) or if the child isn’t verbal because it’s too young, you may need to do it on your own.
- Acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings no matter what they are. You don’t have to agree with them or understand them, but you need to acknowledge them. If you are unfamiliar with how to validate a feeling, use sentences like, “I see that you’re (upset, angry, sad, etc).” “I know it’s hard and I want you to know I’m here.” “I love you and I’m listening.”
3) Identify the themes of the inner child’s emotions and the underlying causes.
- Take notice of the primary emotions of your inner child (ie, anger, sadness, loss, feeling ignored, scared, incompetent, etc.) and ask the child and yourself where these feelings are coming from. What happened during your childhood causing these emotions to develop? If you have no idea at the beginning, start by thinking about your primary relationships first, meaning, the people who were your primary caretakers. Often it is in our primary and first relationships that have the deepest impact on our development and our beliefs. Of course, it’s also possible that the underlying causes of your inner child’s emotions may have occurred when they were a bit older so make sure to think about your entire childhood and explore with your inner child how they felt growing up.
4) Acknowledge the emotions and experiences with your inner child and give healing messages
- Use phrases like:
“I know you weren’t listened to when you were growing up, and that wasn’t fair. You deserved to be heard and I am listening to you. I love you and I will always listen to you.”
“I know you were treated badly and not protected when you were little. I’m so sorry you went through that. It wasn’t right or fair and you deserved love and respect and to be protected. I am here now to protect you and won’t let anything bad ever happen to you again.”
These are only a few examples to get you started. It’s most important that you speak from the heart and with love when talking to your inner child. If you find yourself not knowing what to say, again think about someone you trust and admire and what they would say in the same situation to a child. Or, think about what you wanted to hear when you were the age of your inner child. What did you need at that time? Sometimes just acknowledging and hugging your inner child can offer the most healing so don’t get too caught up on saying the “perfect” thing. This whole process is about giving love back to yourself essentially, so if it’s done from a place of love, you can’t go wrong.
5) Write a letter to your inner child
- This can be done in addition to the exercises above and is very powerful and healing. Write a letter to your inner child telling him/her all the things you needed to hear when you were growing up. Again, speak from your heart. Don’t worry about finding the “right” words for this exercise either. The process of writing the letter is the most important. After writing the letter, read it out loud to your inner child. If you prefer, you can also read the letter to something that represents your inner child (ie, a photo, drawing, doll). Make sure to do this, and the other exercises above, alone in a private and calm space since a lot of emotions can surface and you will need to be able to let them out. Don’t judge your reactions or emotions-- just acknowledge them and allow them to surface.
After completing these exercises, continue the process on a regular basis until you begin to notice your inner child feels emotionally balanced and secure. You will know this has occurred when you begin to feel less emotionally reactive in your day-to-day life and less negative emotions in general. You may also notice feeling more playful, joyful, energetic, confident, loving or assertive.
Remember that your connection with your inner child is a lifetime process, particularly during periods of emotional difficulty. Whenever you find yourself becoming overly emotional or reactive, feeling more sensitive or unhappy, always check in with your inner child first. Often, you will find an unresolved issue here that is surfacing and needs your attention and understanding.
Lastly, if you begin to feel overwhelmed at any point during this process, it may be warranted to see a psychotherapist or other type of healer you feel comfortable working with to provide you with additional support. It is not required, but if you feel the need, please reach out to someone who is qualified to help you with this. In the end, it’s most important that you make peace with your inner child in order to move towards a balanced, happy and healthy future.
Tania Manczarek is a licensed psychotherapist, intuitive energy healer, certified massage practitioner and hypnotist from Los Angeles, now living in the south of France. Tania has her own private practice offering distant psychotherapy and energy healing and also organizes holistic, wellness retreats in France. If you would like to know more about her or her healing community, go to www.mymindbodyhealing.com.