The Power of Inner Child Therapy
Did you have a favorite childhood story growing up? A tale you loved to hear over and over again, that still brings back fond memories as an adult? Whether you read “Little Red Riding Hood” or the Harry Potter novels, children’s stories inspire a love of adventure and play that continues well beyond childhood. As an adult, your favorite stories may remind you of the innocence, excitement, and emotional freedom of being a child; they may also remind you of challenges and experiences that you couldn't understand when you were young. The part of you that connects with these stories—the part that remembers the danger and excitement of outsmarting the Big Bad Wolf or that still wants to fly on a broomstick to a world of magic—is your inner child. When you forget how to communicate with your inner child, they can throw tantrums: you might scream at a parking ticket on your car after a rough day at work or demand your partner not leave you alone in the house. When you learn to communicate with your inner child—understanding their desires and setting healthy boundaries—you will be able to balance your adult responsibilities with your emotional and creative needs.
Introducing Your Inner Child
“Inner child” might sound a bit like New Age slang from the 60s, but it is a therapeutic concept with a long history. The idea goes back to the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung and his archetype of a puer aeternus: an “eternal child” that exists inside everyone. The inner child is that part of you that doesn’t want to grow up. It is the child you used to be, and that wants to stay with you when you become an adult.
As a child, you need independence to explore and play, but you also need to be taken care of and nurtured by others. You continue to feel these needs as you grow up. As an adult, your inner child speaks through your personality and desires. The inner child expresses the part of your personality that is:
Curious and creative
Open-minded and imaginative
Vulnerable and naïve
Unrestrained in its emotions
Eager for validation and recognition
Everyone has an inner child, but you may not know how to talk to them and understand them. Many adults feel like they are children merely pretending to be grown-ups; you may feel as though you don’t know how to work through the impulses, fears, and needs that you developed in your childhood. When you are unaware of your inner child, they can “possess” your behavior. When you neglect your inner child, you might throw a tantrum when you have a bad day, or you might run from authority figures and avoid responsibilities. Much like caring for a physical child, it is unhealthy and damaging to ignore your inner child. Ignoring a child who is afraid, lonely, or acting out will only intensify their fear, loneliness, and harmful behavior. When you neglect your inner child, you are ignoring a part of yourself; you are avoiding the responsibility of tending to your emotions.
Working With Your Inner Child
When you listen to your inner child, comfort them, and set boundaries, you psychologically mature. Instead of being controlled by the urges of your inner child, you can relate to your inner child as a healthy and responsible adult.
I use inner child work to help my clients relate to their inner needs and fears in a safe and self-accepting way. Inner child work teaches that your desire for recognition, play, and emotional expression is valid; however, it is also necessary to accept the responsibility that comes with being an adult. When you work with your inner child, you can:
Form a dialogue between your adult self and child self, asking your inner child questions like, “what do you need?” or “are you feeling okay?”
Take time to enjoy innocent and creative play in everyday life.
Reconnect with activities you enjoyed in childhood like drawing, playing with games or toys, or engaging in make-believe.
Learn to set rules and boundaries for yourself.
Find ways to comfort yourself when you feel upset and emotional.
Healing With Your Inner Child
Engaging with your inner child will help you reconnect with your past and better understand your emotions. Many people experience trauma or pain in their youth that they couldn’t understand or process as children. If ignored as a child, you might feel uncomfortable being alone. You might demand your partner(s) spend all their time with you or use disruptive displays of emotion to get attention. If punished for crying, you might repress your feelings and withdraw from conflict. When you connect with your inner child, you can come to terms with childhood pain and learn to comfort yourself. Working together with your inner child, I can help you address:
Traumatic childhood experiences
Low self-confidence or dependency on others
Anxiety or social phobias
Healthy emotional expression and communication skills
Adult Self and Child Self: An Ongoing Conversation
Curious about how inner child works in practice? Take the example of Paul, a 45-year-old man who—along with his mother and siblings—experienced physical and emotional abuse from his father. Paul felt a great degree of responsibility towards protecting his family members as a child but had trouble finding meaning as an adult—he felt driven to care for others, at the expense of himself. During long-term group psychotherapy, Paul had the opportunity to engage with his inner child. He acted out conversations with his child self. First, adult Paul and child Paul met at a park close to his childhood home, where adult Paul asked for permission to change their goal of protecting and saving his mother. Child Paul was nervous, but in the end he agreed that it was okay to find a new vision. Next, adult Paul asked his child self to follow him to a safe place from his adult life. Though the child self still wanted to protect his mother, adult Paul insisted, “you’ve done enough here,” and both child and adult moved on together. Although child Paul was reluctant at first, he was relieved to leave behind the painful childhood relationships that he could not control. After working through these scenes, Paul stated that he felt like it was time for him to try and help himself, rather than take responsibility for others. The experience allowed Paul to complete his therapy sessions within a few months, and he still remembered the activity fondly when contacted six months later for a follow-up. Through this activity, Paul was able to comfort his child self while learning to enjoy his adult life and accept new responsibilities. Working with your inner child gives you the opportunity to be a responsible, authoritative, and caring figure in your own life while appreciating and comforting your child self who journeys with you.
Inner child work is not about blaming your parents, nor is it about having multiple personalities. It helps you balance your responsibilities to others as a grown-up with your personal, emotional care. It is not about getting rid of your inner child but being conscious of it. When you build a caring relationship with your inner child, you take responsibility for healing and managing your emotions while cherishing play, exploration, and wonder as an adult.
Inner child therapy teaches you to love yourself and care for your emotional wellbeing. If you are curious about inner child work and what it could do for you, contact me today to schedule a free 20-minute session!