We all have an inner child: a younger version of ourselves that resides in the unconscious and reflects who we were as a child, both the positive and negative aspects of that experience. The inner child holds the emotional pain, unmet needs, and wounds from the past alongside innocence, playfulness, and propensity for joy.
When clients see me, they identify challenges such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, addictions, and unhealthy relationships with themselves and others. While some of those struggles are due to current life circumstances, many are deeply rooted in difficult childhood experiences. Any “less than nurturing interaction” (Pia Melody) between a child and the people in their world that was never repaired could leave a scar.
The young child that felt lost, neglected, harshly criticized, invalidated, or unsafe continues to play out dysfunctional patterns into adulthood. These might appear in various ways: Perfectionism, people pleasing, self-doubt, emotional shutdown, or excessive reactivity, strategies that once ensured survival now impede happiness and fulfillment.
We can interrupt unhelpful coping tendencies by attending to the wounded child. Inner Child work in therapy is a powerful and effective tool to recognize and heal attachment wounds.
I love using this approach with clients because it benefits my healing journey. I found it to be:
- Validating – when you gain insight into how past experiences have shaped who you are and how you relate to yourself and the world, behaviors that might have been pathologized suddenly make sense and are normalized as adaptive responses.
- Transformative – while we cannot change the past, IC work allows us to revisit painful moments and provide a new corrective experience in the present. As we identify unmet needs and learn how to nurture and protect our younger parts, we can awaken our personalities’ more playful and joyous aspects. Clients often share that they begin to feel unstuck and more energized and experience a new sense of aliveness and hope. There is a softening that happens.
- Empowering – IC work allows us to become competent, responsible adults who can tend to the frightened, lonely, neglected, and saddened younger parts of our personalities. Through this process of reparenting, we can gain a sense of agency over our lives.
IC work is powerful and healing, but it can also be daunting. We must get in touch with tender parts of ourselves that have been suppressed for a long time. The emotional pain may feel excruciating at first. Therefore, you must have full access to your inner resources; you can recognize when you are outside your window of tolerance and self-soothe effectively when activated. Your therapist can ensure you are appropriately resourced and provide guidance and support. I would not recommend that childhood trauma survivors begin the IC healing journey alone.
The wounded IC is reacting from longing to be seen, heard, loved, comforted, and protected. There are a variety of ways we can provide a different reparative experience in the present to help it heal:
Have a conversation with the stuck young child; you can ask specific questions or provide validation and reassurance, e.g.
- What do you need to feel safe?
- How old are you?
- What are you afraid of?
- You are worthy of good things.
- Any mantra that will reassure the younger you; I have choices, I am capable, I am here for you, I want to hear what you have to say, etc.
Writing in and of itself is very healing. Some examples of how you can engage the IC through writing are:
- Use your dominant hand to write a message to or ask a question of your IC and then use the non-dominant hand to respond from the perspective of the wounded child part. Since non-dominant handwriting accesses a different part of the brain, more creative, more unconscious clients are often surprised by the content during this exercise.
- Writing a letter asking your IC for forgiveness is also a beautiful reparative exercise.Guided meditations – there are so many options here. You can work with a professional, use video or audio recordings on various platforms, and many IC meditation guides are published. One excellent resource is “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child” by John Bradshaw.
I love to use imagery and often invite clients to picture themselves and their younger selves and provide a new experience for the child where it feels safer, valued, and at peace. You have full creative license here and can tailor the exercise to your unique personality and type of attachment injury. The key is to reflect and identify a specific need that was unaddressed in the past. Did you need more boundaries? Less discipline? More affection? More reassurance that you matter and that you are not “bad”? Perhaps the significant people in your life were not emotionally attuned? The possibilities here are as wide-ranging as individual human experiences. After each visualization exercise, I ask clients to notice if anything has shifted in the adult self.
Regardless of how you decide to connect with the wounded child part, the goal is always to let the wise adult part of your personality validate and reassure “I see you. I hear you. I’m here to care for you and protect you.”
IC healing is a practice and requires patience, curiosity, and consistency. How will you nurture your Inner child today?