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5 Minutes Read

Understanding the Inner Child

Sometimes adults are encouraged to relax and be less serious through the suggestion “get in touch with your inner child”. Sounds sweet - but what does that actually mean?

Understanding the concept of the inner child can help you be better connected to yourself and even heal parts of you that may be hurting. Here’s an overview to get you started.

What is the inner child?

The term “inner child” refers to the part of your psyche that is, well - childlike. It’s your child self, shaped by the amalgamated experiences you had before adolescence.

Today’s understanding of the inner child has roots in Carl Jung’s archetypes, as he described the child as one of humanity’s universal concepts or symbols. Inner child work is found in many therapeutic modalities, such as Internal Family Systems therapy. IFS conceptualizes the mind as made up of distinctive parts or subpersonalities, including exiled parts that are often created out of childhood experiences.

To put it simply, think of the inner child as an aspect of who you are. The moments when you feel the way a child does - for example:

  • playing tag with your friends on a day at the beach
  • laughing loudly at a silly joke
  • tearing up in frustration when something isn’t going your way
  • craving being physically and emotionally safe

All of the above are moments where your inner child is present.

People who struggle to identify their inner child typically have one of two difficulties:

  1. they have profoundly suppressed their inner child due to social conventions that discourage adults from play and over-emotionality 
  2. their inner child is so present in their day to day life that it overshadows their more grown up aspects - so they don’t recognize the inner child aspect for what it is

Noticing the inner child

Once you understand the inner child framework, you may notice times and ways that your inner child shows up in your life.

Moments where big, unfiltered emotions are present may involve your inner child. This includes positive experiences, such as times when you indulge your natural curiosity, creativity, and enthusiasm, as well as negative experiences, such as times where you are reactive, reckless, or selfish.

Relationships with others have a strong capacity to bring out your inner child. For example, if you have a warm, secure relationship with a mentor who reminds you of your grandmother who cared for you when you were little, being around your mentor may bring out a mellow side of you, a side that enjoys experiencing rest and simplicity in her presence.

As another example, let’s say as a child you were pestered by the school bully, who often targeted you with verbal criticism and meanness. As an adult, if you have a roommate who is vocal and assertive about conflicts in your shared space, your inner child might come out - incorrectly interpreting your roommate’s assertiveness to be just like the school bully’s cruelty.

If left unchecked, your inner child might then respond to your roommate as if they were the bully - you might shut down emotionally, start avoiding your roommate by fleeing to your room, and complain to your friends that your roommate is out to get you. Of course, this will leave the original conflict unaddressed and unresolved, likely leading to more tension.

Searching for the inner child

You can also intentionally connect with your inner child through exercises and practices that can help you get to know this part of yourself better. You might lean into physicality by joining an amateur sports team. Or you could relearn to relish simple joys by starting a coin collection.

Spending time playing or spending time with children (or both!) are great ways to bring you back to that part of you.

Reviewing key memories from your childhood and exploring how you experienced them at the time can really help you gain an embodied sense of your inner child. Allowing yourself to think about how you as a child would respond to your present day experiences can draw your attention to the way your inner child thinks and feels.

The inner child and healing

Many of us have inner child wounds that come from the missteps or failures our caregivers made in caring for us. It’s very common to have a wound relating to fully expressing your emotions, because of the modern cultural norm of rushing to order children to “stop crying” or “calm down, you’re too excited”.

If the child does not yet know how to manage big emotions healthily or if corralling those emotions is inappropriate for their developmental stage, they will internalize the message that their natural emotional responses should be muted or suppressed because they are “wrong”.

In the process of healing, you become the parent to your inner child and learn to lovingly give your inner child the support they’ve always needed. This could mean giving space for your inner child’s big feelings and learning how to regulate those feelings healthily. 

If your inner child tends to manifest in lashing out at others or behaving irresponsibly, healing your inner child means practicing discipline and engaging with accountability, as well as dealing with the buried emotions like grief or shame that likely lie underneath.

Dive deeper

A frequent mistake made when tackling inner child challenges on your own is trying to just cover up your inner child once you identify it, but there’s a difference between pushing down your inner child’s emotions and experiences and healing your inner child through befriending and integration.

You can never truly jettison your inner child. The closest you can get is splitting it off so it is disconnected from the rest of your personality - but it will only wreak more havoc once it’s pushed out of your awareness.

Instead, dive deeper and learn how to live in harmony with your inner child. If you’re not sure where to go next, I can provide you with guidance. Reach out to me by clicking the button below - I’d love to share more about how therapy can help you with this journey.


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