As adults, so many of us have various mental health issues to navigate, for example anxiety, depression, trauma. But if those difficulties stem from childhood experiences then you may benefit from suppressed inner child work, such as reparenting yourself, or inner child healing meditation. Exercises to heal the inner child can be a hugely beneficial part of shadow working for anyone who carries the weight of childhood wounds.
What is the Inner Child?
You’ve likely heard the expression ‘inner child’, but what exactly does it mean, and how does it relate to your life in adulthood?
We all have an inner child, but we don’t all have a healthy relationship with that innocent and vulnerable part of ourselves. When we face trauma as children, we’re usually ill-equipped to deal with the resulting negative emotions; our subsequent coping mechanisms – while totally valid and necessary at the time – are often detrimental to us as adults.
The Suppressed Inner Child
Instead of being logical and rational, our learned reactions to stress, anxiety, fear, and sadness are distorted, which may lead to self-sabotaging behaviour by the suppressed inner child.
How to Identify Your Inner Child
Loosely based on Freud’s model of the id, the ego, and the superego, there are three components to our personalities: the inner child, the outer child, and the adult self.
The inner child is tender and vulnerable, reliant on the caregivers to have their needs met and driven my primal instincts, while the outer child responds to and aims to protect the inner child:
Inner Child Traits
- Playful and curious;
- Open, sincere;
- Craves love, safety, connection, recognition, validation.
Outer Child Traits
- Self-sabotaging behaviours,
- Overprotects the inner child,
- Focused on having needs met.
When the child has developed in a healthy environment, the adult self reflects this with a healthy outlook:
Traits of the Adult Self
- Able to set healthy boundaries,
- Has healthy self-esteem,
- Able to identify feelings and needs,
- Able to communicate same in a calm and rational manner,
- Retains integrity in times of conflict,
- Confident of self-worth,
- Makes self-care a priority.
Unfortunately, when a child grows up in a dysfunctional environment where they experience emotional or psychological neglect (which can occur in any number of situations which may not always be obvious), the adult self is strongly influenced by and develops more closely aligned with the outer child or, rather, as the ‘wounded child’:
Wounded Child Traits
- Self-sabotaging behaviours,
- Poor self-esteem and harsh inner critic,
- Poor body image or body dysmorphia,
- Fear of abandonment,
- Incapable/fearful of setting healthy boundaries,
- Deep-seated belief of being ‘broken’,
- Feelings of shame and guilt,
- Places disproportionate value on approval of others,
- Seeks reassurance,
- Tendency towards instant gratification and addiction.
For a child to grow up well-adjusted and develop into the healthy adult self, they need to form a secure attachment with their care-giver/s; failure to do so is what leads to the above wounded child traits instead.
Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby in 1958, and later studied further by his colleague Mary Ainsworth in 1962 (and subsequently by Shemmings, 2011; Brown and Ward, 2013). Their collective work identifies four fundamental types of attachment between the child and caregiver, including secure attachment and three different forms of insecure attachment:
Applies to 55% of the population and occurs when the caregiver is sensitive and responsive to the infant’s needs. Emotionally, the child develops appropriately, learning to self-regulate their stress, and feeling confident in the knowledge they can be vulnerable with their caregiver/s and will not be rejected or ignored.
Insecure Avoidant Attachment
Applies to 23% of the population and tends to occur when the caregiver finds it difficult to respond sensitively to the infant’s needs. The child’s experience tends to be of a caregiver who is rejecting, dismissive, and controlling. Consequently they learn to believe they are neither loved nor loveable. As the child develops, they shut down and repress their feelings because they’ve learned that any display of emotion will drive the caregiver away.
Insecure Ambivalent Attachment
Applies to 8% of the population and tends to occur when the caregiver is inconsistent in their response to the infant’s needs. The child in this scenario is left confused and may display attention-seeking behaviours which are not always successful and reflect their simultaneous need for, and anger with, the caregiver.
Applies to 15% of the population and may be observed in children who are frightened of their caregiver. They may fear approaching the caregiver for comfort because they’re unpredictable and erratic in the way they respond, and may be positive or hostile. These children have difficulty regulating their emotions and may become aggressive adults.
What Types of Environment Lead to Insecure Attachment With the Caregiver?
It would be easy to assume that an abusive parent is always the reason for an infant forming an insecure attachment, but that’s not the case. It can be the result of a number of less obvious, more subtle and nuanced scenarios; risk factors include:
- Parents with psychiatric conditions such as personality disorders,
- Caregivers who use guilt as a tool,
- Unreliable, untrustworthy, or neglectful parents,
- Caregivers with PTSD,
- Substance abuse in the home,
- Exposure to or victim of abuse,
- Family break up,
- Controlling or coddling parents,
- Insensitive or emotionally unavailable parents,
- Caregivers with unresolved mourning,
This all clearly demonstrates the importance of forming a secure attachment as a child; but, if that didn’t happen for you for whatever reason, all is not lost. This is where inner child work can be helpful. First undoing the harm caused in infancy, inner child work lays the framework for restructured, healthier emotional responses, which should translate to better, more successful relationships.
Healing the Inner Child, Exercises and Activities
Learning to identify and connect to your inner child can allow you to begin the process of nurturing and healing old wounds, which can lead to a more peaceful and fulfilled life.
Reparenting Yourself With Inner Child Work
Reparenting yourself is a powerful way of nurturing your inner child so that you’re able to retrospectively provide for yourself the things you missed out on in your early life; the theory is that this enables your adult self to make peace with the hurts endured as a child.
This process can help the adult to let go of the pain and associated negative emotions, beliefs, and irrational responses which can otherwise manifest as self-sabotaging behaviours.
Note that insecure attachment of the parent is not is and of itself a risk factor for repeating history with your own children, however the resulting issues may (or may not) make responsive parenting more difficult. Dealing with your problems is the best insurance policy for forming a healthy and joyful bond with your own children.
What is Reparenting?
In psychotherapy, reparenting refers to the therapist assuming the role of a sensitive and responsive parent; in self-reparenting, you do this for yourself.
What Are the Benefits of Reparenting Therapy?
In therapy, reparenting provides a safe environment for you to:
- Feel supported,
- Experience a secure attachment,
- Learn to trust.
Possible disadvantages of this style of therapy include the necessary professional boundary which places limitations on the developing relationship between client and therapist, and the authenticity of the relationship.
For these reasons, self-reparenting can be a better option; it’s something you can do alone, at your own pace, and with absolute investment in the process.
Advantages of Self-Reparenting
Fostering/repairing/strengthening a positive relationship with yourself can only be beneficial!
These are some of the advantages of self-reparenting:
- Identify your unmet needs,
- Experience vulnerability in a non-threatening, supportive environment,
- (Metaphorically) confront inadequate parent/s, without fear of abandonment.
While these benefits may also be possible to achieve in therapy, it’s possible they may feel difficult to accomplish in that environment, and more comfortable to attempt alone.
How to Reparent Your Inner Child
So now we’ve got through all the background and information to give you a broad understanding of what your inner child is, how they may have been wounded, and why it’s so beneficial to work on reparenting, let’s take a look at the steps you can take towards healing.
Healing the Inner Child, Exercises and Activities
These are some practical exercises you can do to begin reparenting your inner child:
- First acknowledge the presence of your inner child.
- Write a letter to your childhood self,
- Write a letter from your inner child to your parent/s,
- Ask your inner child questions,
- Healing meditation,
- Create and say affirmations to your inner child.
Inner Child Healing Meditation
Inner child healing meditation is a great opportunity to do many of the above activities! You can use visualisation meditation to help you acknowledge and picture your inner child, while the Buddhist practice of metta meditation, also known as loving-kindness meditation, can be a useful tool for asking those questions and opening yourself up to hear the answers, and for directing affirmations to your inner child.
Consider how you would respond to your inner child if they were not you, but a living breathing child experiencing the things you did. Allow yourself to feel the gentle kindness and affection you would naturally extend to a child going through a similarly difficult time, and lavish it on your inner child. They, you, deserve it.
Inner Child Journaling & Inner Child Healing Journal Prompts
Journaling is my fallback; it’s so powerful as a tool for helping us to acknowledge, identify, analyse, process, grow, and heal.
Try these prompts to help you access your inner child and begin to reparent:
1. Things I feel about my childhood are:
2. Things I missed out on in my childhood are:
3. Things I feel about my mother/father/caregiver are:
4. I wish my parents had _______________.
5. It wasn’t my fault that my parents __________________.
6. When I _______________, it was coming from a place of _______________. I now know that those feelings were caused by a desperate need for ________________ and I deserve forgiveness.
7. Things I shouldn’t feel shame for are:
8. I want to heal my wounds so I can:
9. I am going to nurture my inner child by:
Inner Child Affirmations
These are some examples you could use, or you can write your own:
- My feelings are valid,
- I am worthy of love and respect,
- I am safe,
- I can make mistakes and still be a wonderful person,
- I deserve to be heard,
- I deserve unconditional love,
- I have nothing to feel ashamed about,
- I am perfect just as I am,
- I deserve forgiveness,
- My experiences are valid,
- The way I was treated as child is not my fault, nor my responsibility,
- It’s okay to feel the hurt,
- It’s okay to let the pain go,
- I deserved love and nurturing as a child, and I deserve it now.
Healing the Inner Child
Affection, recognition, nurturing, and emotional support are valid childhood needs, vital for forming secure attachments and laying the blueprints for healthy future relationships and boundaries. When these needs go unmet and an insecure attachment is formed instead, the associated trauma can leave lifelong emotional and intimacy issues.
However, it’s never too late to heal from the wounds experienced during childhood.
By practicing inner child work and reparenting yourself, you can learn to let go of the enduring pain, increase your self-worth, and learn to experience healthy, fulfilling relationships.