Inner child work is a gentle yet powerful way of recognising and healing childhood trauma. The idea of inner child work is to get in touch with parts of you that are wounded or frozen in time, freeing them from the trauma and integrating them with your present self.
Whether it is a big trauma or a minor incident, for a little child, experiencing intense emotions along with feeling helpless/trapped/powerless creates trauma.
Our behaviours as an adult come from our experiences in childhood. We learn everything as we are growing up through imitating behaviours and reactions from our caretakers, parents, teachers, elder siblings etc. All our instinctive responses were learned at some time in the past and rehearsed or used multiple times until they become impulsive responses that are so subconscious that we don’t even realize doing them.
Why is inner child work effective?
If some of the behaviours or responses we learned as a child are not healthy for us anymore or not serving us as they used to, we might find it difficult to change them as they are deeply embedded in the subconscious. But if we want to change them, we can do things –
Practice a new behaviour enough times that it becomes our second nature, or
Inner child work – Connecting to the inner child from the moment when that behaviour was learned, releasing the trauma or intense emotion that resulted in the coping mechanism, thus releasing the need for it subconsciously, so that it no longer is our instinctive behaviour.
Imagine you are 5 years old in a kindergarten class. Someone made a false complaint to the teacher about you pinching them. When the teacher confronts you, you deny it but the teacher doesn’t believe you and punishes you by making you stand in the corridor with arms raised up for all other children, seniors, and teachers to see as well. It makes you feel extremely embarrassed and ashamed.
As a result, you are convinced that no one will ever believe what you say even if it is the truth. More such reinforcing events cause you to learn that you will have to justify your actions and please everyone around you so no one will ever complain about you.
Years later, you have forgotten this incident, but the behaviour of people-pleasing is creating problems for you. No matter how much you try and change the behaviour, subconsciously you resort to doing it repeatedly.
When you begin to do the inner child work, you go back in time to the event as an adult when this belief was formed and the behaviour of “people pleasing” set in place, you may be able to see that this was a coping mechanism of a 5-year-old child who did not have better skills to deal with that situation at that moment.
With your understanding as an adult, you can help untangle the coping mechanism that the 5-year-old developed to help protect you from more trauma. Understanding this loosens the hold of that behaviour in the subconscious thus making it easier to shift the behaviour; at times, the shift happens naturally as well.
The inner child in psychotherapy
The famous psychologist Carl Jung is considered to be one of the first to have coined the term “inner child”. He talked about archetypes among whom the ‘divine child’ is one.
According to Carl Jung, individuals do not come into this world as blank slates, but rather have “primordial images” in their subconscious. This concept has echoes in the eastern philosophies of rebirth and belief in past and future lives.
The inner child archetype is the unconscious sub-personality that consists of what a person experienced and as a result, learned, in the early years of childhood, which influences the mind even as an adult. If the inner child is wounded, anxious, or traumatized, it will influence negatively the adult’s life as well.
The renowned Zen master, Thich Naht Hanh, says,
“The cry we hear from deep in our hearts comes from the wounded child within. Healing this inner child’s pain is the key to transforming anger, sadness, and fear.”
Wounded Inner Child
Jung suggested that the inner child is a part of us that influences all we do and the decisions we make even in adulthood. These are parts of us that never grew up. They hold all the memories and emotions that we experienced and learned rules or messages when we were helpless or dependent on our caretakers.
Anything that the caretaker said or did with us or around us became our blueprints for the world. If at this stage, the inner child or we when we were children experienced any form of abuse or trauma, it is deeply embedded in the psyche and influences us into adulthood.
Signs of a wounded inner child
- Low self-esteem
- A harsh and unrelenting inner-critic
- Hypersensitive to the environment
- Difficulty explaining the feelings or expressing yourself
- Poor boundaries, difficulty saying ‘No’
- Avoid conflict, no matter what
- Childish outbursts, tantrums
- A feeling that there is something wrong with you
- Attachment difficulties (anxious or avoidant attachment)
- Patterns of self-sabotage
- Feeling alive in drama or conflict
- Fear of abandonment or commitment
- Unable to trust anyone
- Inability to love themselves
Benefits of doing inner child work
- Understand how past events and trauma affects your present behaviour
- Discovering and releasing repressed emotions that have been holding you a prisoner
- Recognise your un-met needs so you can re-parent yourself better
- Develop healthy coping mechanisms and behaviours
- Increased self-esteem, confidence, and compassion for self and others
- Feel empowered and in control
- Develop better ways of emotional regulation
- Unlocking your creativity and playfulness
- Reduced anxiety, depression, and addictions
Ron Kurtz, the founder of Hakomi therapy, says, “I want you to imagine what you would do if you had come upon that real child in the original situation.… What’s a reasonable, compassionate thing to do for a child that’s confused and upset? You sit and talk with the child. You listen to it. You find out what’s bothering it, help it understand, comfort it, and hold it in your arms; later, you play with it a little, explain things, and tell a story. That’s therapy in its oldest and best sense: nothing fancy, just kindness and patience.”