Inner child is a concept used in popular psychology and Analytical psychology to denote the childlike aspect of a person’s psyche, especially when viewed as an independent entity. Frequently, the term is used to address subjective childhood experiences and the remaining effects of one’s childhood. The inner child also refers to all of the emotional memory and experiences stored in the brain from earliest memory. The Twelve-step program recovery movement considers healing the inner child to be one of the essential stages in recovery from addiction, abuse, trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1970s, the inner child concept emerged alongside the clinical concept of codependency (first called Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome.)
Carl Jung referred to a similar concept as the “Divine Child”. Emmet Fox called it the “Wonder Child”. Charles Whitfield dubbed it the “Child Within”. Some psychotherapists call it the “True Self”. Transactional Analysis calls it simply Child. W. Missildine may have been the first to refer to this concept as the inner child in his 1963 book Your Inner Child of the Past. The “wounded inner child” is a modified application of the inner child concept popularized by American educator, and pop psychology and self help movement leader, John Bradshaw.
Other writers who have developed and expanded the concept and methods include Cathryn Taylor, Lucia Capacchione, Louise Hay, Dr. Margaret Paul, and Pia Mellody. Some recovery methods such as “radical forgiveness” disdain the inner child concept and teach that the idea of “nurturing the inner child” actually holds one back from full recovery by encouraging a victim stance .
The inner child can be considered a subpersonality, and many of those therapy approaches that work with subpersonalities deal with the inner child, even if they don’t use that term. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) has expanded the concept considerably in recognizing that there isn’t just one inner child subpersonality, but many. IFS calls the wounded inner child subpersonalities “exiles” because they tend to be excluded from consciousness in order to defend against the pain and trauma that they carry. It has a sophisticated method for gaining safe access to a person’s exiles, witnessing the stories of their origins in childhood, and healing them.
The “inner child” is the:
- Little child you were who desired to be nurtured, cared for and loved. This child still resides within you as an adult.
- Free spirit, pixie or elf you have tamed and controlled, yet who resides within you.
- Emotional and sensitive you whom you have channeled, controlled and silenced and who is still living within you.
- Creative, imaginative and artistic you who has been molded, structured and organized; who still resides in you and is needing to be set free.
- Hurt, pained, neglected, frustrated, abused and ignored you whom you have masked, hidden from view and denied the existence of. This child is always just below the surface, causing you to be anxious, worried and fearful of mistreatment.
- Fun loving, happy, frivolous, joyful, humorous you when you were young and unsophisticated; that person you have replaced with a sophisticated, mature, serious, task-oriented demeanor.
- Childhood you have lost or forgotten; yet it still resides in you, dwelling in your subconscious.
- Person who knows how to have fun and play for play’s sake; who can help you prevent burnout and manage the stress in your life.
- Person you could be as an adult if you lightened up, let go of your seriousness, overcame your fears and accepted flexibility and change in your life.
- Person within you who needs healing, support and reinforcement through a variety of Tools for Coping activities. Through this you can be given new life, health and a chance for personal growth.
How did the “inner child” get there?
- The “inner child”:
- Resides in every adult person.
- Lives in every adult because it is captured in the brain’s memory bank.
- Exists in the memory or subconscious because each one of us has poignant memories of our past that shape our present motivation and future drive.
- Exists because when we adopted specific behavior characteristics and behavior scripts to cope in our dysfunctional environment we masked, covered up or forgot the real “inner child” we had been.
- Comes back to many of us in our dreams or daydreams. We can clearly picture what the little child looks like and how the child is feeling and acting.
- Is the person we controlled, repressed and hid in order to survive in the world of stress. Since it was repressed we held onto it in our subconscious.
- Is the link we have to our spiritual being because it is in the spirit realm rather than in the realm of conscious behavior.
- Is a component of our current value and belief system; however, we are unaware of its influence on our decisions.
- Exists because when we were overcome by guilt as children, we climbed inside of ourselves to avoid the feelings of not being “good enough.”
- Exists because when we were little our family rules required that we present an image of a happy, healthy family, even if we weren’t. So we repressed our little child to appear more responsible, serious and achievement-oriented.
What is the unfinished business of the “inner child”?
- From growing up in a dysfunctional family, emotional maturity was stunted. This failure to mature left the “inner child” unfinished because we:
- Grew up too fast.
- Became small adults; little “moms” and “dads.”
- Were either over responsible or overachievers.
- Were emotionally vulnerable.
- Were not given a chance to grow and mature in a normal sequence of events.
- Put on a public mask or image to stifle our child-like needs.
- Repressed joy, vision and feelings.
- Still have a “inner child” waiting to grow up and take its proper place.
How does the “inner child” come into being?
- The “inner child” comes into being by:
- A denial of true feelings.
- A denial of the person we are.
- Trying hard to live up to others’ expectations.
- Holding back our child-like responses, while we provide adult like responses to stress.
- The fear of being “found out” about how we really feel.
- Insecurity in the midst of chaos, confusion or the vacuum of repressed feelings.
- A sense of obligation to always “look good” and “be good.”
- Inexperience at being loved for “who you are” rather than for “what you do.”
- Not being given the role model of how to “enjoy” life and to have “fun.”
- Always having to be “serious” about life.
- A lack of encouragement to broaden our scope of vision about the “potentials” in life.
- The stress of staying vigilantly in the “here and now” so that we stay in control and the “walls didn’t come tumbling down” around us.
- Never being given or taking the freedom to play and act childish.’
- Not being given role models of how to take pleasure out of the “little” things in life.
- A compulsive drive to fulfill our role in our family.
- Not recognizing that we can make choices in our lives to make it what we want it to be.
- Continuing even now to follow our compulsive role(s) rather than choosing to change and be free from the restraints this compulsion creates for us.
- Silencing our “inner child” and guarding ourselves, retreating behind “masked” barriers.
- Feeling that it is not safe to grow up, to accept love or to share feelings.
- Learning to spend some time each day in pleasure and play.
What are the signs of activity of the “inner child”?
- We know our “inner child” is active when we:
- Lose ourselves in frolic and fun.
- Cry at a sentimental movie or TV show.
- Over-indulge our own children.
- Enjoy playing with children’s toys.
- Love visiting Walt Disney World or other theme parks designed for children.
- Seek out adult toys to play with.
- Cry or grieve as adults for the losses we experienced in our past.
- Still seek to please the senior members of our families of origin and our extended families.
- Get sentimental looking at old photo albums, home movies or scrapbooks about our childhood.
- Experience the same intensity of feeling we had as children as we role play or act out experiences from our past.
What messages did the “inner child” need to hear, but which went unsaid?
- When the “inner child” climbed inside you it probably was hoping to hear:
- I love you, I care about you and I accept you just the way you are.
- I am so proud of you and all that you are.
- I am so happy you are my child.
- You are so beautiful and attractive.
- You are so bright and talented.
- You are so artistic and creative.
- You are such a good worker.
- I am sorry I hurt you.
- I am sorry I neglected you.
- I am sorry I forgot you.
- I am sorry I ignored you.
- I am sorry I took you for granted.
- I am sorry I made you grow up so fast.
- I am sorry I had to rely on you so much.
- You can trust me to take care of you.
- You can trust me to be there for you.
- You can trust me to protect you from any hurt or pain.
- I will get help for myself and for the family.
- We will work at getting healthy together.
- We will have healthy fun and play together.
What are the negative consequences of suppressing the “inner child”?
- When as adults we choose to suppress the memory, needs and desires of the “inner child” we run the risk of:
- Never learning how to feel normally.
- Never learning how to play and have fun.
- Never learning how to relax and manage stress.
- Never learning how to appreciate life. We would rather work at living.
- Taking ourselves too seriously.
- Feeling guilty over not being good enough, driving ourselves to work harder to be good enough.
- Becoming workaholics.
- Not enjoying our family life with our children.
- Being suspicious of people who enjoy life, have fun and know how to play.
- Social isolation, afraid to get involved with other people for fear we will be found out to be inadequate, not normal or a misfit.
What nurturing messages can you give your “inner child”?
- You can tell your “inner child” that it is OK to:
- Have the freedom to make choices for itself.
- Be “selfish” and do the things you want to do.
- Take the time to do the things you want to do.
- Associate only with the people you want to associate with.
- Accept some people and to reject others.
- Give and accept love from others.
- Allow someone else to care for you.
- Enjoy the fruits of your labor with no guilt feelings.
- Take time to play and have fun each day.
- Not to be so serious, intense and inflexible about life.
- Set limits on how you are going to relate to others.
- Not always “serve” others.
- Accept others “serving” you.
- Be in charge of your life and not let others dictate to you.
- Be honest with others about your thoughts and feelings.
- Take risks and to suffer the positive or negative consequences of such risks.
- Make mistakes, laugh at them and carry on.
- Let your imagination and creativity be set free and to soar with the eagles.
- Cry, hurt and to be in pain as long as you share your feelings; do not repress or suppress them.
- Be angry, to express your anger and to bring your anger to some resolution.
- Make decisions for yourself.
- Be a problem solver and come up with solutions with which everyone may not agree.
- Feel happiness, joy, excitement, pleasure and excitement about living.
- Feel down, blue, sad, anxious, upset and worried, as long as you share your feelings.
- Love and be loved by someone whom you cherish.
- Be your “inner child” and to let it grow up, accept love, share feelings and enjoy pleasure and play.
What are some steps by which you can help heal your “inner child”?
Step 1: In order to identify your “inner child,” get into a relaxed state and close your eyes. Spend thirty minutes picturing yourself as a child between three and eight years of age. See yourself as this little child and watch yourself interacting with members of your family of origin. Look at how you as react to your family members as a little child.
Watch yourself with your playmates in the neighborhood or at school. Notice how you get along with your friends and playmates. Notice the fun you have at play and what type of play activities you enjoyed.
Watch yourself in the classroom and notice how you get along with your teacher and how you react to the school environment.
Finally, picture yourself in a family setting. Are you happy, frivolous, joyful, energetic, excited and enjoying life? Are you serious, solemn, down, sad, unhappy, scared, disappointed, being miserable with life?
If you see only an unhappy, serious little child, try to remember your last happy experience as a child. This last remembrance of you as a happy child is the “inner child” who climbed inside of you to cope with stress.
Step 2: Now that you have identified your “inner child,” answer the following questions in your journal:
- How would you describe your “inner child”?
- When did your “inner child” go inside? What happened for your little child to climb inside of you?
- How do you know when your “inner child” is active in you?
- What messages does your “inner child” still need to hear?
- How willing are you to give these messages to your “inner child”?’ One way to do this is to develop self-affirmation statements that will nurture your “inner child” and lead to self-healing.
- What irrational beliefs did your “inner child” have about life?
- How willing are you to deal with these irrational beliefs and replace them with realistic truths? It is important to deal with these now so your “inner child” can come out and finally enjoy life.
- What are some of the negative consequences of suppressing your “inner child”?
- How open are you to enjoying the little things in life?
- What part does fun play in your life?
Step 3: You are now ready to make a plan of action to nurture your “inner child.” Develop a plan of action using the tools found in “Handling Irrational Beliefs,” “Self-Affirmation,” “Handling Guilt” and “Letting Go.”
Once your plan is completed, put it into action and take care of your “inner child.”
Step 4: The following three activities can help the action planning and nurturing of your “inner child.”
Activity 1: Learning How to Enjoy the Small Things in Life
Open yourself to experience joy at being alive by taking the following steps:
Step A: Open your eyes to the beauty and majesty of nature about you,
example: paint photographs or simply observe sunrises or sunsets, a body of water, listen for bird calls, try to distinguish the different sounds, plant a garden and watch it grow.
Step B: Expand your sensory vocabulary. Try to experience life through all of your senses, use sight, sound, smell and touch to explore and describe the experiences in your life.
Step C: Explore the natural environment, e.g., take a walk on the beach, relish natures wonders, take a walk on a wooded trail, enjoy the moonlight, the stars and search out natures’ magic.
Step D: Begin to slow down and let go. Enjoy children, pets and the aroma of food. Listen to music, enroll in a fun class, enjoy the human side of those in your life, develop a sense of humor or a new hobby.
Activity 2: Learning How to Feel and to Share Feelings
Step A: Keep a journal in which you record your daily range of feelings.
Step B: Identify in your journal one new feeling a day to increase your feelings vocabulary. The Tools for Communication in the Tools for Coping Series provides lists of “feeling” words to help you.
Step C: Watch a sentimental movie and have a good cry, but pay attention to your feelings. Describe in your journal how you felt watching the movie and how you felt once you began to cry.
Step D: Begin an activity to generate positive feelings each day. Explore the world or your life in general. Recognize one good thing about it daily. Come up with a positive feeling generated by this “good thing,” add it to your feelings vocabulary in your journal.
Step E: Write a fantasy story in your journal describing you experiencing at least 10 positive feelings.
Step F: Relax and visualize yourself experiencing a positive feeling. Enjoy that visualized feeling. Once you have mastered the visualized feeling, plan an activity to make that feeling real for you. Record the experience in your journal.
Activity 3: Learning How to Play
The following tips can help you learn to play:
Step A. Let go of any guilt feelings you might have about indulging yourself in play activity. Redefine the role of play in your life. Restructure your life activities, and include some play time.
Step B. Define some “acceptable” play activities you would be willing to experiment with over the next year.
Step C. Be spontaneous and let go of the need for “rigidity” in the ways you play. Let your “child” out and freewheel through your playtime.
Step D. Don’t stifle your “child-like” responses to a play activity. Loosen up and let go of the need to be “mature.”
Step E. Don’t worry about your public image, as long as what you are doing harms no one. Vent gut-level frolic responses to your play activity.
Step F. Learn to be your own best friend.
Step G. Frolic and have fun without the use of artificial stimulants (drugs, alcohol, etc.).
Step H. Let your responsible adult mindset have a vacation. Practice looking at life with a child’s perspective. Imagine how a child would view play. Let the sense of wonderment, excitement, imagination, make believe and creativity reign.
Step I. Laughter is therapeutic and essential if playing is to be fun. Learn to let go of a good belly laugh.
Step J. Playing requires the use of fantasy. Let your fantasy life emerge and grow. Use imagination and visual imagery to broaden the scope and expand the boundaries of your play.
Step K. Take a risk and set up “playtime” for your “inner child” in a family-like situation where you can play outdoors with children, e.g., have a food fight, a water sprinkling war, play Rover Red Rover, dodge ball, etc.
Step L. Give yourself a child’s party. Invite your friends to bring their “inner child” to a party in which you indulge in children’s games, e.g., pin the tail on the donkey, musical chairs, bobbing for apples, hopscotch, jacks, etc.
Step 5: After you have implemented your action plan using the Tools for Coping tools to nurture your “inner child,” and after you have tried the three activities in Step 4, your “inner child” should be more visible and active in your life.
If you still find yourself suppressing your “inner child,” return to Step 1 and begin again.
- Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, by Eric Berne
- Recovery of Your Inner Child: The Highly Acclaimed Method for Liberating Your Inner Self, by Lucia Capacchione
- You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay
- Your Inner Child of the Past, by W.H. Missildine
- Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, by John Bradshaw, Ph.D.
- Healing Your Aloneness, by Dr. Margaret Paul
- Inner Bonding: Becoming a Loving Parent to Your Inner Child, by Dr. Margaret Paul
- The Inner Child Workbook: What To Do With Your Past When It Just Won’t Go Away, by Cathryn Taylor
- Healing the Child Within, by Charles Whitfield, M.D.
- Schwartz, R. C. (1995) Internal Family Systems Therapy, Guilford Press.
- Earley, J. (2009) Self-Therapy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, Mill City Press