Do you ever wonder why you naturally go to destructive behaviors or habits without knowing their origins? Do you feel like a child sometimes, overcome with shame about your behaviors but uncertain why you chose to respond in what seemed like an immature way? Do you notice other adults acting like children, with corresponding temper tantrums or dependence on others?
These behaviors are often responses to childhood trauma or stress that you picked up as a way of surviving their impact because they worked, even if they aren’t healthy to use as adults. How can you get rid of these habits that have been holding you back?
The key is getting in touch with your inner child.
According to Google, the inner child is “a person’s supposed original or true self, especially when regarded as damaged or concealed by negative childhood experiences.” This inner child, or child within, is the original core of who you are that has been affected in both negative and positive ways by life experience. It often involves a sense of childlike wonder and trust, playfulness and fun. Issues arose when negative experiences and their corresponding messages interfered with your connection to your child within and problematic coping strategies took over.
Why is it important to make space for the inner child?
For many of us, basic needs for nurture and support were not fully met in our families of origin. You may have experienced either big T or little t traumas throughout your childhood that taught you certain messages about yourself and the world around you.
One measure psychologists use to assess levels of trauma in childhood is the ACE score. This list checks for areas of major, big T trauma.
At the same time, there are several basic needs of children that often go unmet in dysfunctional (or even functional) families. In his book Healing Care, Healing Prayer, Terry Wardle names several of these needs including:
Connection and belonging
Unconditional love and acceptance
Safe and loving touch
Attention and assurance
Opportunities to learn without punishment or pressure
Permission to feel and express
Age appropriate challenges and choices
As you look through this list, which needs were not met for you in your family growing up? To be honest, it’s an extremely rare family that meets all of them. When you identify which needs weren’t met, be curious about how you have been affected by that lack.
Sadly, we’ve often been told to grow up and let go of childlike wonder and awe we experienced when we were younger. Perhaps due to your family-of-origin trauma, you had to grow up too soon and care for siblings or yourself. Maybe you never had the chance to get to know that younger part of yourself. If we ignore this inner child, it will come out in behavior patterns we dislike.
How to Make Space
Get to know your inner child.
Look through pictures of yourself at younger ages and notice how you feel about the individual in those pictures. Identify what he or she liked or disliked. Did that child have any particular needs? How was he or she feeling in the picture? Or at the stage of life when the picture was taken? Identify which of the above needs were not met in this child’s life, and come to terms with the fact that the inner child had unmet needs.
Visualize past pain and ask what your child within needs.
When you notice painful emotions, shame, or destructive behavior patterns coming up, listen and see if the inner child is telling you something. Pay attention to the emotions you’re feeling, thoughts running through your mind, and sensations coming up in your body and see if they connect to a similar experience in the past. In those memories, ask the younger version of yourself what he or she needs. Sometimes simply allowing that inner child to have a voice can make all the difference.
Write a letter to a younger version of yourself.
If you connect with one of the photos of yourself or an image from past pain, address that child with your adult self by writing a letter to him or her. Include the things you wish that child could know about the world and any advice you would’ve given him or her. You might even imagine entering into that child’s experience and giving a hug or a comforting touch. This is part of allowing your adult self to re-parent the younger version of yourself.
Recognize your behaviors that come from a rebellious inner child.
When your inner child isn’t being honored or heard, you might notice problematic patterns surfacing in your life. For example, you might be caught up in perfectionism and feeling exhausted, leading to harsh words toward your spouse or your child. Identify where the perfectionism comes from: is it a coping strategy from your childhood? What might your inner child have needed when that perfectionism first came to be? Giving yourself the kindness and care you longed for at that point in your life can lead to healing and change.
Spend a day with your inner child.
Think about the activities and pastimes you loved as a child. If possible, pick a specific age and identify some of your greatest desires and most enjoyable experiences during that time period. Maybe you loved the carnival or the zoo as a child. Or you could spend hours outside exploring in the woods. Take yourself on an outing for the day and let your inner child lead the way.
The power of play is greatly underutilized and incredibly important. Take the insights you gained from your day with the inner child and create awareness of moments in daily life where you can be in touch with your child within. Take time to rest or enjoy a beautiful walk outside. Go to a park and hop on the swings or pull out a favorite childhood board game and play with a friend. Read a book series you loved when you were a kid. Bring out some painting supplies and paint or draw a picture.
If you’re interested in learning more about the topic of inner child work, here are a few books that may interest you:
The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles L. Whitfield
Do you recognize behavior patterns that stem from coping strategies picked up in childhood? Are you disconnected from your inner child, but hoping to learn more? Are you stuck in trying to change, but unaware of any past trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer supportive counseling services to help you overcome problematic behavior patterns that are holding you back from living wholeheartedly. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to find out more and schedule your first appointment.