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None of us are born adults. We have to learn everything as we grow. Children do that in two, incredibly effective, ways: experience and play. For adults who want to keep learning and growing, joyfully, to thrive in a fast-changing world, it might be time to reconnect with our inner child.
No one's life is perfect though. For some, reconnecting with the childlike learner might also require facing some more difficult emotions. Sometimes we learned lessons as a child that get in the way of open learning and adaptation today. That's where inner child work comes in.
As children, we act out our experiences, thoughts, feelings, and dreams through our play. Our creativity becomes the basis of how we prepare for the real world.
Adolescence is a time of discovery, but it can also be painful. As we grow, we begin developing expectations of the world. Sometimes, those expectations fail us. We have broken hearts, we have frustrations, we have dreams that just don't materialize. At some point, many of us stop playing and start letting our experiences dictate who we are and what we want.
Where is the line that separates an adult life from childhood? And not just a number or an arbitrary age of majority. After all, we're always growing. The balance shifts when we stop playing. At that point, we spend little time imagining what could be and focus on what our experiences dictate.
Many of us never take the time to reconnect with these parts of our inner selves. Understanding inner child work can help us heal our long-standing hurts and allow us to play again. This kind of work unlocks our creativity, joy, passion, and potential.
Learn how to heal your wounded inner child in this article.
What is inner child work?
Imagine that you're 5 years old. You're in school playing with the other children in your kindergarten class. While running around on the playground, you trip and fall. The other kids laugh at you.
You may not remember exactly what happened. You may not even remember who was there or how old you were. But what you do remember is the feeling of shame, the tears in your eyes, the pain of your skinned knee. You may even remember saying to yourself “I'm never going to make a fool out of myself like that again.”
The knee may have healed, but you’re dragging the scars into adulthood. You’re no longer in control. Twenty or fifty years later, your inner five-year-old is still running the show. Even when it might work to your advantage to take a risk, you can’t let go of what happened on the playground — even if you don’t remember it.
What is inner child work?
Inner child work is an approach to recognizing and healing childhood trauma. It recognizes that our behaviors as an adult stem from our childhood experiences. Inner child work focuses on addressing our unmet needs by reparenting ourselves. This kind of self-discovery helps us understand our behaviors, triggers, wants, and needs.
When we begin inner child healing work, we tap into a part of ourselves that is vulnerable and impressionable. We’re able to be both the “grown-up” and the child, providing unconditional self-love, self-compassion, and self-support.
What does healing your inner child mean?
You’re fourteen, and the dance at school is coming up. You’re super excited to go with your crush, but they haven’t asked you yet. So you get your game face on, put on your best outfit, and plan to ask them out. But after all that, you find out that someone else beat you to it.
“That’s it,” you say to yourself. “I never get what I want, so there’s no point in trying.”
This situation is the stuff teen movies and young adult books are made of for a reason. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and it’s human nature to want to protect yourself from that kind of pain. But what happens when you want to get into grad school, apply for a promotion, or ask for an extension on your taxes?
When you begin working to heal your inner child, you sort of go back in time — emotionally and mentally — to that traumatic event. You can understand how your inner child feels from the perspective of an adult. With that, your adult self can start to untangle the coping mechanisms your fourteen (or four) year old self came up with to protect you from further trauma.
Benefits of inner child work
The foundational benefit of inner child work is developing self-awareness. In more than one million coaching sessions with our Members, BetterUp found that the skills of mental fitness develop in a certain order. The first skill to develop is introspection, and it lays the foundation for all other kinds of personal and professional growth.
As you develop greater self-awareness, some of the other benefits of inner child work include:
- Understanding how past trauma affects your present behavior
- Developing healthy coping mechanisms
- Reconnecting to passions, dreams, and talents you may have put aside
- Feeling empowered and in control of your life
- Improved emotional regulation
- Increased self-esteem, self-compassion, and compassion for others
What causes a wounded inner child?
There are many different situations that can cause a wounded inner child. Think back to when you were younger. Some hurts, like a toy you wanted but didn’t get, were relatively small. Some may be the result of physical abuse or emotional neglect.
It’s impossible to list all the circumstances your younger self may have internalized. However, it’s likely that if you do have childhood trauma, the effects are evident in your life today. Here are some signs that your inner child needs healing:
Signs of a wounded inner child
- Frustration or irritation
- Big reactions to unmet needs
- Childish outbursts, like throwing tantrums or saying things you don’t mean
- Complaining that no one understands you or you don’t feel heard
- Difficulty explaining your feelings or why you’re upset (alexithymia)
- Low self-esteem
- A particularly harsh inner critic
- Patterns of self-sabotage
- Fear of abandonment or commitment issues
- Challenges with setting boundaries or expressing your needs
If you recognize any of these patterns in yourself, childhood wounds might be to blame. Seeing the ways that your inner child needs support can help you resolve these patterns as an adult.
Where do I start with inner child work?
We can’t go back and change the past, but we can loosen the grip the past has on us. Here are some ways that you can start the healing process:
1. Listen to yourself
When you get upset, frustrated, or feel emotional pain, what kinds of things are happening around you? Who are you talking to? Paying attention to these triggers can help you connect them to childhood wounds.
There are other significant ways to listen to yourself. Part of developing self-awareness is practicing self-care. Sometimes, when our needs weren’t met as a child, we hold onto those patterns as an adult. Taking care of your own needs can be a powerful act of self-love.
Meditation has a lot of benefits, but one of the most powerful is that it teaches you to sit with difficult emotions. Learning how to be present with your feelings is the best way to develop emotional regulation skills and manage your stress levels.
3. Build a new set of caregivers
No one’s parents are perfect. One of the funny things about growing up is that you begin to realize how clueless your parents really were when they had kids. Even when they’ve done the best they can, we all hold a few grudges against people that we grew up with.
You can’t go back and say the right things to yourself to make it all better, but you can practice self-care and compassion right now. Decide to be your own parent. When you feel your inner wounded child getting upset, step in the way you wish someone would have when you were young.
4. Try inner child therapy
If you think that you’d benefit from professional inner child support, there are mental health professionals that specialize in this type of therapy. These clinicians draw from several modalities, like shadow work, attachment theory, psychoanalysis, and even art therapy.
Inner child therapists help you draw connections between your childhood experiences and how they may still be subtly guiding your adult behavior. They may ask you questions about specific memories, your internal family systems, and the triggers that still affect you.
5. Reimagine your childhood
Many types of inner child work start with a guided meditation. These practices are designed to help you connect with your younger self. Visualization techniques are proven to help you improve performance and your ability to handle stress.
When dealing with past trauma, you may want to work with a therapist who is trained in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. These therapists can guide you through reliving past experiences in small bites to help you recontextualize the trauma. This can be especially helpful when recalling your experiences triggers PTSD.
6. Talk to your loved ones
Many of us hold grudges against people in our family or from our childhood that have hurt us. We may blame them for why we are who we are today or swore to be nothing like them. But as children, it’s likely that we were completely disconnected from what they may have been facing as adults.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a family member who I love very much, but that I had always thought of as mean. When I was born, she was in her forties, so it never seemed like we had all that much in common. But during this conversation, I got to hear stories about her childhood and early adulthood. For the first time, I really began to understand how challenging her life had been, and it made me much more understanding.
Someone else’s struggles don’t justify abuse, but seeing your interactions with them from another perspective can help provide closure for yourself. It may even help you build — or repair — relationships with people you had written off.
7. Remember how to play
One of the saddest things about growing up is that we stop playing. We feel like in order to be successful, we have to be serious. Since the stakes feel higher, and our futures feel like they’re always in the balance, we take ourselves seriously. But — more importantly — we take our mistakes very, very seriously. We begin to let the fear of failure define us in ways that weren’t imaginable as children.
Creativity and work
Part of inner child work is healing your emotional wounds, and the other part is recovering the play muscle. As adults, our creativity and joy are pretty out-of-practice. We stop taking chances because we don’t want to fail. But if we don’t take chances, we don’t learn, and so we actually make ourselves more likely to fail.
Inner child work can restore the part of you that felt free and unafraid to fail. A powerful question to get yourself thinking is “What would you do if you weren’t worried about what other people would think?” It’s easy to get caught up in other people’s expectations. But when we do, we let these voices drown out our own inner voice and we lose sight of what we want for ourselves.
Creativity isn’t just about having fun (although we’ve found that there are real benefits to humor in the workplace). Creative thinking was one of the most sought-after skills in 2020. Unfortunately, just 30% of employees said that they actually had time to think through new ideas.
Our mental health directly impacts our creativity as well. Stress and anxiety stop creative thinking. BetterUp found that Members who reported higher levels of stress (in and out of the workplace) rated creative thinking as taking more effort to engage in.
Inner Work® — and particularly inner child work — can help you bring more creativity into your workplace. Your inner child is holding onto those hurts to try to keep you safe. But when you feel free of fear and self-consciousness, you don’t just become more innovative and daring. You become more resilient because you begin to trust your ability to overcome things that don’t go your way. And honestly — that’s adulting.
If you find that you’re frustrated, angry, or feeling stuck, it might be your inner child asking for support. Understanding how your traumatic experiences impact your choices today can help you get unstuck.
Inner child work has important emotional benefits, but it can also make a big difference in your relationships and your work. At BetterUp, we strive to help people everywhere live their lives with more purpose, clarity, and passion. In a very real sense, that’s how kids live their lives — if not with purpose, then certainly with clarity and passion.
If you need support in your Inner Work® journey, reach out to BetterUp today.
BetterUp Staff Writer