What is Inner Child Work?

Adult hand and child's hand

Inner Child Work is a trauma-informed approach to working with people who have experienced various forms of trauma, abuse, and neglect (either within the family or outside the family) earlier on in life. If you clicked to read this article, chances are, there is a part of you that is yearning for some care.

Inner Child Work blends together frameworks of attachment theory, somatic (or body-based) therapies, Jungian Shadow work, Internal Family Systems, and psychodynamic theories. Many of these theories or types of therapy are rooted in the ideas that our past influences our present, our bodies and unconscious hold wisdom, and there is hope and potential for new connections to be made, within and without.

One of the main components of Inner Child Work is the idea that we all have younger parts within us with different ages, difference experiences, and different needs. As we grow up into bigger bodies and more logical, conscious brains, our younger selves don’t just disappear over time. When we get triggered and can’t understand why, it’s likely a younger part of us is online and very present, screaming for our attention. Oftentimes, as adults, we ignore these cries, we deny or dismiss, we freeze, we search for a solution to “fix it”. All of these can be trauma responses being replayed in adult life. We respond to our wounds in ways we learned as a kid and what helped keep us safe then.

It’s also important to note that if you’re currently working with a psychotherapist or other helpers in a healing setting, or if you’re even contemplating a healing journey, you have already begun Inner Child Work. You know something wasn’t right and you know it’s gotten you stuck in some ways. There isn’t necessarily a protocol or steps to take when doing this transformational work. Sometimes it takes a while and it’s usually an ongoing process. For some, it becomes a life-long practice. Inner Child Work is about safe relationships, emotional and physical safety, consent, respecting all parts of a person, developing a competent and compassionate inner parent(s), learning to set healthy boundaries, healthy entitlement, and assertiveness, grieving the loss of childhood you needed and didn’t get, understanding human blindspots and limitations, how parents can pass along generations’ worth of trauma and trauma responses, and making room for fun, joy, and growth in service of your authentic Self.

Inner Child Work also includes finding the glimmers. Learning to be more open and receptive to the joys, nourishment, and delight of just being. For many of us who had to grow up too quickly, who had to live in constant fear and need to protect ourselves or loved ones, who didn’t receive the warmth of a compassionate, competent adult, play, spontaneity, rest, and creativity may be harder to access. These aspects of a full life also become deadened when we live in societies or cultures that value hyper-independence, aggression against the feminine (relationships, feelings, embodiment), and over-working in order to make end’s meet or to keep up with the ideal lifestyle.

Children experimenting and exploring
Experimenting and exploring, with boundaries, is necessary in human development.

How can Inner Child Work help? This work focuses on helping you find new ways of being in the world, with yourself, and with others. It increases knowledge about family dynamics, roles, and survival responses. It helps establish a felt sense of safety within the body and nervous system. It explores different parts of the Self (which often contradict or oppose one another) and learning to make space for them all. It helps increase awareness of triggers and why the emotional flood or freeze is so strong. It can help decrease shame around not feeling good enough. Inner Child Work can help wake up the right brain, known for creativity, emotions, imagination, and support the left brain, responsible for logic, reason, language, and analytic thinking. It can also help create a more resilient bridge between the two brain hemispheres so that multiple functions can be accessed. It offers more choice to create the sorts of lives we actually want to be living. It can also help deepen understanding and compassion for ourselves and what we went through.

Who is Inner Child Work good for? Really… anyone! Most people I work with have experienced some sort of trauma, usually within their family-of-origin. Sometimes, very explicit traumas occurred within the family, like physical abuse and sexual abuse. Many times, more insidious, unconscious, and indirect sorts of neglect and abuse occurred. I hear this a lot: “My parents gave me everything I needed. They worked hard to give me a good life. I don’t know why I’m complaining.” That’s likely because there was emotional misattunement or neglect. Maybe your feelings, opinions, ideas, wants, and needs were dismissed or devalued. Maybe you were only given positive attention when you received good grades, were being a “good” kid by following the rules, excelled in sports, or staying quiet and out of the way. As a child, when our emotions are neglected enough of the time (even if physical needs are being met), our survival instincts kick on. We learn to people please, avoid conflict, rebel to receive some sort of attention (“bad attention is better than nothing!”), self harm because we are learning that we don’t matter (you DO matter, but this is an implicit or explicit message that gets told when our needs can’t be met in safe and contained ways). We learn to put others needs first, get lost in work, hobbies, or fantasy. Because emotional regulation wasn’t modeled (either a caregiver shut down and froze, blew up and lashed out, or got highly agitated and anxious), we don’t learn the most beneficial ways of regulating ourselves and we tend to recreate those patterns, or some version of them, later on in life.

Even if you had a good enough upbringing and you know your parents did the best they could, our younger selves still experience hurt at some point in life. Maybe it’s happened at school, with peers and friends, in relationships, or at work. As a collective in the Western world, we glorify being busy and working long hours, which leaves little time for rest, play, and connection. Inner Child Work can be for you, too.

Ideas for beginning or continuing your Inner Child Work:
– Schedule time for unstructured time (take a nap, wander around your neighborhood, work on a craft, read a favorite fairy tale/folk story).
– Check with your basic physiological needs (when was the last time you drank water, ate a snack or meal, went to the bathroom, or stretched? How was your sleep last night?).
– Dance and sing to songs you enjoyed as a pre-teen or teen.
– Find a piece of comfort (a soft blanket, cozy socks or PJs, a warm mug, a hug from a loved one, the warmth of the sun sitting on your car seat).
– Find old photos of you from different ages and keep them nearby; write a letter to them.
– Notice when and where your triggers show up (are they telling you something? What do you need in those moments? How old are you feeling?).
– Draw or write with your non-dominant hand (see if you can get in touch with a particular age, their wants, needs, and feelings. Ask them how, as the adult, you can help them today).
– Work with a trauma-informed therapist who specializes in complex trauma, attachment, developmental trauma, emotional or physical abuse and neglect. Slapping on some coping skills and changing some behaviors isn’t going to cut it here.
– Remind yourself that while your past has left some pain that still needs attention, you can be the caring, protective, loving adult you’ve always needed to help you work through the hurt, the grief, and to build a new foundation.
– You can love your parents and still be hurt by their actions, treatment, or lack of awareness. It’s okay to feel both – it’s normal.

woman child pottery
We can learn to develop safe and healthy relationships with ourselves and others in adulthood.

Want some resources? Check out the recommendations below. Please be mindful that some material in these resources may be triggering and it may be best to work with licensed professional or trusted loved one as you move through the information.

Books/workbooks:
The Inner Child Workbook: What to do with your past when it just won’t go away

The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, Revised Edition

Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma

The Emotionally Absent Mother, Updated and Expanded Second Edition: How to Recognize and Heal the Invisible Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

The Attachment Theory Workbook: Powerful Tools to Promote Understanding, Increase Stability, and Build Lasting Relationships

Attachment: 60 Trauma-Informed Assessment and Treatment Interventions Across the Lifespan

Find a therapist:
Our team at Psyche & Soma Psychotherapy Group specializes in complex trauma, attachment wounds, and reconnecting to the Inner Child. Learn more about us HERE.

Somatic Experiencing Practitioners directory listing for body-oriented and nervous system-informed therapists HERE

Open Path Collective

GoodTherapy.org

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