• Tania Manczarek, LCSW

Your Inner Child: Understanding your most important relationship (Part 1)

What is the inner child?

“Inner child” is a psychological term used to describe the part of our adult psyche or personality that remains from our childhood self. It represents the child we once were and it remains with us throughout our lives regardless of our age. Consequently, every adult has an inner child within their psyche that was created from their childhood experiences and relationships. For this reason, everyone’s inner child is different with their own personalities, needs and struggles. However, at the same time, there are often similar themes and needs for each inner child such as needing to feel loved and safe for example. Each inner child is also a different age depending on one’s experiences and traumas and we can have a few that are different ages.

Typically, our inner child is the age(s) where we experienced the most difficulties and hardships. These “difficulties” and “hardships” don’t have to be particularly big or profound to have made a permanent impact on us either. Small and seemingly inconsequential events, experiences and interactions can have huge impacts on our psyches and developing selves. For some, their inner child may be 2 or 3 years old, for example, while for others they could be 13 or 14. The appearance, voice, emotional state, vocabulary, etc. are also specific to each inner child. One inner child might be very young, scared and crying for example, while another might be a teenager who is extremely angry and hostile. These differences give insight into our struggles, what difficulties we have faced and what we need in order to let go of any traumas or negative emotions. Regardless of our belief in the existence of the “inner child,” we all have a part of ourselves left over from our childhood that has unresolved issues and emotions and if we continue to ignore this part of our selves, we are ignoring the most important part that we need to understand.

Why do we need to know about our inner child?

The inner child is extremely significant in that most of our deepest beliefs and fears about ourselves, the world and others reside here. It is our inner child, in fact, that is often unconsciously guiding our lives, decisions, reactions and emotions. Most of us are unaware of and disconnected from our inner child which often leads to a lifetime of relational, emotional and personal problems. This occurs because our inner child, like a real child, needs attention, to be listened to, to feel understood, validated, praised, nurtured, loved, etc., and when it doesn’t, it can become angry, depressed or anxious, for example, and begin to act outward or inward leading to a multitude of emotional and behavioral issues like depression, anxiety, anger issues, inability to maintain healthy relationships, lack of confidence, self hatred, inability to maintain employment, legal problems, addiction and the list goes on and on. Additionally, like a real child, our inner child is also immature and narcissistic as part of the normal developmental process. And, when a child receives a balance of love and boundaries it’s able to flourish and grow into an emotionally balanced adult. Without the child’s emotional needs being met, however, the child cannot successfully complete all the necessary developmental stages of childhood, leaving our adult self chronologically older, but still “stuck” in a previous developmental stage and essentially emotionally trapped.

This is why we have all at some point come into contact with people who were chronologically grown adults, but emotionally, they still behaved or lived like a child or teenager. Or, we may know someone who has the same ongoing struggles in their lives with relationships, emotional problems, addiction, financial issues, etc., never able to let go of issues from their childhood, perhaps, make their own decisions or express love for themselves or others, for example.

We may even recognize emotions in ourselves that we don’t always understand where they are coming from and why they are so intense. Feelings such as anger, rage, grief, guilt, sadness that show up on a regular basis in our life without a real explanation. Or maybe we're able to identify the trigger to the emotions but the emotions seem very exaggerated and intense for the situation and we find ourselves unable to calm them down or let go of them easily.

Many difficulties also typically arise from unresolved issues with our inner child when we become a parent. This is because our children act as a mirror and a trigger for our own unresolved childhood issues. As a child grows, each age and developmental stage the child passes through in which we ourselves didn’t receive the necessary love, affection, attention, guidance, encouragement, boundaries, etc., that we needed, resurfaces for us to look at again. If we are unaware of what is happening, we may inadvertently and unconsciously reenact the same dynamic with our own children- thereby “passing on” similar emotional struggles. It’s for this reason, that we often see a generational family pattern of similar emotional issues and behavioral problems. By remaining unaware of our own childhood needs that were unmet, we are very likely to keep repeating them- even with the people whom we love and want to protect.

So how do we connect with our inner child?

Connecting with something that is in our minds can be a strange and uncomfortable idea for many of us. We may be thinking, “this is crazy,” “that was years ago, it’s not possible to connect to myself as a child.” Or, we may even feel slightly nervous or possibly scared to connect with this part of us not knowing what we will find and how we will handle old emotions and wounds. We might be thinking it’s better to leave these parts and memories alone because it will only cause more pain and hardship for us.

With these very common reactions, remind need to remind ourselves that they are just a defense due to fear. Although an understandable fear, it is a fear that is not beneficial or based in reality. Our inner child can only cause us “harm” if we leave it unchecked and ignored. It is simply a part of ourselves that wants and needs our attention. Yes, it may express a lot of anger or sadness at first for being forgotten and unattended to for so long, but once the inner child knows we are serious about giving it love, listening to it and protecting it, it can resolve old issues much faster and offer a lot of joy and love.

To give a visual of this, imagine a child who is happy, playful and loving versus a child who is angry, scared or withdrawn. The laugh and energy of a happy child is infectious and life-affirming. A happy child is also loving, affectionate and expressive. Therefore, when your inner child feels happy, safe, balanced and loved- you feel happy, safe, balanced and loved. Of course life is still challenging and difficult at times, but it is much easier to manage and to stay balanced during difficult times when our inner child is secure.

In the next part of this article, I will give some simple yet concrete exercises to begin to connect with your inner child and communicate with it. Inner child work is done through a lot of visualization along with other techniques such as writing, drawing and talking, but the more we can really visualize and see our inner child as an actual part of us, the better our connection with it regardless of the technique.

If it feels uncomfortable, awkward or strange at first, know that this is very normal and perfectly ok. Try not to judge yourself during this process or to be impatient with your inner child and progress. Our connection with your inner child is not a one-time activity or something that we “do” and then are finished with. It’s a lifelong commitment and connection with ourself. Our inner child will require more attention at different times in our life as different stressors and triggers appear. Issues that we thought were completely “resolved” can reappear at different moments, as well, depending on how balanced we are feeling and how deep an issue is in our psyche.

The main thing to remember when working with our inner child is to go slowly, listen to what our inner child is telling us without judgment and not to minimize the emotions of our inner child. If your inner child is very angry or self-destructive, set loving boundaries as you try to build your relationship and understand the child’s underlying anger. Connecting with our inner child, as with a real child, does not mean we allow it to act out however it wants to. Rather, it’s extremely important for us to really listen to it and acknowledge what it’s feeling regardless of whether or not we agree with or understand how the inner child is feeling. In essence, be the parent you wished you had had to your own inner child giving all the love, affection, acknowledgement, praise, boundaries and protection that you needed growing up. If you don’t know what it looks like to be a “healthy” parent because your upbringing was so traumatic, think about someone you admire as a parent and emulate them.

Working with our inner child, understanding and making peace with it can be a powerful and deeply healing process. Although not always easy to face our inner child and to hear what it has to say, the time spent connecting with our inner child can have profound and long-lasting effects on our life, our ability to be joyful and to truly love and accept yourself. For these reasons, don’t wait any longer.