Your ‘inner child’ can have a huge impact on your life. Find out how to connect with this younger part of yourself and heal any past pains or traumas...
Although we can’t see them, each of us has a second self that follows us every place that we go. This second self is usually a few feet shorter than us and a good many years younger. They can drive our decisions, create irrational fears and even sabotage our dreams. They could also be the reason why we resent our boss, keep dating the wrong people or why when we visit our family, we might suddenly feel stroppy or out of sorts.
But who is this second self and what do they want? They are in fact what’s known as the ‘inner child’, that younger part of you that is still five years old (or seven, or nine). And whether you realise it or not your relationship with them can have a huge impact on your life. In fact, everything from your mental health, physical wellbeing, achievements, relationships with others and even ability to feel joy can all be affected by this younger you.
But what do we mean by ‘inner child’ exactly? And how can we learn to listen to what this younger version of ourselves is trying to tell us?
There is a scene in the film Rocketman where Elton John attends a support group and is visited in his imagination by various figures from his childhood. Finally, his younger self arrives and Elton leans down to hug him. This represents a huge turning point for the star, as it is a sign that he is finally coming to terms with his past.
In psychological terms what this scene represents is that his adult and child parts have ‘reintegrated’ and are no longer split. In other words, Elton John is no longer rejecting the part of himself that is small and scared, that young Reggie Dwight who always felt like an outsider. Instead, he is accepting this younger self and finally showing him love.
Rocketman illustrates what many of us sense at a deep level — that our childhood self never really left us, that they still exist alongside our adult identity (in fact it is more accurate to say that we have ‘inner children’, as various parts of our self can be stuck at different ages).
This younger self (or selves) can have a big impact on how you see the world, yet for the most part you probably go through your days unconscious of them as a force. But the power of your inner child should never be underestimated for they can shape your entire life, including the romantic partners you choose and the career path you take. And even when you think that you’ve replaced your childlike beliefs with grownup or mature viewpoints, your inner child can still be secretly steering things behind the scenes. So isn’t it time that you got to know them?
Many of our core ideas about the world are actually formed before the age of eight, yet this is not a rational or logical stage. In fact, from birth until age seven we have an ‘ego-centric’ view of the world — in other words, we believe everything that happens in our immediate environment is somehow linked to us or caused by us. We aren’t yet fully aware that other people, including our parents, are separate beings with their own lives.
For instance, if a child’s parents are divorcing then they might blame themselves and think it is because they are naughty, rather than understanding that the grownups are having relationship problems. Likewise, if a child’s mother is acting distant then they could believe it’s because they are unloveable, rather than because she is stressed. So if you had difficult experiences (link to ACEs blog post, not published yet) in your childhood, such as abuse, abandonment or neglect, you might have felt that you were somehow at fault and deserving of it. And even if you only have vague memories of these experiences, they could still be affecting you deeply to this day.
For instance, if you had a parent with depression then your inner child might become triggered if your romantic partner becomes depressed. Of course, your logical adult self knows that there are various reasons for their change in mood, yet another part of you might feel overwhelmed, rejected or resentful. This is because this younger you is assigning the same meaning to the situation that you did in childhood and reacting accordingly. And this meaning could be ‘it’s my fault they’re depressed’ or ‘I just can’t make them happy’ or ‘they don’t love me anymore.’ Or it could also be ‘I have to save them’ or ‘I can make them feel better again’. Likewise, if you had a parent with an addiction, then you might find yourself choosing an addicted partner in adulthood. You might also find it very hard to leave the relationship because to your inner child, it feels deeply familiar and like ‘home’.
What’s more, we can also react to day-to-day situations from the same wounded places inside of ourselves. For instance, if a situation triggers an old childhood pain then this could result in ‘acting out’ behaviour like getting angry, panicking, crying, binging on sweets, zoning out by daydreaming or ‘hiding away’ by watching TV (in the same way a child might hide in their room when stressed or scared). So if your younger self was traumatised at the age of five, then you might ‘regress’ to that age in adulthood, acting and feeling like a five-year-old when that trauma is triggered. This could be followed by feelings of shame and confusion at losing control, but your disproportionate reaction was actually pointing to something unresolved in your past.
It’s worth noting that a trigger could be anything, from a critical boss who unconsciously reminds you of a fault-finding parent, to feeling socially anxious in a group because you were bullied at school. It could also seem small on the surface, causing you to wonder why you are ‘overreacting’, but this is because things that seem trivial to your adult self can be huge to your inner child. More confusingly, certain triggers might seem to have absolutely no link to your childhood at all. But if you go deeper, you may find that your reactions have their roots in upsets that your younger self went through, sometimes alone or uncomforted.
Even if your adult self is fully aware that no child deserves to be abused or rejected, your inner child might see things very differently. They might still blame themselves, decades later, for things that they had nothing to do with, such as a parent leaving home. They might also unconsciously repeat similar painful situations in their adult lives in the hope of finally ‘fixing’ them (for instance, dating people who are likely to leave them in the hope that they can somehow get them to stay). So while you might have a rational adult understanding of why your parents behaved in certain ways, the smaller you could still be struggling to make sense of it all.
In the words of John Bradshaw, author of Home Coming, ‘Our childhood ‘becomes the filter through which all new experiences must pass. This explains why some people choose the same kind of destructive romantic relationship, why some experience their lives as a series of recycled traumas, and why so many of us fail to learn from our mistakes.’
Not all of us had traumatic childhoods but all of us will have experienced some kind of childhood wounding where our needs weren’t met. Even if your homelife was largely a happy one, no person’s younger years are completely free of confusion, disappointment or upset. And while you might have worked through some of those issues already, others may still be haunting you without you even realising it.
With this in mind, here are a few key signs of a wounded inner child:
If some of your childhood wounds happened when you were too young to remember them, then how can you even know they exist? One way is to look for clues in your reactions to situations, especially if certain reactions seem ‘over the top’ or ‘out of proportion’. For instance, if you feel very angry when a friend looks at their phone while you are talking to them, it might signpost that some of your needs for attention went unmet as a child.
In other words, the mental, emotional and relational issues that we face in our daily life can often be signposts of past pains, both remembered and forgotten. We can simply search for clues in our psychological ‘bruises’, which might include having strong responses to seemingly trivial situations.
Ever missed the application deadline for a dream job? Or starting an argument with a new partner for no reason? Sometimes this can be a sign that while the adult you is ready for a career advancement or a serious relationship, the younger part of you is deeply scared and anxious about it. In the words of psychoanalyst Alice Miller, author of The Drama of Being a Child, you are ‘continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time.’
Self-sabotaging behaviour from your inner child can have its roots in all sorts of reasons and might show up as forgetfulness, procrastination or loss of temper. It could even show up as rationalising why a relationship, job or opportunity isn’t quite right for you, when really you are just being driven by fear. That is why it’s important to pay attention to self-sabotaging behaviour, as the reasons could lie in childhood.
A coping mechanism is anything we do to manage difficult or painful emotions. Sometimes people with childhood wounds will develop unhealthier coping skills like drug use, drinking or dissociating from reality through excess gaming and social media. They might also throw themselves into a constant whirlwind of busyness as a way of avoiding their feelings. According to Miller, ‘...not even one moment of quiet can be permitted during which the burning loneliness of (the) childhood experience can be felt…’
This is because healthier reactions to painful situations, such as processing emotions and practising self-soothing, might not have been modelled to you by your parents. For this reason, it can be very healing to learn how to sit safely with your feelings (ways to do this can include mindfulness, breathwork and therapy).
Also, books like Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns: A Schema Therapy Self-Help and Support Book can help you to identify your coping mechanisms, understand how they link to your childhood and break any patterns that might be holding you back.
This could include family tensions, feeling rejected, feeling criticised, feeling like an outcast, or a strong emotional dependency between you and a parent. Whatever the issue, any kind of challenging family relationships might be pointing to old, unresolved childhood issues and unmet needs.
In fact, the way your parents or siblings make you feel in the present can be a sign of how you felt you were small, as your inner child is still reacting in exactly the same way when around them. So if you feel ignored, scapegoated or emotionally abandoned by your family, pay attention to this — your younger self might be trying to tell you something.
If you have an inner critic who is always finding fault with you and invalidating your emotions, this could be due to having overly critical or demanding adults around you as a child.
What happened is that your younger self ‘internalised’ this critical adult voice, so that in adulthood it became part of your own thoughts and worldview. Yet it is important to remember that the inner critic’s opinions are not necessarily true — they are much more likely to be old pieces of programming that you can learn to release, finally setting you and your inner child free.
If you find that you are in a pattern of unhealthy, unhappy or abusive relationships, or are always chasing unavailable people, then your inner child might be deeply wounded in their ability to connect healthily with others.
In fact, you might find it useful to read our post on attachment theory to get an idea of how different childhood experiences can affect how you form bonds in adulthood.
People with wounded inner children can often experience persistent and chronic feelings of emptiness, helplessness and hopelessness. They might feel that they are existing as a false self and that their life lacks a sense of aliveness or spontaneity. They might also feel deeply disconnected from others.
Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders and C-PTSD can also be present, plus physical conditions like migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia have also been linked to childhood trauma.
And all of these can be signs that your inner child is trying to communicate something crucial to you.
A relationship with your inner child is like any other kind of relationship — it takes time for trust to grow. It can also be intimidating and scary to reconnect to your younger self as you might suddenly start feeling long-buried pain, grief and anger. But it can also be very rewarding as you can finally let go of old emotions, feel safer in the world and reconnect with the more spontaneous and playful parts of yourself.
But if you are not sure where to start, then here are a few key steps towards healing your inner child:
Notice how you speak to the more vulnerable part of you and see if you can get to know that aspect of yourself better. If you can, try to notice when your inner child gets triggered so that you can become more aware of when your actions are actually coming from them. You might notice that there is a pattern, for example a particular situation or relationship which is reawakening something from the past. If you can, try to tune into how old you feel when this happens. Are you six? Eight? Ten? Sometimes looking at a photo of yourself at this age can help you to foster a greater connection with your inner child.
Ideally, aim to spend a little bit of time with your inner child each day, listening to what’s on their mind, checking in with how they are feeling in their body, helping them to name any emotions. Also, you can ask them why they might be feeling that way and what they might need to feel better. Then aim to meet that need in any way you can, whether it is validating their emotions, letting them know they’re not alone (because you’re there), addressing the here-and-now issue in an assertive and adult way, or even doing something fun and enjoyable.
You could try imagining adult you and younger you being together somewhere that feels comfortable and safe. If it feels okay to do so, you might imagine your adult self taking care of your younger self — perhaps with a comforting hug, taking an interest in how they’re feeling or with some supportive statements. Most inner children need to hear that you love them, that you will always be there and look after them and that any emotion they feel is ok, they can tell you about it.
Another way to get a conversation going is by exchanging letters with your younger self. It is fine (and probably advisable) to keep the letter short, as your inner child might just want to say ‘hello’, or express a feeling, or tell you about an urgent need they have. By writing back in a caring and supportive way you will be establishing a new relationship of safety, where you become a trusted parent to them.
And while this might feel silly, it can actually be really effective as it can help you to develop a more compassionate way of relating to yourself. However, for some people this is very difficult and having a therapist guide the process can be helpful, so they can be there to support with anything that feels too challenging to manage alone.
As mentioned, inner child work can be painful and unsettling, so you may want to do it with expert and compassionate support.
Useful therapeutic approaches include psychodynamic therapy, which can help you to understand how your childhood experiences might be unconsciously driving you, and schema therapy, which can be a more structured way of working with the different parts of you or ‘modes’ you go into, including the younger you and how this mode might be trying to meet unmet childhood needs now in adult life.
Also, if you had difficult experiences in your childhood then both EMDR and body-focused psychotherapies can help you to process those experiences in a safe and structured way. Finally, art therapy can support you in expressing and making sense of the things that are hidden in your unconscious and inner world.
Did you love painting as a child? Playing the recorder? Getting muddy? Climbing trees? Flying kites? Reading comics? Then try to reconnect with one of those old passions and set aside time in the week to do so. Finding ways to bring play, discovery and creativity back into your life can help you to connect with your inner child in a lighthearted way.
Remember, building a relationship with your younger self doesn’t always have to be about processing big heavy emotions — it can be about having fun too. And this can even be as simple as sitting down to revisit an old childhood movie or book that you loved. After all, who says grownups can’t enjoy reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe again?
And if all this sounds daunting to you, then Bradshaw has a very encouraging take on it: ‘Three things strike me about inner child work: the speed with which people change when they do this work; the depth of that change, and the power and creativity that result when wounds from the past are healed.’
It is true that your inner child is a carrier of wounds but they are also a carrier of joy too. In fact, adults who are in touch with their inner child often have a real sense of play, as shown by the recent ‘grown-up lego craze’. And once you begin to reconnect with this younger self you will find that the rewards are huge, as you can experience a renewed sense of wonder, awe and curiosity about the world.
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