Getting to know your inner child can be life-changing. Find out how to do it and how to spot the signs that your younger self needs attention…
You visited your parents yesterday and now you feel really irritable.
Your boss pointed out a mistake you made and now you feel worthless.
You didn’t get the art scholarship and now you feel like a rubbish painter.
Your avoidant partner is being avoidant and now you feel totally unloveable.
You got a big credit card bill and now you want to binge on chocolate ice cream.
Most of us want to respond to hurts, disappointments and challenges in our life in a grown up, sensible way. But the truth is that this can be a lot easier said than done. Instead, it might feel at times like the smallest thing sets you off and that suddenly, you’re feeling tearful, angry or just very small.
Worse still, you might have no idea why — you just know that you feel like a seven-year-old all over again. Or nine. Or Eleven. Why does this keep happening to you?
When you find yourself reacting in ways that you don’t understand, or sabotaging yourself despite your best intentions, or feeling like a much less mature you has shown up without warning, then there’s a good chance that your inner child has made an appearance. Because no matter what age you are now, they are a part of you that is always present in the background of your life. And often, they can have a big impact without you even knowing it.
Your inner child is the childhood self that never really left you and who still exists alongside your adult identity.
They still see the world through the eyes of a child and can heavily influence your life and decisions — including career, friendships and choices of romantic partner — yet you might be totally unconscious of them (in fact, a more accurate way to describe it is to say that you have ‘inner children’, as various parts of yourself can be stuck at different ages, from baby to adolescent).
And if you experienced trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) where your emotional needs weren’t met, then your inner child might exist as a wounded, angry, shame-filled self inside of you, who sees the world and feels just as you did when you were the age that these experiences happened. They could be the reason why you might struggle with feeling lonely, never seem to achieve your goals, or get triggered in various situations. Your inner child can also have a profound effect on how you connect to others.
Even if your childhood was relatively happy and stable, no child grows up totally unscathed, meaning you could still be carrying wounds from unmet needs without even realising it. We all have younger, vulnerable parts within us, parts that have been absorbing information right from the cradle. Although we might not have had the capacity to understand what was going on around us or even the language to describe those experiences, we still carry them inside us and can continue to react sensitively to similar situations in adulthood.
In fact, according to the Schema Therapy model, there are three types of inner child modes that tend to cause difficulties for people:
— Vulnerable child — feels feelings such as shame, loneliness, humiliation or fear.
— Angry child — expresses frustrated needs in a demanding or damaging way that is often seen in children but inappropriate for adults.
— Impulsive child — struggles to complete unrewarding tasks and/or delay gratification.
Can you relate to any of those?
In our post ‘Do you have a wounded inner child?’, we explore in more detail the ways in which the younger parts of yourself can try to get your attention. But here is a summary of some main signs:
If you can relate to some of the above then it might be a sign that it’s time to start building a relationship with your younger self. Because the truth is, they’re not going away anytime soon — and that’s actually a good thing.
No one thinks that it’s a good idea to leave an actual child alone for an entire day. Now imagine doing that for weeks, months, years…
The truth is that like any small person, your inner child needs attention, reassurance and care. They need to be listened to. They need a chance to share their fears, joys and desires.
That’s why it’s important to set aside time regularly — even just five minutes at first — to listen to what they have to say. This might be through meditation, going for a walk or writing a letter to your child (as well as writing their reply). It might be through simply sitting still and listening. But the key is to imagine that your adult self is talking to your younger self in a reassuring and loving way — as you would with any other child or young person.
If you can introduce this as a daily practice, then you will have taken a first step in building a relationship with the smaller, more vulnerable part of you.
It’s also key to notice the times when your inner child comes to the forefront spontaneously, not just when you are actively seeking them. For instance, are there times when you feel ‘small’ or younger than you actually are? What situations, people and emotions activate this younger part of you? And which version of this younger you comes forward? Vulnerable child? Angry child? Impulsive child? Or even the Happy child who is joyful, spontaneous and playful?
If a younger part of you comes forward then it can help to notice how old they seem – you could even ask them their age. This is because it’s possible that the things triggering you right now might be related to experiences you had at a particular age. Looking at a photo of yourself at that age may also help you to get a better sense of how your inner child thinks, feels and sees the world.
Part of connecting with your younger self is learning how to hear their ‘voice’. Although that said, they might often communicate with emotions, sensations, mental images, memories, desires and impulses rather than an inner dialogue.
So check in with them regularly to make sure that they feel heard, that their needs are being understood and that you are paying attention to anything that might be bothering them.
To do this, you could try asking simple questions, such as:
‘What’s been the best/worst part of your day today?’
‘How are you feeling right now?’
‘What’s upsetting or bothering you right now?’
‘What do you need to feel better?’
It might also be helpful to do this practice in the evenings, so that if any of your own behaviour was inexplicable to you during the day (for instance, getting very irritated at a colleague), they might be able to throw more light on the issue e.g. ‘Nathan’s always late for our meetings… he doesn’t care about me or what I’m doing at all!’ The adult that you are now might know that’s not the case — he’s just busy — but if that’s what your inner child feels when this happens (because of times people haven’t paid attention or taken your needs seriously), that might explain the level of emotional response.
Bear in mind that you might struggle to hear that younger voice at first — or they might just be reluctant to talk. But by making these conversations a daily practice, you can gradually connect with your younger self better.
Your inner child needs to know that you’re looking out for them — if they don’t then you can’t build a strong relationship with them. Aim to become a safe shelter for your younger self. You can start by trying to get to know what they most need at certain times. For instance comfort? Protection? Limits? Boundaries? Fun?
So one way to build trust is to show them that they can rely on you to protect them and take care of their best interests. That you can set healthy boundaries in all areas of your life, practice self-compassion and commit to making sure that you are both flourishing. This means taking a good look at anything that might be causing you (and them) hurt or harm, whether that’s a job, relationship or habit.
Of course, once you start the practice of daily check-ins with your inner child they might highlight a lot of things that are secretly bothering them (and by extension, you). But it can also help to do your own ‘life audit’ in an adult mindset, exploring what might be causing you stress, making you feel bad about yourself, or harming you mentally, emotionally or physically.
Got a toxic boss with a temper problem? Your inner child is probably scared of them. That might explain those stomach cramps you’ve been having lately…
Have a friend who likes playing the one-upmanship game? They probably make your inner child feel very small. That might explain those recent comfort food binges…
Next, aim to address any specific issues that your inner child is bringing forward, whether it’s a worry, fear, annoyance, need or want. Depending on what it is, you might want to deal with the issue in a practical and adult way, or validate their feelings, or reassure them that they are safe, or apologise for putting them in a painful situation, or just do something enjoyable. What matters is that you are listening and responding.
You can also learn to be a firm but gentle parental voice to your younger self, particularly if this wasn’t something you experienced yourself growing up and your need for guidance and kind limits weren’t met. For instance, if they don’t want to do a ‘boring’ task, you could validate that it’s not fun in the short-term but explain why it is important and beneficial for you in the long run.
Or if they want to get rid of uncomfortable feelings in helpful ways, like using food or substances, you can again validate how hard it is for them to tolerate the feelings but encourage why doing so will help them move towards where you want to get to in your life. In this way your inner child will develop a sense of safety with you, as they will know that you can set limits with them.
Remember, a child’s concerns are just as valid as anyone else’s. So commit to paying attention to what your younger self has to say and look out for ways that you might be invalidating or dismissing their fears or concerns.
Because even if their worries don’t seem rational, the point is that they mattered to you when you were that age (and hence still matter to your inner child) and could even be causing them to sabotage parts of your adult life. For instance, holding you back from creating art as you fear your drawings will be criticised all over again, just like they were by your teacher at school. Or preventing you from opening up in intimate relationships for fear of being rejected, abandoned or even being taken over by the other person and their feelings and needs. Or perpetuating a belief that you mustn’t bother other people with your feelings, resulting in you bottling up or suppressing your emotions.
As you build trust with your inner child you will develop a deeper relationship with them and might even be surprised by what this smaller version of you has to say. What’s more, recognising how they see and experience the world can shed a whole lot more insight on your life now than you ever expected.
So get ready to hear that they’re worried that however hard they try, they’ll never be good enough or how lonely they feel when they’re ignored by friends or potential partners. Making friends with your inner child — and committing to meeting their needs — is not without its revelations. In fact, it can be life-changing.
For instance, do they make you feel impatient, angry or judgemental at times? Are you frustrated with them for having the needs that they do? If so, what might be blocking you from being compassionate towards them? Try to notice this with curiosity rather than with judgement for your judgement!
Learn to be aware of any critical messages that you could have internalised when young and might be repeating to them now. For instance, 'pull yourself together', ‘you’re such a scaredy cat’ or ‘why are you always so careless?’ etc. Again, looking at a photo of your younger self can help with this. Would you speak to a child that way? Because once you are reminded that this small, vulnerable person still lives inside of you and is on the receiving end of those messages, it can be easier to be compassionate with them.
Inner child work isn’t always easy, especially if you had a difficult time during your younger years. And as mentioned, even if your childhood was relatively happy, there could still be wounds that you haven’t fully processed. That is why getting support from a compassionate professional can make a big difference, as it will create a safe space for you to connect with the younger parts of yourself.
There are various therapeutic approaches that you can consider. For instance, Schema Therapy will look at how unmet childhood needs might have resulted in you getting stuck in ‘child modes’ and then using unhealthy coping modes to meet those needs as adults. For instance, not hearing from friends or relationships ending may trigger a vulnerable child mode who feels worthless and unloveable. As this is so painful, coping modes may have developed to protect against this, such as trying to please other people or trying to be ‘perfect’ so they don’t leave.
Psychodynamic Therapy will also explore how your childhood experiences might be unconsciously driving your behaviour, decisions and relationships today. If you are drawn to reconnect with your inner child through creativity and self-expression, then Art Therapy can help you to do that. And if you had difficult or traumatic experiences in childhood — such as abuse, bereavement or abandonment — then both EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help you to process those experiences in a safe and structured way so your inner child can heal and your adult self can be in the driving seat of your life.
Building a relationship with your inner child isn’t a short term practice, it is a lifelong journey that takes commitment and patience. However, the rewards can be profound. As you develop trust with that younger part of yourself and learn to hear their voice, you will gain more clarity about your life. You will learn to be your own best protector and realise that your deepest desires are completely valid. And you might find that your life feels much more wonder-filled than ever before.
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