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  • Writer's pictureAmy Smith

The Inner Child: What is it and How to Heal it?

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

What is The Inner Child?

All children have basic emotional needs, such as, to feel loved, valued, respected, to be protected, to feel safe, to be able to depend on those around them along with developing a degree of autonomy in order to develop an individualised identity and gain confidence. These experiences form our inner child which continue to be a part of us into our adulthood. However, if such emotional needs are not sufficiently met, the inner child that is formed will then carry painful memories, difficult emotions (e.g. hurt, sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt), behavioural patterns and beliefs.


It is hypothesised that there are at least four different inner child modes which can develop depending on the extent to which our core emotional needs are met and if any abuse/neglect was experienced:


Secure/Contented Child. Feels loved, contented, safe, validated, appropriately autonomous, optimistic, happy, resilient, connected, guided, understood, is confident and is able to be spontaneous.

Vulnerable Child. Feels lonely, empty, sad, overwhelmed, needy, hopeless, unaccepted socially, unlovable, can fear abandonment/abuse, feels worthless, incapable, pessimistic, lacks confidence

Angry Child. Feels angry, enraged, inpatient, frustrated, rebels against maltreatment, entitled.

Undisciplined/Impulsive Child. Acts on desires or emotions in an uncontrolled or selfish manner to meet their own needs with little/no consideration given to others, difficulties delaying short term gratification. Often feels angry if short term desires are not obtained. Can appear selfish.


When we experience triggers which elicit intense negative emotions, such as stress, anger, a sense of abandonment, low mood and anxiety, our inner child has been activated. When we face these unpleasant experiences we are often driven to be rid of them and we may adopt coping strategies to fight or avoid them (e.g. distract ourselves, avoid triggering situations, over-work, detachment). Such coping strategies may be helpful to an extent. They may have been particularly adaptive when we were young when the inner child was forming and we were in a challenging environment, however, they may have drawbacks. One drawback can be that the coping strategies may hinder the healing of the inner child and, as a result, this can continue to cause emotional difficulties.


How to Heal the Inner Child?


IDENTIFY YOUR INNER CHILD

1) Recognise Your Triggers. Try to catch the times when your inner child is triggered, for example, you feel sad, anxiety, lonely, abandoned or helpless. Take a step back and consider what just happened externally and internally that acted as triggers.

2) Get in Touch with Your Inner Child. These exercises can help you to attend to your inner child, to understand what emotional needs were not sufficiently met as a child and to gain a better understanding of the origins of your here and now difficulties:

a) An imagery exercise can be used here. Go to a quiet room and close your eyes. Take some deep breaths in and out whilst noticing the sensations of your breathing. Now try to recall a recent time when your inner child was triggered. Notice what was running through your mind, how you felt emotionally and physically. Now remove that memory from your mind and try to recall a time when you were a young child when you felt a similar way. Do not force the image, just let images float into your mind until you feel you land on one that has a similar feel. Ask yourself, could these childhood experiences be linked to recent distressing situations?

b) Find a photo of you as a young child and imagine how little you is feeling and thinking. What does little you desire or need? What does little you want to do?

Note: The above exercises are particularly helpful to do with a therapist where you can be guided and supported through them.


WHEN YOUR INNER CHILD IS ACTIVATED

When you notice yourself struggling in relation to your inner child you can try these strategies to help create a safe and secure place for your inner environment for your inner child:

1) Connect with Your Feelings. Allow yourself to feel emotions, whether they are positive or negative. This can help release pent-up emotions and relieve emotional burden on the inner child.

2) Comfort From Adult You. Take some time out, close your eyes and connect with your feelings, physical sensations and thoughts. What needs of yours are not being met? What does this remind you of from your past? Picture little you experiencing this. You may even want to look at a picture of you as a child here. Now imagine adult you who is wise, accepting and compassionate, standing near little you. What does adult you want to say to little you to comfort them? What does little you need from adult you? Imagine adult you providing this. What does it feels like for little you to receive these comforting words and actions from adult you?

3) Get Your Needs Met. What are your needs that are not being met? Take steps in the here and now to meet these needs, for example, if you are feeling lonely and unloved reach out to a loved one. Or perhaps practice self-compassion by treating yourself with kindness and compassion as you would a good friend by saying comforting things to yourself, doing things that are soothing and relaxing.

4) Create a Safe Space. Visualise a safe, nurturing place for your inner child to retreat to in times of emotional pain. This could be a place you have visited before or perhaps an imaginary place. Imagine yourself moving through this image, paying attention to the details in your different senses. Imagine the relaxed feeling this creates in you.

5) Seek Therapy. You may wish to consider therapy where the relationship between yourself and your therapist is a nurturing relationship which can help the inner child to feel safe, secure, understood and cared for.


The process of healing your inner child can take time and patience. Schema Therapy is an excellent therapy approach which has healing of the inner child at its core. Being a schema therapist, if you would like to consider therapy where schema tools and concepts can be incorporated, please get in touch by emailing me at contact@hertstherapypractice.com or kindly complete the webform. I can offer therapy in-person in St Albans/Hertfordshire or online.



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