What Does Inner Child Mean?
Our inner child is the part of us that holds our childhood experiences and related emotions.
These experiences play a role in who we are as adults. They impact how we interact with the world, and how we view ourselves.
For some, childhood was a validating time of exploration and safety. For others, a time of difficulty and unmet needs.
For the latter, we might have a hurt inner child. This can negatively impact our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
It can be helpful to connect with our inner child to discover how our childhood affects us today.
Read on for more on inner child work and how it can help us deal with a difficult childhood.
- Emotional and physical safety
- Security and stability
- Emotional validation
- Authentic self-expression
- The right to determine personal boundaries
- Willingness to take calculated risks
- Ability to validate our own emotions, without outside approval
- Ability to regulate emotions
- Ability to connect deeply with others and maintain healthy relationships
- Feeling confident and capable
- Feeling curious and excited about the world
- Feeling comfortable in our own skin
- Being extremely sensitive to criticism
- Constantly seeking validation from others about feelings and goals
- Not taking risks
- Being emotionally inflexible
- Being a perfectionist/overachiever
- Feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with us
- Negative self-talk
- Body image issues
- Suppressed (intentionally hidden) or repressed (unconsciously hidden) emotions
- Being manipulative or passive-aggressive
- Not trusting anyone and feeling like the world is a dangerous place
- Deep feelings of anger/angry outbursts
- Fear of abandonment
- People-pleasing/unable to set boundaries
- Extreme conflict avoidance
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
- Anxiety and depression
- Fear of emotional intimacy
- Being physically and emotionally neglected by caregivers
- Not being allowed to express strong emotions
- Facing constant shame and ridicule by caregivers
- Not being allowed to speak up for ourselves
- Being constantly yelled at or threatened
- Not being supported, respected, validated
- Being physically abused
- Not being allowed to have fun or play
- Being discouraged from having personal opinions or space
- Unstable or turbulent family life
- Loss of a caregiver
As a note before we get started, working with a qualified therapist is advised when dealing with trauma or exploring intense emotions. Therapists can help us navigate our feelings in a safe environment and provide useful guidance and support.
Acknowledging and accepting our inner child and their pain is the most important step of the process. We can’t explore our relationship with our childhood self without doing this.
We should reflect on our childhood and the things that hurt us. Some of us may choose to simply think about our past, while others may write things down. It can also be helpful to speak with our inner child (internally or out loud) as if they were a separate person.
Connecting with our inner child can feel super uncomfortable at first. The important thing is to accept whatever thoughts/feelings arise, without running from them.
If we were hurt by others during childhood, it can be easy to blame them for who we are now. It may feel unfair to pick up the pieces of someone else’s doing (because it is). But as adults, we’re responsible for ourselves, no matter how we got here. If we want to heal our inner child, we have to commit to doing it, even if we never get an apology from those who hurt us.
We’ve likely all seen an adult react to a highly emotional situation in a “childish” way or done it ourselves. E.g., Temper tantrums, silent treatment, stomping off, being passive-aggressive, etc. These may be the reactions of a hurt inner child. (Note: hurt inner child or not, we don’t need to tolerate these behaviors from others if they’re being abusive).
Other times, we may self-sabotage or avoid conflict. We may agree to things we don’t want just to please others, then end up resenting them.
E.g., We offer to give our coworkers a ride home every day, even though we live on opposite ends of town. We feel exhausted at the end of each day and need to get home to make dinner. We haven’t told them this, but we start to resent them anyway. We tell ourselves that they don’t appreciate us and should be more thoughtful. The following week, when it’s time to leave work, we hide in the bathroom until they’re gone.
We can look at this situation from our inner child’s perspective:
- We worry that our coworker will dislike us if we don’t drive them home (fear of disapproval, people-pleasing)
- We hide from them to avoid uncomfortable emotions (fear of conflict)
- We ignore our own needs in service of our coworker (self-neglect, guilt)
We may be able to link these feelings and behaviors to specific childhood events. It’s important to let ourselves feel these emotions as adults. But, if our reactions to them are unhelpful, we should take responsibility for changing them.
Self-compassion is our ability to respond to our emotions with kindness and understanding. It can be helpful to think about hurtful memories from our inner child’s perspective. Even if, as adults, we can rationalize situations from our childhood, it doesn’t mean our feelings weren’t valid as children.
E.g., Maybe we cried like children, and our parents dismissed our emotions by saying, “Stop crying. You have nothing to cry about.” As adults, we might understand that our parents experienced emotional neglect, too. They didn’t have the skills to validate our experiences.
But as children, we still went through the experience of being told our emotions weren’t important. We can have self-compassion for our child self, and tell ourselves, “It was okay for me to cry. My emotions were valid, and I deserved to be heard.”
Boundaries are limits around the behaviors we’ll accept from others, and ourselves. They apply to our physical, mental, and emotional self, and are useful for keeping us safe. They also inform other people how to treat us.
Setting boundaries can be especially difficult if we weren’t allowed to have them as children. Maybe our caregivers read through our diaries, made us leave our bedroom door open, or commented on our bodies. Or maybe we were forced to hug people, be our parent’s confidant (parentification), or were screamed at a lot.
As adults, we can set boundaries around these things. E.g., Our family comments on our weight during Sunday dinner. We can say “when you comment on my body, it makes me uncomfortable. I need you to stop, or I will not come to dinner.”
Our limits can be whatever we’re comfortable with.
Sometimes, people react badly to boundaries. That’s okay. Other people’s responses aren’t our responsibility; it’s our job to stand up for ourselves and the inner child who couldn’t.
If we didn’t get to express our playful, silly side as children, it can feel weird to play as an adult. But play has many benefits for adults, and shouldn’t be reserved for children. Indulging this part of ourselves allows us to give our inner child what they missed out on.
When playing, we can do the things we enjoyed as children, or those we wish we had. Play can be anything we find amusing and feels rewarding, like:
- Video and board games
- Running around/playing tag/racing
- Play fighting
- Joking around
Our childhood shapes the adults we become. While we often let go of many aspects of it, core elements remain. If our inner child is hurt, our adult behaviors will often be unhelpful relics from our past. Inner child work helps us connect to our childhood self, empathize with their pain, and become a healthier adult.