Most of the time, I feel pretty comfortable as an adult. I love having a job. I love earning a paycheck that I can spend however I want (after, you know, bills and stuff). I love being able to do whatever I want without asking for permission, whether that means spending a long weekend away with friends or wasting away on the couch for an entire Sunday.
But every so often, something happens. Maybe my sister shoots a snarky comment my way or my mom raises her voice at me — and suddenly I feel about 7 years old again, wanting to throw a temper tantrum.
According to psychotherapist Joan E. Childs, that’s my inner child peeking out.
You may have heard the term before. Childs, who specializes in inner child work, says every adult has an inner child. It's that small part of you that just never grew up. And the bulk of her work has focused on helping people heal their inner children in order to improve their mental wellbeing and their relationships.
Why would anyone’s inner child need to be healed? Things that happen when you're young can leave an indelible mark on the psyche, Childs explains. “A childhood friend moving away, physical or psychological abuse, or a broken family can all wound the inner child," says Diana Raab, PhD, who explores the concept of the inner child in her book, Writing for Bliss, wrote on Psychology Today. You may feel like you’ve gotten over the hurt. But, Raab tells Refinery29, “the resulting pain will live with you for the rest of your life, and you may be reminded of it unexpectedly.”
Meaning: When my mom nudges me to buy my bridesmaid’s dress for my sister’s wedding — again — and I lose it, it could be that she’s poked a sore spot on my wounded inner child, and little-me is making an appearance. "Your inner child is the part of your personality that both reacts and feels like a child," Raab says. Often when you don’t feel in control of your behavior or response to a situation, it’s your inner child acting up.
The idea of an inner child has been around for decades. While the term can be overused, “Many schools of therapeutic thought acknowledge the childlike side to our personalities that ‘the inner child’ refers to,” writes Sheri Jacobson, Ph.D., clinical director of Harley Therapy in London. “The general idea is that we all have a childlike aspect within our unconscious mind... that can take over when you are faced with a challenge.” The childlike side is the one that still holds onto all those beliefs and coping mechanisms you learned as a kid — the part of you that nodded along as an adult told you “maybe math just isn’t your thing” or the part of you that learned to hide emotions like fear or sadness.
Healing your inner child, then, focuses on uncovering and releasing the causes for the childlike aspects of your personality, so you can react to challenges in your adult life as an adult, rather than a kid.
The good news: Healing your inner child can feel a lot like self-care. Childs recommends meditating, doing yoga, and talking to your inner child for five minutes a day. Yes, that sounds a little out-there, but it feels surprisingly good. Sit, picture a younger version of yourself, and reassure them with phrases like, 'I'm here for you, you're lovable, you're smart'. "It’s like reassuring a child that’s afraid, but you’re doing it within yourself," Childs says.
"You can take care of your inner child by writing some dialogue from your inner child’s point of view," says Raab. "This gives a voice to your pain. Sometimes that’s all the pain needs." Raab also recommends thinking and writing about what you loved doing when you were young, and looking at old photos of yourself as a child. If that doesn't work? "Other times, it might need to be addressed through deeper psychological work," Raab says.
Childs says that to fully heal a deeply wounded inner child, you'll need to go to therapy to relive and re-experience your childhood traumas with the help of a licensed professional. Only then, she says, can you go on to properly take care of your wounded inner child. She recommends seeing a therapist who specializes in EMDR, NLP, and Gestalt therapy, or trying out Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families, a 12-step program tailored to people who have gone through intense childhood trauma.
Going back in time can be a tough thing to experience as someone with a wounded inner child — but it may be the only thing that can help you move forward.