What is the inner child?

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Most people have heard of the phrase “inner child”. But what exactly is it?

It is basically a person’s childlike aspect. It includes what we learned as a child, before adolescence.

So our inner child represents our child-like capability for positive qualities such as playfulness, wonder, exhilaration, innocence and sensitivity. But it is also any unresolved and built-up childhood traumas, frustrations, fears, pain, resentments and anger.

Our inner child may continue to hold these deep wounds until they are addressed as an adult. If they remain unresolved these inner wounds often fester and get bigger.

This can lead to many problems in adulthood, including many mental health issues. This includes such as anxiety, depression, alcoholism and other addictions.

Renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961) is considered by most experts to be the modern-day originator of the inner child concept. He referred to people having a childlike side that sets up our earliest perceptions of such as loyalty and trust.

Then in 1987 an expert on mental illness and childhood trauma called Dr Charles Whitfield published a book called Healing The Child Within: Discovery And Recovery For Adult Children Of Dysfunctional Families. Dr Whitfield spoke about how when trauma occurs in childhood, our real self can go into hiding to be replaced with an egotistical false self.

The inner child became even more widely known a year later with the publication of Healing The Shame That Binds You by counselor John Bradshaw (1933-2016). Two years later Bradshaw’s book Homecoming: Reclaiming And Healing Your Inner Child took it to an even greater audience and understanding of how childhood traumas can shape someone for the rest of their life.

What is inner child trauma?

Trauma is caused by a deeply distressing experience that harms someone’s emotions, thinking and their capability of living a regular life. For some the negative impacts start straightaway after the experience while for others it can take months or years.

The inner child inside all of us reflects the little boy or girl we once were. Childhood trauma can falter or halt normal emotional growth.

That means a major part of us can be stuck at the age a trauma occurred. Sometimes a traumatized child will “hide” their true self away in a bid to protect themselves.

When they reach adulthood this causes certain behaviors and actions. In fact in some people what are thought of as their personality traits may have been shaped by it. 

Many people as “grown-ups” may think they have left behind the frightened and hurt little boy or girl they once were. But it is not so simple as this – and there’s a phrase: if it’s hysterical it’s historical.

For instance, a grown man finds they always get extremely irate if they think they are waiting too long to pay in a restaurant. It has even led to trouble where they ended up shouting at restaurant managers.

But what might well be happening is the little boy who was repeatedly ignored by his parents is welling up inside this man. This recreates very uncomfortable feelings.

His anger is not really at the restaurant managers. It’s towards his parents.

So someone might reach their 80s without really ever knowing their true self. If they have never resolved traumas that still live inside them, their entire life will have been about behaving and reacting in ways that protected them from feeling and seeing (reliving) the wounds.

Most frequently these measures become deeply dysfunctional. Someone may become a perfectionist, become codependent or develop a drink/drug addiction, a personality disorder or a behavioral addiction (like gambling, work or sex).

Traumatic childhood experiences include:

  • Being involved in or witnessing a serious incident.
  • Physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse (including neglect).
  • Bereavement, especially if it is unexpected or violent (such as in a traffic accident or a death by suicide).
  • Living among a violent community.
  • Getting a chronic or life-threatening illness.
  • Being in a serious accident.
  • Growing up in a family where a parent is an alcoholic or drug addict or has a mental health issue.

“Children need security and healthy modeling of emotions in order to understand their own inner signals,” John Bradshaw wrote in his Homecoming book. “They also need help in separating their thoughts from their feelings.

“When the family environment is filled with violence (chemical, emotional, physical, or sexual), the child must focus solely on the outside. Over time he loses the ability to generate self-esteem from within.

“Without a healthy inner life, one is exiled to trying to find fulfillment on the outside. This is codependence, and it is a symptom of a wounded inner child. Codependent behavior indicates that the person’s childhood needs were unmet, and therefore he cannot know who he is.”

How do I heal my inner child?

In order to heal the inner child we first have to find it. This is something that should always be done under the guidance of a professional therapist who knows about these things.

This is because it can be an extremely emotional thing to do. It takes time and it nearly always involves looking at inner wounds that may not have been admitted or faced in any way for decades.

But as with a physical wound it needs to be looked at to make sure the right place is tended to so that it can heal. No one would put a medical dressing on a large cut without ensuring it was going to actually go over the wound.

This process can involve methods such as journaling, one-on-one counseling and group therapy. There are some other methods such as learning to parent yourself and writing positive affirmations.

In Dr Whitfield’s bestselling classic Healing The Child Within he wrote about four steps to discovering the true self. These are:

  1. Learn to be “real” by practicing being “real” with safe others.
  2. Identify your healthy human needs.
  3. Grieve your ungrieved hurts, traumas and losses.
  4. Work through your core recovery, relationship and life issues.

Most people who go through a process of healing their inner child will find a new peace and happiness. Our experienced therapists and the rest of our team have decades of experience in helping with wellbeing and treating every mental health problem.

Tikvah Lake Recovery is in the ideal natural setting to help recovery. Most of our luxurious rooms have views of our beautiful tranquil lake.

We always offer individualized proven treatments for every guest. As a smaller center than most you can be assured of the utmost personal attention and care.

Contact us now to see how we can help you or someone you care about, starting today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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