That’s the real trouble with the world – too many people grow up. They forget.Walt Disney
“Awaken your inner child,” “Reclaim the wellspring of joy and spontaneity,” “Heal emotional wounds from the past” – we are encouraged by numerous articles and guides. But does it make sense? Isn’t adulthood about approaching life rationally and not letting oneself be carried away by unrestrained emotions? Why go back to what has long elapsed, especially if our recollections of the youngest years bear reluctance rather than nostalgia? In this article, you will read about the concept of the inner child, along with the benefits and doubts that accompany encountering it.
Who is the inner child
The inner child is not a physical girl with pigtails or a grimy boy, but rather a metaphor for that part of the psyche where the sum of our childhood experiences is preserved. It encompasses emotions, dreams, needs, and expectations we once had, as well as interpretations of reality and behavioral patterns we deemed most useful at that time. To many, their younger self appears distant, detached from their present identity, perhaps even indifferent. We know that the little person in the old photograph is us; we know the facts and circumstances, but we feel that we have come a long way since then. We imagine that we are different now, and what used to move us back then has lost its power. As we grow up, we often abandon our inner child, failing to integrate it into our adult personality. We lose awareness that it is a living part of our present.
Is this truly the past
As Carl Gustav Jung wrote, “The motif of the child represents not only what has been and long since passed, but also something current. It is not just some relic, but a functioning system in the present.” Our beliefs, sense of self-worth, coping mechanisms, and relationship patterns are shaped in childhood. Over time, they become so automated that they convert into our “default mode,” functioning beyond the realm of conscious awareness. As children, we may learn that we are worthy of love or that we have to earn it. When we enter into relationships in adulthood, such a program continues to operate in the background regardless of our deliberate intentions and efforts. In this way, the inner child is present in each of us to a much greater extent than we typically assume. At times, it may even take over the control, but usually, it operates behind the scenes.
How the inner child influences adult life
The childlike aspect of your personality can either enrich or constrain you. It all depends on the nature of your early experiences.
- Growing up in a supportive (though not necessarily ideal) environment instils in you a belief in your own abilities and resourcefulness, and fosters a sense of security in relationships. You view setbacks as integral to the journey, you appreciate the small joys, and you allow yourself the carefree moments. You have dreams, prioritize self-care, possess emotional regulation skills, have an inherent curiosity about the world, and can lose track of time when engrossed in hobbies. However, for these positive qualities to flourish, they must be tempered during the course of upbringing to prevent them from transforming into excessive fantasizing and magical thinking, arrogance and self-centeredness, an inclination towards endless playfulness, succumbing to temptations, or extreme spontaneity that hinders any form of planning.
- A childhood that is happy yet devoid of boundaries and requirements, in which every adversity is immediately removed by caregivers and actions bear no consequences, can evoke a desire to preserve such a state even after reaching physical maturity, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “Peter Pan syndrome” – named after the literary character who refuses to grow up and prefers to remain forever a child in Neverland, a realm of imagination and adventure. Such “eternal boys” or “eternal girls” may often seem charming company at parties, but in reality, they lead superficial, unfulfilled lives, full of uncertainty. A similar yearning can arise from a sense of a deprived childhood and a desire to compensate for lost time in adulthood.
- If your early environment failed to fully accept you, disregarding your complete range of experiences and subjecting you to shame, reprimand, and constant demands to be someone other than yourself, you may find that many of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors you exhibit today do not solely and directly derive from present circumstances. Perhaps you are paralyzed by fear when it comes to speaking up in discussions, despite logically knowing that you possess a thorough understanding of the subject matter. Maybe you feel compelled to constantly monitor your partner, even though they have given you no reason to do so. You say “yes” when you could and want to say “no.” Automatically, you assume that any well-deserved praise directed towards you must be the result of a misunderstanding. You exhibit the reactions of a child who has learned that they are not good enough.
- Enduring deep physical or emotional wounds in childhood can lead to a complete disconnection from those intense experiences, resulting in a life lived atop a dormant volcano, where broaching difficult subjects triggers explosive outbursts of emotions. It can instigate a relentless pursuit of forgetfulness through immersion in work, an incessant drive to push forward, or succumbing to addiction. Often, it manifests in engaging in similar toxic relationships, or in isolation and avoidance of any form of closeness. It can lead to self-destruction and mental disorders, or to re-enacting hurtful behaviors towards others in order to finally feel empowered and in control within a given situation.
Is the inner child on your side
This brief overview can be disheartening. It seems that beyond situations where we had a happy childhood and wise, supportive caregivers, our inner child serves as a relentless reminder of past adversities, sabotaging endeavours towards present well-being. How else can we interpret the echo of public scolding we experienced at the age of four, resurfacing when we need to confront our boss? Or the intangible sensation of “come on, you’ll only embarrass yourself,” lingering on the edge of consciousness when we feel the urge to share our dreams with someone? “I find it disquieting that there’s some Stranger within me,” one of my clients said. Indeed, it often appears that the inner child is not cooperating, although from its perspective, that is precisely what it is doing.
Immature emotions frozen in time
The problem is that our toddler, so to speak, has become stuck in the past. It strives for a sense of security and worthiness, but operates on a simplistic logic from years ago, based on a limited comprehension of the world. Today’s perfectionism may thus stem from perpetuating the old rule that if Dad isn’t pleased, one must try harder. Giving up on dreams may arise in those who heard the words, “stop daydreaming and come back down to earth.” The inner child resurfaces when the current situation triggers associations with the past, as if unaware that reality has changed and old patterns are no longer effective. It often repeats the same actions, hoping for a different outcome. It means well, but it goes awry.
The requisites for secure growing up
We remain trapped in past experiences until strong emotions are processed, accepted, and resolved. The inner child remains suspended in time for it was denied the opportunity to mature – it wasn’t heard and accepted as it was, there was no one to explain the world and aid in its development, and it lacked the embrace and warmth it craved. For most of us, early experiences were not unequivocally positive. Our memories are not just about joyful splashing in puddles and building sandcastles. They contain elements of shame, sadness, longing, rejection, and a sense of dissonance. Our parents tried their best, but they didn’t always know better. Some didn’t even try. The care and support that caregivers failed to provide in the past is often something we struggle to provide for ourselves later on. The child part of us lacks an adult figure to help it navigate the journey of safe maturation.
Before you begin working with your inner child
Improving the connection with the neglected aspects of ourselves can be a valuable experience. However, it may also evoke resistance and fear. Metaphorically speaking, many inner children have spent several or even dozens of years in the basement, where they could only scream and bang on the doors. It’s no wonder that the thought of letting them into the daylight seems unsettling. You can undertake the work with your inner child on your own. However, if you feel discomfort, see no progress despite your efforts, or if your emotional state worsens, as well as in case you have experienced traumatic events, seeking the support of a therapist can be beneficial. The greater the shadows that lurk in our past, the more recommended such support becomes.
Helpful tools and techniques
Below you will find several ways to start working with your inner child.
- Appreciate its existence.
Mixed feelings towards exploring the childlike part of our personality are natural. However, note the profound value that lies in its tenacity to remind us of our needs. Even if it clamours for attention in an unapologetic and clumsy manner, it is still good that it does so. Otherwise, we might neglect many important matters.
- Discover when and why it speaks up.
Reflect on current situations in which your emotions and reactions have seemed, in your own eyes, incomprehensible, inadequate, or disproportionately intense in relation to events. What similarities do these situations share? What beliefs arise within you during those moments? Perhaps thoughts like “I can’t do anything right” or fears of “if I reveal my true feelings, everything will fall apart.” How might they have originated within you? Are they true and serving you well? How can you modify them to work in your favour?
- Visit it in difficult situations.
If current emotions and reactions evoke echoes of past events within you, try describing from today’s perspective what transpired back then. Do you still interpret the situation in the same way as you did then, given the vantage point of who you are today? What new aspects can you consider with the benefit of distance? If you feel compelled to do so, revisit that situation with present wisdom. What can you say to the participants and to your younger self?
- Examine your younger self.
Take a look at your old photographs. Who was that little person? What emotions can you glean from their face and posture? What mattered to them? Who mattered to them? What were their dreams? What were they afraid of? What saddened them? How do you feel now with these memories? What sensations do they evoke?
- Recall what brought you joy.
List 10 things that brought you joy during your childhood. Think about favourite games, creative activities, books, movies, places, dishes, nature observations, trips, parties, moments with loved ones and peers, playing with pets, skill acquisition. Can you evoke those emotions? When do you experience similar ones in your current life?
- Reflect on what was lacking.
Think of your past unmet needs. Perhaps you yearned for attention, acceptance, recognition of efforts, and appreciation of accomplishments? Physical contact, closeness, and embrace? Maybe material possessions? Do you currently have intense desires for similar things? How can you wisely and without falling into the opposite extreme, provide yourself with what you were lacking?
- Recall characteristic messages.
What sentences did you often hear during your childhood? Perhaps: “Don’t make a scene, nothing happened,” “Don’t be such a selfish person,” “Why not a perfect score?” “There’s no need to pity yourself,” “Wait until your father comes,” “You’re not doing it right, leave it.” What did they teach you? Are they still with you today? In what way?
- Think about significant individuals.
Remember the most important adult figures from your childhood. They could be your mother and father, other family members, or a teacher. What qualities did you admire in them? Which ones irritated you? Which ones were unbearable? Do you notice those qualities in yourself? How do you feel about them? Do they support or hinder you?
- Return to your favourite fairy tale.
Think about a story that held a special place in your heart. Why did it resonate with you so strongly? How were those reasons connected to your own experiences? Do the themes of your favourite fairy tale somehow relate to your adult life? How do you feel now about the story and the meaning it carries??
The Sun Child and the Shadow Child
Therapist Stefanie Stahl, in her book “The Child in You,” introduces a division between the Sun Child – representing positive experiences and emotions – and the Shadow Child – reflecting negative beliefs and defence mechanisms. The inner child always encompasses these two aspects; only their proportions change. Beware that it is not possible to choose only the “more enjoyable” aspect. Of course, it is nice to have access to a source of joy and creativity, but the path to it leads through confronting what blocks it. By neglecting the part of yourself that seems less attractive, you reject it and now repeat to yourself what you once heard from others, “I don’t want you.” Therefore, the above inspirations will help you establish a better connection with both your Sun Child and Shadow Child.
Helpful adult within you
As you embark on the journey of working with your inner child, remember that it is only a part of your personality. Full identification with it can be a trap, where we risk becoming unbalanced, overwhelmed by past pain, or indulging ourselves without considering the consequences. You also carry within you the presence of the Adult figure who can take the child by the hand. Your goal is not to restore childish traits in their original form but rather to allow your inner child to safely grow up while maintaining a connection with your true nature and enriching it with the wisdom acquired throughout life. Therefore, the aim is not simply to return to the past itself, but to release what is trapped within it and to remember what has been unjustly forgotten.
On the occasion of Children’s Day, we wish you to maintain a connection with that part of yourself where vitality and naturalness reside. Take care of your needs, passions, and desires. Enjoy the sunshine and do not avoid the shadows.