Published: January 30, 2024 by Zencare Team
The experiences that people have when they’re children can shape their view of the world, making childhood a pivotal, and impressionable time. Children’s state of mind remains a bit of an unknown for most people, limited by children’s constrained vocabulary and not-yet-understood emotions. That being said, many researchers focus their entire careers on learning more about how children experience their lives, showing that childhood experiences — and particularly childhood trauma — may lead to mental health challenges down the road.
Because childhood is a critical period of development, many adults who experienced trauma at this time may find themselves struggling to manage their emotions, engaging in toxic relationship dynamics, criticizing themselves, and having persistent negative thoughts. For these adults, inner child work and inner child therapy can have significant benefits.
What does inner child mean?
“Inner child” means, and is generally understood as the part of a person’s internal world that existed during their childhood and remains, despite having moved into adulthood. This could describe personality traits like playfulness or emotional patterns like shame or guilt. The inner child can have both positive and negative impacts on a person’s mental health.
When someone finds themselves often reacting in inappropriate ways to small distressing events — like excessively crying after they lose their headphones — or often says things that they don’t mean to their loved ones during fights, they might benefit from inner child work. Inner child issues might also present as low self-esteem, an inability to talk about vulnerable topics, or feeling like no one cares about them. In these examples, the inner child takes over the more rational part of the adult mind and instigates the emotional reactions and behavioral patterns that they learned during childhood.
Rather than seeing the inner child as an immature aspect of a person’s life, many therapists encourage their clients to see their inner child as a part of themselves that deserves attention, love, and care. Being curious about the inner child — and healing the inner child through inner child work exercises — is a great way to learn more about the self and establish healthy coping strategies.
What is inner child work?
Inner child work engages the part of the self that was experiencing pain during childhood, and finds ways to heal or move on from this pain. When childhood gets interrupted by trauma, development may take a back seat — or it might happen much more quickly than typical as a way for the child to cope with the intense experiences they face. Many people hold onto hurt from childhood, whether that’s feeling embarrassed in front of the class, getting rejected by a caregiver, or internalizing messages that it’s not okay to be their authentic selves. Inner child work aims to heal the hurt carried around for years and refocuses efforts around engaging in creativity, joy, playfulness and feeling safe once more.
In therapy, inner child work centers around addressing the needs from childhood that went unmet. To do this, clients will “reparent” themselves in a way that shows love and attention. By reparenting, the client explores how their emotions and behaviors were impacted by their childhood experiences, which can give them useful perspectives on how to cope with distress in their present lives.
How to heal childhood trauma
People can begin to heal childhood trauma through self-reflection, self-care and therapy. It isn’t always easy to heal childhood trauma, but for some, therapy approaches like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) help establish safety. These modalities also provide helpful tools to avoid emotional triggers or the harmful self-judgment that exacerbates mental health challenges.
Cassandra Holt Kimbell, LPC utilizes EMDR with her clients. She gives an example scenario where you might be upset with your boss at work, and triggered and emotionally distressed whenever they correct you or give feedback. Cassandra would ask "What does this say about you? Meaning what negative cognition is on repeat during this exchange or after?” If it is “I did something wrong,” then we would look at the body sensations or visuals associated with that thought. She'd also ask “When you feel those things in your body and say the words I did something wrong, what is the earliest memory you have of this feeling? What is the worst? Do any other memories come up when you say the words I did something wrong?” Most of the time the client is able to make a connection back to childhood in which they experienced a traumatic event.
Cassandra says, "the way trauma works, you aren’t just upset by your boss, you are feeling every time in your life subconsciously that you ever were made to feel like you did something wrong."
For others, however, these therapy approaches may not be effective at reducing trauma symptoms or helping them process through and move past their childhood trauma. Healing childhood trauma looks differently for each person, as trauma experiences can vary widely, along with an individual’s coping strategies. Many people find inner child work to be helpful to better understand their reactions and instincts, while giving them a perspective from which to focus on self-compassion.
Inner child therapy
How does inner child therapy work, if the goal is to meet unmet needs from childhood? When engaging in inner child therapy, clients work with their therapists to get in touch with the part of themselves that is still young, impressionable, and trusting. There is a duality created, with the client focusing on being that child once more while at the same time bringing their adult perspectives and coping strategies into the mix.
Some people might be able to pinpoint memories from a traumatic event, while others may not have accessed these memories in years, if at all. It’s important to work with an experienced therapist while doing inner child work, as taking the self back to those potentially painful times may retrigger trauma reactions.
Inner child work exercises
While inner child work is best done with the support of a therapist trained in inner child therapy, there are many tools that individuals can use outside of session to strengthen their relationship with their inner child. Inner child work exercises can boost self-awareness and make connections between the childhood and the adult state of mind. As a bonus, inner child work exercises can also feed into childhood attributes like playfulness and wonder.
Here are a few inner child work exercises that can be done throughout the week to engage the inner child:
- Give yourself a hug or loving pat on the back
- Remember happy childhood memories
- Engage in positive self-talk including affirmations like, “I am worthy of love” or “I am a good person”
- Take five minutes each day to play a game or complete a puzzle
- Take up the hobbies you enjoyed as a kid
For more in-depth exercises, people can directly connect with their inner child. The following inner child work exercises are a good place to start:
- Write a letter to a past self, whether that’s an elementary school aged self or a teenage self
- Talk with a loved one about your childhood to learn more about what you were like and what was happening during that time in your family
- Visualize yourself as a child again and imagine what it would be like if your needs were met
Many of these exercises are excellent self-care activities in their own right, while also providing a sense of empowerment for those who focus on supporting the inner child. Mindfulness exercises are also a helpful tool for mental health in general but can also greatly benefit inner child work by providing the individual with a way to simply be present in the moment without needing to engage in painful emotions or negative self-talk.
Internal Family Systems therapy
Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, created by, Dr. Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s, is another therapy approach often employed by therapists for inner child work During IFS therapy, clients draw apart the various “parts” or sub-personalities of the self and notice where between each of these there might be tension or conflict. Different aspects of this therapy approach may include a “part” that attempts to protect the self from harm, the part that holds the emotional pain and is largely ignored, or the part that distracts the self from distress. In IFS therapy, these parts are called the Managers, Exiles, and Firefighters, respectively.
IFS therapy strives to integrate the many parts of the self to find a place of peace and balance. Through IFS therapy, clients learn how to accept their whole selves and to use their internal resources to heal their wounded parts.
If you’re looking for ways to heal your inner child, working with a therapist is a powerful way to determine what parts of your inner child need attention and how to actively work on healing those parts. Zencare’s therapist directory includes a filter by Specialty including childhood trauma as well as a filter by Approach including Internal Family Systems therapy.
While time travel isn’t possible, inner child work can help adults revisit the time in their childhood where they faced trauma or painful experiences, but with the resilience they have developed throughout their adult lives. Therapy offers those who want to heal their inner child a way to do so by providing a safe space to reflect meaningfully on emotions, develop coping strategies and help meet the needs of their inner child.