4 Ways To Care For Your Inner Child When You're Home For The Holidays
As we grow up, we absorb and program information that we will call on for the rest of our lives. During the formative years of zero to 8, we form patterns that influence how we react to others, how we feel about ourselves, and when we go into fight/flight/freeze mode.
When we get back with our family members as adults, that programming can kick in to the extreme. As many of us have likely experienced, it can be hard to not feel like the kid version of yourself again as soon as you see your parents. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) If you grew up in a challenging environment, going home for the holidays can feel downright high-stakes.
But whether you had a Brady Bunch upbringing or a Succession one, taking care of your inner child can bring you into the present so you can react like the adult that you are now. Here are four ways to do that:
1. Tend to your inner child before you go.
Pregames aren't just for sports. When a friend of mine had to see very challenging family members for a funeral, I told her to prepare like she was training for the mental health Olympics. You wouldn't expect to do well at a marathon without training, and you can't expect to feel good seeing challenging family without upping your self-care beforehand.
One helpful practice is to make a list of any worries or concerns you have. Worried your dad is going to ask you to explain exactly why you bought that car? Concerned you won't get any downtime? Write all of that down.
When you're done, take a breath and put your hand on your heart. This is a very effective way of coming back to your body and bringing your inner adult online. Once you're in the right headspace (which is really a heart space, #sorrynotsorry), talk to your inner child about the feeling underneath the concerns on the page. It may feel awkward at first, and you don't have to do it out loud. But the truth is we all talk to ourselves anyway, so why not make it a consciously validating conversation?
Throughout it, make sure that you are talking to your inner child with compassion and concern. You aren't talking your inner child out of their feelings; you're validating them. And yes, all their feelings are valid. That doesn't mean you have to do everything your inner child wants, but hearing them will help calm you down.
From there, you can decide on some practical strategies to help you feel better when you're with family. (Scheduled naps perhaps? Make some conversations off-limits from the start?). And bonus: You also just did a tiny reprogramming of that old subconscious way of reacting to family habits.
2. Stay mindful of your reactions.
Mindfulness is half the battle with any kind of relational issues but especially when we slip into old dynamics that haven't been supportive. You can't fix what you don't see, and it's very easy to not see family patterns that have been at play since you were born.
Your first step is noticing when you feel any kind of charged reaction. Say you find yourself flying into a rage when your mom asks you to take out the garbage. Before you may have stuffed down the reaction, but now try to notice the feeling with curiosity and think, Hmm that's interesting, I just got really angry. I wonder what that's about. It's important to not judge yourself here because that will skew the information. If you think, What's my (expletive) problem? All she asked was for me to take out the garbage, your inner child won't feel safe enough to deliver a helpful answer.
If you have time in the moment to hear what your inner child has to say ("I never had a choice growing up; she just always ordered me around"), that's great. But even just noticing the reaction will help you get some distance from it, and that distance will give you a wider perspective.
3. Practice acceptance.
No, this does not mean ignoring your boundaries. No, your sister is still not allowed to pull you aside to talk about your kid's diet and how Trix really shouldn't be for kids. But it does mean that you stop trying to change her.
A wonderful mantra to use in these situations is, "Can I let this person be who this person is?" If necessary, repeat this in your head while carrying out the conversation. Stepping away from your need to change someone shifts your mental energy from focusing on them to listening to your inner child.
4. Do a postgame check-in.
After the gathering, it's time to ask yourself, How you feeling, boo? (That’s actually what I call my inner child, believe it or not). This post-check is an important time to allow your inner child to feel heard. It will also help you avoid carrying resentment from the holidays around with you.
As you check in with boo (admit it, you like the name!), mentally review one triggering event at a time. If you find yourself getting upset all over again, that's a sign you have merged with your inner child. Take a breath, put your hand on your heart, and do your best to get back into feeling the compassion of the inner adult. Whenever you are in that place, ask your inner child what they need from you now.
Spoiler alert: Most of the time, it's just to be seen and/or loved and validated. Sometimes the inner child will want you to do something like set a boundary. Sometimes they'll want you to handle whatever is coming up so they can go off and have fun. But just the act of acknowledging that your feelings really do matter is enough to change the family dynamic as you used to know it.
The bottom line.
Your inner child can represent unresolved childhood feelings and/or trauma. When you can prepare them adequately so that they feel safe before a daunting experience knowing that you (the adult) will take care of things, you can make any situation—family or otherwise—feel more tolerable and maybe even enjoyable.
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