What Is Inner Child Work? A Guide To Healing Your Inner Child
Have you ever paid attention to the little voice inside of you? The one that might remind you of your younger self? No matter how old we grow, we carry our younger selves within us day-to-day. Perhaps our hurt 5-year-old self shows up when our best friend doesn't answer our phone call, or our misunderstood 15-year-old self comes out when a colleague doesn't see eye to eye. Caring for this younger version of ourselves is what inner child work is all about.
What is inner child work?
Inner child work, also referred to as inner child healing, is a way to address our needs that haven't been met as children and heal the attachment wounds we've developed. We all have a younger part of ourselves that was "never quite loved the right way or the way they needed as a child," clinical psychologist Trish Phillips, Psy.D., tells mbg.
"Inner child work, like any type of inner work, involves creating a space where your subconscious is allowed to take the lead," Phillips says. Inner work is the act of going inside ourselves, to explore our true feelings and parts of us that may have been rejected and labeled as "inappropriate" or "too much" by others. By allowing ourselves time to go within, we begin peeling back our everyday coping mechanisms (being avoidant, numbing of our feelings, etc.) and are able to fully accept and integrate our subconscious into consciousness.
What type of therapy is inner child work?
Inner child work can be found in many types of therapy. To name a few, the inner child lens can be found in trauma therapy, Parts Work, Internal Family Systems, EMDR, sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic work, Gestalt work, art therapy, and story or narrative therapy, notes Phillips.
What is truly special about inner child work is its intention to speak to our inner child through their language, a language that is emotionally based and embodied, rather than expressed through intellectual thoughts and words.
What does "inner child" really mean?
Our inner child is a representation of ourselves at multiple points in our childhood, and we can have inner children from various ages. This part of us is very much connected to our natural enthusiasm, curiosity, and creativity we experienced as actual children.
"When you get in touch with your inner child, you can connect with their qualities and experiences at the time," creativity coach Julia Berryman tells mbg. "You can even physically feel how they felt."
As children, we are also very impressionable, readily absorbing what our environments and caretakers teach us and how they treat us. Inner child wounds, or attachment wounds, can occur when there is either a traumatic event or chronic rupture without repair. For children, a rupture without repair can look like crying out for help but being unheard by an emotionally unavailable caretaker. Ruptures also happen in our daily lives throughout adulthood, "from when someone forgets to hold the door open for us at the store or when a friend doesn't say hi to us," says Phillips. "How we internalize them determines if the experience stays a wound or if it becomes processed right there."
In adulthood, we have a chance to heal our wounded inner child and create the safe, secure inner and outer environments our younger selves always wanted.
Why is inner child healing important?
As adults, we walk around carrying wounds from our childhood, whether it's simple or complex trauma, from emotional neglect to physical abuse. Many adults feel they're alone with these hurts and feelings, Phillips notes, and so they cover them up because they feel like that's "what other grown-ups do."
That's why inner child healing is so important, she says, "To remind ourselves that we're not wrong or bad. To heal the shame that comes with just having feelings."
By healing our inner child, we begin to create the safety and security our younger selves have always needed. By doing so, the positive traits of our inner child have room to shine. We unlock our natural gifts, our inner curiosity, and our limitless capacity to love.
On the other hand, when we avoid addressing our past hurts and feel alone with them, they transform into behaviors destructive to ourselves and our environment, such as workaholism, alcoholism, or racism.
"When we heal the inner child, we heal generations. We heal the world. We literally affect one another; that's what coregulation is," Phillips says.
Signs your inner child needs healing.
The signs listed below are symptoms connecting back to original attachment wounds:
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1. Feeling highly reactive.
We can notice when our wounded inner child appears in our daily lives when you find yourself highly reactive to situations, suddenly feeling very detached or irritated. "Our adult self is trying to manage or control the outside that's making them feel uncomfortable on the inside," Phillips says.
2. Overvaluing independence.
This can look like repeating the narrative "I don't need anyone" and not allowing yourself to ask for any help.
3. Destructive coping behaviors.
This can look like coping through too much alcohol, shopping, cheating, gambling, food, and even chronic procrastination.
4. Poor emotional and mental health.
This can show up in a multitude of ways, including:
- Feeling unmotivated
- Wanting more and more time alone or with friends (avoidance manifesting in different ways)
- Not wanting to have sex or wanting more sex to keep partner connected
- Sleep difficulties
- Weight gain or loss
- Not as focused or productive at work
- Increased anxiety in different areas of life
5. Repeating patterns in your relationships.
People with attachment wounds tend to unconsciously recreate attachment patterns they experienced as a child in their adult relationships, whether romantic or not. This means they're essentially repeating patterns of childhood trauma.
According to Phillips, enacting an attachment pattern can look like:
- Being avoidant during conflict or when a partner brings up their feelings
- Being dismissive of a partner's needs or your own needs in the relationship
- Gaslighting yourself into believing that there aren't problems when there are, or vice versa
- Being anxious or fearful within the relationship; therefore, trying to please partner above all else
- Having a deep fear of being abandoned or rejected by your partner
How to connect with your inner child.
To begin understanding our inner child, we must learn to listen and communicate in their language, which is sensory and somatic-based, Berryman says.
If you recall what it's like to play with a child, rather than speaking to you in full, eloquent sentences, children will express their wants and needs through body language and intuitive noises. That is why much of reconnecting to our inner child is through engaging in activities that activate our full realm of senses. When we can be fully here instead of thinking our way through situations, we are "tapping into a place beyond the cognitive narrative that is familiar to us," Phillips says. In these present moments, we can create a new relationship with our inner child.
We can start by first taking ourselves out of the left brain—associated with language, logic, and critical thinking—into the right brain, associated with our emotional expression, intuition, and creativity. Below are some ways to get started:
1. Practice breathwork and mindfulness.
Connecting to our deep breaths and physical body helps us move out of the stresses of the adult world and "fight-or-flight" sympathetic arousal, so we can be curious about the present.
Use all five senses to check in with our body. We can do this by taking three conscious deep breaths. It can help to place one hand on your belly and chest.
As you settle in, note one thing you see.
One thing you smell.
One thing you hear.
One thing you taste.
One thing you feel.
2. Nurture your creativity.
Whether it's letting ourselves draw, cook, garden, sit, or read graphic novels—doing what we enjoy is centering and takes us back to our inner child.
3. Collect something.
Remember how it felt like to collect things as a child? Collecting what we find on a walk, on our way to the beach (sticks, rocks, shells), can be a way of reconnecting with our inner child. This isn't for any practical reason, but we do this for the pure experience. Not sure what to collect? Many of us as adults collect books. Good news is, you don't have to read them to find joy in having them!
4. Practice visualization.
The intention of journaling is to create a safe space for you (and in this case, your inner child) to express yourself honestly without the expectations of the outside world. It can look like sitting down and simply asking your inner child how they're feeling today. The key is honoring your inner child's perception of their own experiences without filtering or correcting them.
If you'd like guidance in creating that safe space, here are self-parenting journaling prompts to start you off.
When you're ready to go deeper, here are more inner child healing exercises to explore.
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