Healing and the Inner Child

Inner child work is something that is typically explored in therapy, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Some of the most powerful “soul work” comes from looking at our inner child, or ourselves at various stages in childhood. It is particularly profound when we explore ourselves at a time when we may have experienced trauma of some kind. Trauma evokes such a strong, visceral and emotional reaction within, that it often stays with us for years afterwards and perhaps for an entire lifetime. Trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific event. In fact, a chronic low-grade trauma in childhood such as a neglectful, dismissive or critical parent can yield a similar stress response.

When we experience distress in childhood, we react according to where we are developmentally. As time goes by, we learn to survive and cope the best we can with our given circumstances. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Even way into adulthood, when we experience something stressful (i.e. a perceived threat, a death or life loss, relationship conflict, etc.), we often respond to it in the same manner we did in childhood. In other words, we react to the stressor the way we would if we were the same age as when we were first traumatized. Our inner child gets triggered.

The day after my tenth birthday, my grandfather died very suddenly in a car crash. A week later, I awoke to my neighbor informing me that my mom was in an accident and we needed to immediately get to the hospital. Upon arriving to the hospital, I saw my mom laid out before me, looking lifeless and like a wax statue. Seconds later the doctors swarmed in yelling to get us out of there. In an instant my sense of security and place in the world was in question. She was my mother, my world. I was terrified.

I am eternally grateful that my mom survived the event. I never thought twice about how it had all impacted me, I was just so happy that she was alive. It wasn’t until on into adulthood that I realized its ongoing significance in my life. In my late twenties, I developed anxiety. It was liberating to piece together what was going on in my life to cause my anxiety, but that was only half the battle. I was still left with the question of what to do with the anxious feelings that seemed to take over me when something stressful arose.

One day a light bulb went off. I was in the middle of a conversation and voicing my insecurities and fears, when the other person responded with a confused look, “But, why are you so afraid? You are capable.” My immediate thought was, “I am? How can this be? I don’t feel capable at all…I feel scared and vulnerable.” I left the conversation asking myself the very questions I find myself asking my clients. What feelings are coming up? Where do you feel it in your body? When was the first time you remember feeling this way? For me, that answer was crystal clear. I had just turned ten when I first felt completely powerless, ineffectual, scared and vulnerable. The feelings unquestioningly paralleled my response to anything stressful since.

What I needed when I was ten was reassurance that I was going to be all right. That no matter what happened, I was safe. Interestingly, that’s the exact same message that brought me comfort when I was experiencing anxiety as an adult. I am safe. I am completely capable. I am going to be all right. Now when something triggers that anxious response, I realize that the child within is feeling helpless and scared. I offer her the reassurance and support that I know she needs to be able to move forward in the healthiest way possible.

This was my process, but we are all different. Some may have experienced pressure or received criticism and judgment from an early age, leaving them to believe that they are never quite good enough. Not getting a promotion, getting excluded from something, or feeling overly competitive with others triggers the inner child’s belief that she is not good enough. This inner child may need to know that she is loved, accepted and valued just as she is.

Inner child work can feel strange at first. In fact, you may feel like a crazy person talking to yourself when you first begin this process! However, once you get the hang of it, it can be life changing as the adult you gives the child you exactly what she needed, but didn’t necessarily get. As you develop a relationship with your inner child, you will find that you are less hard on yourself and that your self-talk is much more gentle. If you have a difficult time finding compassion for or connecting with your inner child, go back to when you were even younger. You can go as far back as infancy or even prior. Some children carry the burden of not being wanted by one or both parents on into adulthood. When you address your deepest wounds at this core level by meeting the needs of your inner child, true healing can occur, leaving you better equipped for the ups and downs that life seems to present.

Avery Neal, PhD is a practicing psychotherapist, international author and speaker. In 2012 she opened Women’s Therapy Clinic, which offers psychiatric and counseling support to women. She specializes in depression and anxiety at all stages in a woman’s life.

Dr. Neal is the author of, If He’s So Great, Why Do I Feel So Bad?: Recognizing and Overcoming Subtle Abuse, which has been translated and published in twelve languages. Her articles and interviews have been published by Oprah.com, American Counseling Association, Counseling Today, BookTrib, Best Self Magazine, Hitched Magazine, Bustle, POPSUGAR and PKWY Magazine, and her courses have been taken by over 18,000 people worldwide. The International Association of HealthCare Professionals nominated her as one of the top psychologists in Houston.