What is inner child work?
The concept of the inner child was popularized by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who viewed a person’s inner child as the innocent, sensitive, and full-of-wonder part of someone. Inner child work focuses on healing childhood traumas in adulthood by reconnecting to lost, stolen, or forgotten parts of your younger self to identify wounds. “The inner child is all too often deeply injured. This leaves the individual feeling unworthy, unloved, unseen, and unsafe from childhood through adulthood,” explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a Jungian-trained psychotherapist.
Birth to seven is the imprint period where we take on other peoples’ beliefs. During this developmental stage, our brains are a sponge as we cannot analyze information. The inner child is damaged by emotional injuries that occurred during those formative years when we fully depend on parents or caretakers. If we’re not nurtured, we develop maladaptive coping skills and defense mechanisms to survive and to meet our own needs because the caregivers couldn’t.
Childhood trauma affects behavior as adults. Those with a suffering inner child are often immature and dysregulated, meaning they have a hard time managing their emotions, according to Dr. Manly. “The hurt inner child can manifest in an adult in tantrums, angry outbursts, or other dysfunctional behaviors," she says. "Common examples of an out-of-control inner child include road rage, bullying, self-oriented behavior, verbal abuse, patterns of irresponsibility, or chronic fear of rejection.” The benefit of doing inner child work is to break old patterns that don’t serve us.
What to expect from inner child work
Rachael Chatham, a psychotherapist, finds inner child work to be the most powerful way to heal childhood wounds. Chatman stresses that it’s important to enlist the support of a licensed mental health professional, particularly if there’s been significant childhood abuse or neglect.
Inner child work usually begins with talk therapy. “We typically start with discussions about what the individual was like as a child, what their innate qualities were, their temperament, their likes, and dislikes. We also discuss their most formative experiences as a young child,” Chatham says. “Typically, these early experiences with others lead to core beliefs about themselves, relationships, and the world at large.”
Inner child work strategies
Therapists have an array of inner child work strategies in their toolbox including imagery work, which Chatham explains is when a client is encouraged to “draw upon their creativity and imagination in visualizing themselves as a young child.” Another popular strategy involves writing assignments where clients write a letter to themselves as a young child.
“There’s also a dialogue technique in which the client is having a conversation with their child-self,” Chatham says. A therapist can guide a patient to a certain time or memory where they denied their playful, vibrant self.
With inner child work, a practitioner may ask the patient to bring in childhood photos. “Pictures of themselves as a child can also be helpful to jog one's memory and get reacquainted with this younger version of them,” Chatham says.
Dr. Manly uses depth-oriented psychotherapy to delve into the realm of the hurt inner child by finding the sources of the psychic injuries to create understanding and healing. “Psychological wellness improves as an individual becomes more aware of and connected to the inner child," she says. "When psychotherapy is undertaken to heal and honor the inner child, natural healing and rebalancing occur.”
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