Our inner child is the child part of us that carries all the pain we felt from not having our core needs met in childhood. To a certain degree, you could say we all have an inner child. However, people who were let down more often as children will tend to have a very strong inner child that can be triggered easily by what may seem like very small incidents to other people.
What Are Core Needs?
A child’s core needs can be divided into two categories – practical and emotional. For many people, their practical needs were met as a child. They had shelter and clothes and were fed regularly. However, their core emotional needs may not have been met consistently enough. This includes things like feeling safe and loved, having boundaries and realistic limits, and being able to express their own needs and feelings without being shamed or punished.
Failure to meet these needs may be a generational thing. Parenting styles were once completely different because society hadn’t fully grasped what children need to thrive and flourish. For example, it may have been acceptable to hit a child, or shame them for having big feelings. We now know it can be very traumatic for a child to be treated in such a way, and it can affect the way they see themselves, other people and the world around them.
What Happens When the Inner Child is Active?
We can all act and feel like children sometimes, even as adults. However, most people can manage this appropriately. For those who have a history of unmet core emotional needs as a child, feeling and acting like a child in their adult life can be a frequent occurrence. They may experience strong emotions that cannot be sufficiently explained by their current situation. When they are in this child mode, feelings of sadness, anger, shame, or loneliness are exaggerated, and it can be very difficult to calm down. They may lack the emotional regulation skills needed to calm themselves and view the situation from a healthy, objective perspective.
‘Small triggers can evoke strong negative feelings even if the incident is trivial from a more objective perspective. An example might be if your child didn’t compliment you on the lovely dinner that you had cooked. It is unlikely that your child has set out to trigger you, however those with a very strong vulnerable child, you may be left feeling criticised, rejected, and worthless.’ – Breaking Negative Thinking Patterns, Jacob et al.
Why Is It Important to Acknowledge the Inner Child?
When the vulnerable inner child is active, it is providing us with information about the unhealed parts of ourselves. Your inner child is a part of you that probably wasn’t acknowledged, validated or listened to. It’s the part of you that may need comfort or reassurance. Often, when we lean into and sit with the pain of the vulnerable child, we can learn to work through that hurt and eventually move on from it.
Another reason to be aware of our inner child is the potential for it to negatively impact relationships. When triggered, it can cause us to think and behave in a childlike way. It may be that your vulnerable child is activated when you perceive abandonment or rejection, and this might lead you to seek reassurance from your partner or friends. If this is a pattern that happens over and over, those having to constantly provide reassurance may start to get frustrated or irritated.
How Can We Care for the Inner Child?
One of the best ways to heal your inner child is through reparenting. In this process, your therapist takes on the role of the caring, compassionate, patient and reliable parent you needed as a child and teaches you what it feels like to have your needs met by them. When you internalise this experience, you eventually learn to model the same behaviour and reparent yourself. Reparenting takes lots of time, compassion, patience and non-judgement of yourself. It wasn’t your fault your needs were not met. It may not have been your parents’ fault either. You can learn more about this here.
It’s probably not realistic to attempt to work on your inner child without the support of a therapist. Often, this work is far too painful to do on your own. Finding a therapist you trust and feel comfortable with is essential. It’s also important you find someone who is trained and experienced in working with the inner child.
I am trained in both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). I have experience treating attachment trauma which focusses on unmet childhood needs that lead to long term difficulties, including the need for inner child work. I am also trained in Schema Therapy where a huge part of the work revolves around connecting with the pain of the inner child to facilitate deep emotional change and healing.