I’ve had the honor of working with many adults as they finally reclaim the joy of the child they once were. They find and ease that inner child’s sadness. And they regain a sense of wonder at the world. They explore; they laugh; they cry — and their empathy and understanding of themselves and others deepens.
I’ve also seen and heard about people who spent months, maybe years, working to nurture this inner child. And here’s where I think the issue is:
They went looking for the inner child without first accessing their wise adult.
The Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (A type of parts work that includes inner child work) suggests that we need three things from our internal adults:
-A sense of core, or wisdom, or center. (Pick your word!) We need to access a wisdom within that will center us even when get in touch with struggling parts of ourselves.
-A sense of protection and boundaries. We need an adult that not only buys the inner kids ice-cream, but can also say no to things that might be dangerous. Children with hugs but no boundaries don’t fare well. For safety, kids need a sense of both love and boundaries. The inner adult needs the ability to say “yes,” “no,” and “not now” to the little ones inside.
-A sense of nurturing. An inner adult needs to be able to empathize with the child’s feelings and provide the validation that maybe you didn’t receive when you were little.
Before finding your little one inside, or as you’re in touch with that little part, I encourage you to also get in touch with your wise adult within.
That way, you’ll prevent these three potential pitfalls that can come from losing awareness of your adult:
1. Suppressing the inner child again. This often happens when a person finds the pain of their childhood to be so overwhelming that they end up rushing to put the lid on all those feelings. This is more wounding than if you had never invited those young feelings into awareness at all. You avoid this by developing the internal resources you’ll need and the ability to put boundaries on the most difficult of feelings from back then.
2. Giving away responsibility for your inner child. For example, I met a woman years back who, upon finding a self help book about her inner child, went to all her friends to joyously tell them about her discovery of several wounded inner children. She also wrote a detailed list of what they all needed to do to help nurture her children. This backfired, and she ended up feeling more isolated than she had before her inner child discovery. You’ll avoid anything like this by taking clear responsibility for both your child and for continuing to build a life for the adult you now are.
3. Being overwhelmed by memories of childhood. Some people describe getting in touch with inner child stuff as “opening pandora’s box.” Some people have even missed school or work because this digging into their past brought up feelings that kept them from being able to function. Therapists used to caution clients that the work done in therapy may lead to the client being less stable for awhile, and possibly even requiring hospitalization. These days, such extremes are far from inevitable, as modern therapies help you to move toward stability so that you can safely explore memories without getting lost in them.
So you want to get in touch with your inner child — but you don’t want to fall into the above pitfalls. What should you do?
Here are a few tips:
1. Don’t go there alone. If you have a wounded child part (or more), part of the problem in your childhood was not having the support you needed for that part of yourself to get the comfort s/he needed. Avoid submerging yourself in that same pain all over again, and find a witness and a guide for this work you want to do — someone who will see and honor both adult and child.
2. Set limits that the child can understand that let both your inner adult and your inner child thrive. For example, you might choose to buy a kind of ice cream that you loved as a kid. And you might have one a bowl each night after your work for the day is done. You’ve honored your adult obligations, and you’re honoring the kid side of you as well. Kids, both external and internal, are willing to let the adult get things done as long as they’re assured that they’ll get some time too.
3. Keep awareness in the here and now. You may feel five, but when you look at your hands now and notice your height, you’ll notice you’re actually taller and bigger than you were at five! Your inner child may experience deep fears, and you can calm those by using your adult awareness and wisdom to understand that something fairly minor to a grown up can feel terrifying to a kid. Once you’re aware that your feelings from long ago may make today’s molehills feel like big scary mountains, you can have self-compassion and find ways to put things into perspective more quickly for that child so you can calm and feel safe (or take steps to make yourself truly safe, if you’re not.)
4. Let your inner work increase your compassion for others. You might start noticing that some of those weird behaviors of your spouse or friend may show pieces of themselves that aren’t quite healed. (By the way, do NOT go chasing your loved ones with self help books or explaining to them about their inner child! Just have compassion and be aware. Share only as much as others seem open to hearing.). As your self-awareness grows, it will help you to grow in empathy too. In fact, you may find your inner child wanting to share in some touching ways. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing some of that favorite ice cream, or sharing a laugh with a friend — or just expanding in general in your joy and your awareness of both yourself and others.
Child work can be wonderful, especially as you allow your adult self to grow into the capable and confident self that your inner child needs.
When this happens, your relationship with yourself improves. So does your relationship with your family, your spouse, any kids you have — and your sense of being part of your community.
If you need some help with finding this inner adult/inner child balance, I’d be honored to be a guide and a witness to this work.