When childhood trauma isn’t addressed, it can resurface in new ways throughout adulthood. However, it’s never too late to work towards healing.
Everyone has an inner child.
You might see this inner child as a direct representation of yourself in your early years, a patchwork collection of the developmental stages you’ve passed through, or a symbol of youthful dreams and playfulness.
An awareness of your inner child can help you think back to lighter, carefree years, explains Dr. Diana Raab, author and research psychologist. “Being in touch with the joys of childhood can be an excellent way of dealing with challenging times.”
Not everyone associates childhood with playfulness and fun, though. If you experienced neglect, trauma, or other emotional pain, your inner child might seem small, vulnerable, and in need of protection. You may have buried this pain deep to hide it and protect yourself — both your present self and the child you once were.
Hiding pain doesn’t heal it. Instead, it often surfaces in your adult life, showing up as distress in personal relationships or difficulty meeting your own needs. Working to heal your inner child can help you address some of these issues.
Healing your inner child can take time, but these eight tips are a good starting point.
To begin healing, you first have to acknowledge your inner child’s presence.
As Kim Egel, a therapist in Cardiff, California, points out, anyone can get in touch with their inner child — if they’re open to exploring this relationship. If you feel doubtful or resistant to the idea of exploring the past, you’ll have a harder time beginning the healing process.
If it feels a little strange or awkward to imagine opening up to your child self, trying thinking of inner child work as a process of self-discovery.
Briefly set aside the existence of your inner child and just think of a few key childhood experiences. While some were probably positive, others may have hurt or upset you. Perhaps you still carry the emotional pain from those events today.
The process of acknowledging your inner child mostly just involves recognizing and accepting things that caused you pain in childhood. Bringing these hurts out into the light of day can help you begin to understand their impact.
That said, many people do find it helpful, even soothing, to address their inner child as they would a living person, so don’t feel afraid to give it a try.
After opening the door to a connection with your inner child, it’s important to listen to the feelings that enter.
“These feelings often come up in situations that trigger strong emotions, discomfort, or old wounds,” Egel explains.
You might notice:
If you can trace these feelings back to specific childhood events, you may realize similar situations in your adult life trigger the same responses.
Here’s an example:
Your partner suddenly becomes busy with work and doesn’t have time for the big night out you’d planned. While you know they’d prefer to spend time with you, you still feel rejected and frustrated. Your disappointment manifests in a childlike way, with you stomping off to your room and slamming the door.
Considering what happened through the eyes of your inner child can offer some valuable insight in this scenario.
You realize your partner’s sudden need to work made you feel just as you did when your parents canceled plans, playdates, even your birthday party, because of their busy schedules.
In this way, listening to the feelings of your inner child and letting yourself experience them instead of pushing them away can help you identify and validate distress you’ve experienced — an essential first step toward working through it.
To open a dialogue and start the healing process, Raab recommends writing a letter to your inner child.
You might write about childhood memories from your adult perspective, offering insight or explanations for distressing circumstances you didn’t understand back then.
Maybe you didn’t know why your brother always shouted at you and smashed your toys, but you learned to fear him all the same. If you’ve since realized he experienced years of bullying and abuse, his rage may begin to make sense. Sharing this revelation with your inner child can help soothe some of that lingering pain.
A letter can also give you the chance to offer messages of reassurance and comfort.
A few questions can also help keep the dialogue going:
- “How do you feel?”
- “How can I support you?”
- “What do you need from me?”
Sitting with these questions can often lead to answers, though it may take some time before your inner child feels safe and secure.
Those questions you asked your inner child? Meditation can be a great method of opening yourself up for answers.
Meditation has plenty of benefits for physical and mental health, but a few of these relate directly to inner child work.
For one, meditation boosts mindful self-awareness, teaching you to pay more attention to feelings that come up in daily life. Greater mindfulness around your emotions makes it easier to notice when specific situations trigger unhelpful reactions.
Meditation also helps you get more comfortable with unwanted emotions.
Children often have a hard time naming uncomfortable emotions, especially when they aren’t encouraged to express themselves. They may repress or bury these feelings to avoid punishment or earn praise from caregivers for being “good” or maintaining control.
Emotions, positive or negative, are meant to be experienced and expressed. Repressed emotions usually just show up somewhere down the line, often in unhelpful, even harmful ways.
Meditation helps you practice acknowledging and sitting with any feelings that come up in your life. When you get used to accepting emotions as they come, you’ll find it easier to express them in healthy ways. This helps validate your inner child’s feelings by sending the message that it’s OK to have emotions and let them out.
You can also try loving-kindness meditation to send feelings of love to your child self. Egel also recommends visualization meditation as a useful tool for picturing your inner child, or even “visiting” them as your adult self.
Many people find journaling a great way to sort through challenging or confusing experiences and emotional turmoil. If you keep a journal, you might already get a lot of benefit from this coping strategy.
Just as journaling can help you recognize patterns in your adult life that you want to change, journaling from the perspective of your inner child can help you recognize unhelpful patterns that began in childhood.
For this journaling exercise, set your present self aside for the moment and channel your child self. Try photos or a brief visualization exercise to help recall how you felt at the specific age you’re intending to explore.
Once you’re in the right mindset, write down a few memories and any emotions you associate with those events. Try not to think too carefully about what you’re writing. Just let the thoughts flow onto the paper as they come up. Expressing them in an unchecked way can help you get to the heart of your inner child’s pain.
Adulthood certainly comes with plenty of responsibilities, but relaxation and playfulness are both essential components of good mental health.
If your childhood lacked positive experiences, getting back in touch with your playful side and making time for fun can help heal the pain of missing out on what you needed as a child.
It’s also important to enjoy small pleasures, like ice cream after a walk, games with your partner or children, and laughter with friends.
Whatever you do, making regular time for fun and lightheartedness in your life can help rekindle the positive emotions of youth.
Healing doesn’t always have a definite end. It’s often more of an open-ended journey.
You’ve started the process by reaching out to your inner child. Now you can cultivate this newfound awareness and continue listening for your child self’s guidance as you move forward.
Your child self may have more to reveal about challenges from the past. But you can also learn to become more spontaneous and playful and consider what life has to offer with a greater sense of wonder.
Staying in tune with your inner child can lead to a more complete sense of self and boost confidence and motivation. Reinforce the connection you’ve opened by affirming your intent to continue listening, offering love and compassion, and working to heal any wounds that remain open.
Past trauma can cause a lot of distress. Therapists attempt to create a safe space for you to begin navigating this emotional turmoil and learn helpful strategies for healing your inner child.
Therapists typically recognize how childhood experiences and other past events can affect your life, relationships, and overall well-being. But not all types of therapy prioritize exploration of past events or related concepts, such as the inner child.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, is considered a highly effective treatment approach, but it generally focuses on your experiences in the present.
If you’re interested in doing some exploration of your past and getting to know your inner child, look for a therapist who has experience in this area. Typically, psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy can be a good fit.
Inner child therapy, also called inner child work, specifically focuses on this process, but other types of therapists can also offer support. It always helps to let potential therapists know the specific concerns you’d like to explore.
When needs for love, recognition, praise, and other types of emotional support go unmet in childhood, the trauma that results can last well into your adult life.
But it’s never too late to heal. By learning to nurture your inner child, you can validate these needs, learn to express emotions in healthy ways, and increase self-compassion and self-love.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.