“For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lives the adult that will be” – John Connolly
Childhood legally ends at age eighteen, but childlike parts remain active within us at every age. This is known as the Inner Child (IC). The IC can be a major influence in your thinking, feeling and decision-making as an adult. Think of the Inner Child as a metaphor for a part of the mind that is loosely correlated with your emotional life or the immature ego.
In a sense, your Inner Child is an echo of the child you once were. Between the ages of five and nine, before you had much cognitive skill, you came to conclusions about emotionally overwhelming events that you weren’t able to process or make sense of at that young age. Much of the time we are unconsciously led by our 8-year-old selves inside a grown-up’s body, often still acting out in frustration for attention, understanding, care and support. My inner child learned to be quiet, accommodating and pleasing in order to avoid strife. What did yours learn in order to avoid trouble or disappointment from the adults around you?
The Inner Child can be a willful and stubborn part of our psyche that holds on to the feelings and ideas it formed at a young age—which are now subconscious “core beliefs.” These beliefs are calling the shots beneath our awareness and causing us to have emotional reactions that we can’t explain, making it seem like we are the victims of our emotions rather than the creators of them. As a result, we do not take responsibility for the primary drivers of our impulses and behaviors: our own chosen beliefs!
In the 1980s I joined an Inner Child support group and attended weekly meetings to address some of these issues in my own life. Years later I thought I was done with this inner work, but under the influence of Taoist master David Lees, I have been re-introduced to inner child work in a more advanced way. Now I realize it doesn’t matter how old you are. This is a lifetime project … and I’m getting a lot out of it the second time around!
Taoist master David Lees refers to three parts of the human psyche—the Inner Child, Adult Self, and Spiritual Self, or “Shen.” Even as adults, when people are strongly emotionally impacted, they tend to regress and revert to childhood strategies to get needs met, because that’s when they adopted them. When the mind is overloaded, it’s natural to look for immediate gratification. It’s at those times that the inner child might wreak havoc on your relationships, your work or other parts of your life when your longings and needs are not being met, or insecurities become overwhelming.
Oftentimes people attempt to silence these deeper longings with alcohol or drugs, promiscuity, gambling, over-spending, over-eating, self-harming or even working too much. These avoidant and self-destructive patterns may be a sign that your Inner Child is acting out. This is where compassionate self-discipline is most needed. By setting firm boundaries and sticking to them, you can create a new normal—a reality where the Inner Child’s best interests are being looked out for, with steady guidance including safe boundaries imposed by a relentlessly patient and loving parent figure. This process of “reparenting” is a tall order so be patient with the unruly element of one’s own self.
Most of us have dismissed or otherwise neglected the Inner Child, feeing embarrassed by it or ashamed of its neediness. Almost tragically, this is how we have been parenting ourselves by default—with neglect, judgment and criticism. But your Inner Child needs healing, attention, compassion, and empathy: not blame and shame. And, just like an actual child, they also need discipline, boundaries, and rules.
As children, if we didn’t receive the love we desired from our parents we will seek someone to fill this void in us. The truth is we have the capacity to love ourselves. We don’t have to wait for someone else to give us the affirmations and validations we need.
It doesn’t matter whether your parents are dead or alive, or if they changed and you’ve resolved those profound conflicts or traumas with them. If there is anything they failed to do for you in the past, you can learn to do it for yourself now.
You CAN learn how to reparent—to communicate with, guide and heal your inner child so that, together with your spiritual self, you are a formidable team that can work cooperatively. This means that we learn to listen and sooth the Inner Child, yes, but it also means we learn to keep them accountable and in check, with a skillful combination of self-discipline and self-compassion.