Q: I am intrigued by this idea of the inner child that I have heard of and you have described in another article. Do you mean that even as a 43-year-old there is still some part of me that is a child? Some psychologists suggest that we can actually communicate and “heal” our inner child. How does this work?
A: The concept of the “inner child” was made popular by various psychologists in the 1980s. It has now become an integral part of counseling and therapy. As psychotherapists have worked with thousands of people suffering from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when they were children, they have observed that the hurt child is still very present in a person’s inner life. As people begin to explore their difficult experiences of growing up in their families, they start to remember and feel some of the pain of those wounding occurrences. Most people learn to cope and manage by shutting down the feelings and concentrating on outer needs and achievements.
In adulthood and in partnership, these memories and painful feelings arise: hurt, helplessness, distrust, fear, shame, neediness, anger, and sadness. We also go into certain patterns that we developed in reaction to, or learned in our families of origin. A common dynamic involves the husband expecting to be mothered through food and similar caretaking by the wife. He whines or pouts when he doesn’t receive such attention. At times the wife expects the husband to be fully responsible for finances. Often these roles are motivated by the child within. If we can observe this process and get to know our inner child, we can start to undo dysfunctional patterns and bring needed attention and healing to our younger self.
At times partners expect tremendous attention from their partners. They get furious or depressed when they don’t receive it. This may indicate that the inner child feels deprived of such attention, or was the center and demands he or she continue to be. No one partner is capable of meeting all of these needs. Individuals must learn to also parent themselves.
The first step is to recall our key experiences while growing up. These also include positive memories of support, joy, play, and feeling loved. When we are happy as adults, we also feel childlike. Once we are thinking of these experiences, we can feel the emotions associated with them—positive and negative. As adults we are capable of being present to the inner child’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
We can then attend to the child within with more concern, safety, support, and understanding. We respond to provide the environment we as children in the family needed, but didn’t receive. With regular re-parenting, the inner child begins to incorporate the positive input to become a more fulfilled and supported adult.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393.