Reparenting your Inner Child feels a lot like Parenting your Actual Child
Inner Child is a term used in the spirituality and mindfulness communities a lot. It has origins with the divine child archetype by Carl Jung and was popularized in the ’70s by Lucia Capacchione. In the 1990s through today, the term and healing as a therapy module have grown in popularity in traditional therapy as well as the alternative wellness circles.
For me, this topic was brought up as a way to help counteract and heal strong feelings of abandonment and unworthiness. These feelings had been persistent since childhood, and despite a lot of therapy and outward “success” as an adult, remained something I couldn’t get to the root of.
I do feel that these years of therapy, especially the EMDR module, needed to happen first because it allowed me to face the blame portion of these emotions. For inner child work is just that — YOUR inner child. I had to work through the “blame” I had been feeling towards my parents. I had to acknowledge they were (and are) beautiful flawed humans in a very messy world, and they had truly done the best they could. That the healing for me was a choice to step away from criticism of them and to turn inward. Because, after taking away the feelings of fault, I recognized that true healing can only come from within. That the responsibility to truly face and change what was hurting was mine to confront.
So, in my late 30’s, while simultaneously parenting an actual child, I turned and committed to seeing this straight on. To step away from fear and really look at it in the light. I wish I could say that the actual process was that cut and dry, but the reality was that it was messy and I avoided it at portions before and during. There were many nights of tears and tantrums. Complete with actual stamping of feet and taking to my bed weeping, all while a small rational part of my brain wondered what was happening. How had I been reduced to this?
But that felt like the biggest lesson, that when you get to the point where the inner child was triggered, rationality goes out the window. Much like the fight or flight response with anxiety (and there is so much overlap between these big feelings), the inner child WANTS something. And it can feel, until she gets it or learns to self soothe, so big and so irrational to everyone around you, including the adult you.
This lesson actually was made clearer when my actual child would tantrum. I didn’t make the correlation when he was a toddler or in preschool. Maybe I wasn’t ready, or I was able to dismiss it as age-appropriate, or a combination of both, but I saw those outbursts as just part of the growing process and something to be tolerated as a parent. But, his tantrums at elementary school age, while I was in the midst of recognizing and feeling through it myself, were so enlightening.
“I WANT MINECRAFT!” the little tearstained face shouted at me. As an adult, I was taken aback by the ferocity of this need he had, for something that was very clearly a privilege and one his behavior had lost.
“IT’S NOT FAIR!” He stomped away screaming. And at that moment, my little girl inside recognized those feelings. And I understood. I understood why she, the inner me, needed to be acknowledged when she surfaced. Because, like my actual child son, she wouldn’t be placated with reason. She, the little me, needed to feel those things. Needed space to stamp and shout at the injustice of the world. They both needed a container to be overwhelmed. It made sense, in this lens, why reasonable adult offers of why this was happening were met with resistance, loud and emotional resistance.
They both, the actual and the inner child, required a space to be allowed to feel and then allowed to crawl into safety. For my son, as his mother, I could provide that with offers of deep breathes, maybe a bath. I could offer him space to feel it out alone and then check in with offers of hugs and conversation when he was calmer. I couldn’t solve it for him by giving in and giving him what he wanted so desperately at that moment, but I could give him hugs. And I could listen, both at the rage part and at the after, the reluctant acceptance part.
And, if I could do that for him, why couldn’t I do that for myself? If I could recognize those moments when I was so overwhelmed, so caught up that life was unfair, that something didn’t go the way I “wanted”, as moments where the adult me was no longer in charge. Could I offer myself the same space to feel it? Could I allow myself the time to take a time out to just experience the emotions without judgment? Would it help?
So I did, the next time I felt those big emotions arise. And, like my actual child, those soothing techniques helped. They were uncomfortable, and definitely triggered shame, but to allow it to happen, alone in a quiet room, without judgment or holding back, those feelings passed through more quickly.
I could provide the same mothering to myself that I was able to give to my son. In some ways, it helped me to hold space for him a little better because I recognized that being a kid was hard. Feeling these things and not understanding them can seem impossible at the moment. And words that it will get better or it’s not permanent just don’t penetrate in that state.
Now, I’m sure there are very scientific terms for all of this, but I am not a therapist or someone who has studied this from that way. And I acknowledge that adults probably have varying degrees of ability to self soothe before getting to this state because of their experiences in childhood and the skills they may or may not have learned there. I would also guess that there are certain personalities more prone to being overwhelmed at any age, perhaps labeled sensitive. But for me, one who does — and always has — gotten overwhelmed with the perfect storms of the world, being aware of this inner child and learning that the techniques that help with actual children can also apply here, was life-changing.
That the adult me, within myself, possessed the skills to be both the child in crisis and the parent to hold a safe space, allowed me to really let go of a need for outside validation in ways that I had never been able to do before. And acknowledging that this would be an ongoing journey, with good days and days that felt like I was going backward, but ultimately I knew I was moving in the right direction. That much like an actual child, this work would allow me to grow.
And, to grow as an adult who would be capable of handling what life has to offer, both positive and negative, with a little more room to hopefully enjoy the ride.