Your inner child is an integral part of who you are and what you do. In its simplest terms, an inner child is the younger version of yourself. As an adult, your inner child helps shape your thoughts, behaviors, relationships, and overall motivation.
Carl Jung first conceptualized the idea of the inner child after exploring his own feelings and thoughts. He theorized that your inner child guides and influences how we live our lives. Today, many mental health professionals use inner child work to help clients build more confidence and recover from past traumas.
Attuning yourself to your inner child can help you build a more meaningful relationship with yourself. If you have a history of trauma- or you struggle with depression, anxiety, or self-sabotaging behaviors, this work can support you in recovering and healing.
The Fundamentals of Inner Child Work
Inner child blends concepts from numerous psychological frameworks, including Jungian, internal family systems, psychodynamic, ACT, and CBT models. The overarching idea is that, whether you realize it or not, everyone has a younger and more vulnerable part living within them.
The inner child is often wounded. The wounds can come from childhood trauma, although that’s not always the case. Sometimes, inner child wounds come from feeling unsupported, unloved, or neglected. Sometimes, they emerge when you don’t feel like you belong in a social group.
That said, these wounds don’t just disappear when we become adults. If anything, they become more apparent, often affecting relationships, self-esteem, and professional performance. How people treated us as children can directly affect how we let people treat us as grown-ups.
Learning to tune into your inner child can promote a greater sense of patience, forgiveness, and self-kindness. Some people find that this work helps them reparent themselves in the ways they never had.
For this reason, inner child work can be helpful within professional therapeutic settings. It can be done in individual therapy, but it may also be beneficial in groups, family sessions, professional retreats, and in couples counseling.
What Kinds of People Most Benefit From Inner Child Work?
Anyone who wants to build a deeper and healthier relationship with themselves might enjoy inner child work. You don’t need a specific mental health issue to reap these benefits.
That said, it can be particularly effective for people who have experienced one or some of the following issues:
Attachment issues: Attachment starts in infancy between child and caregiver. How your parents responded and attuned to your needs impacts how secure you feel in the world. If you felt neglected, smothered, or disrespected, you may have a difficult time feeling safe in your adult relationships.
Childhood trauma: Trauma can fundamentally impact brain development, especially if the trauma occurred during childhood. Traumatic events can coincide with difficulty identifying, controlling, and expressing emotions. Complex stress can also exacerbate physical and mental health conditions.
Addiction and compulsion issues: Addiction often has very little to do with willpower and everything to do with disconnection and seeking feel-good hormones to cope with emotional distress. Many people use substances to self-medicate depression and anxiety. But, over time, compulsive behavior aggravates mental health issues.
Perfectionism: People who identify with perfectionism tend to have a difficult time showing vulnerability or weakness. They measure their worth based on what they achieve rather than who they are. As a result, they tend to have unrealistic standards for themselves and are at a high risk for burnout and acute stress.
Low self-esteem: Low self-esteem may result from trauma, familial distress, bullying, or other mental health issues. People with low self-esteem often have a hard time practicing self-compassion or accepting themselves. Therefore, they tend to be overly critical, and that tendency often worsens their mood.
Anxiety: People with anxiety have a hard time being in the present moment. They often feel preoccupied by what’s going to happen next, and they experience fear about the worst-case scenario coming true. This worry tends to affect other areas of their lives, such as their relationships and work.
How Can You Connect With Your Inner Child?
You can engage in inner child work with a qualified mental health professional. But you can also take steps to start this journey on your own. Here are some practical tips for getting started:
Meditate and imagine spending time with your inner child: You can do this activity by simply closing your eyes and conceptualizing your younger self. It doesn’t matter which age you imagine, but many therapists recommend a pre-adolescent version of yourself. If you struggle with meditating on your own, consider listening to a guided script.
Write a letter to your inner child: Title your paper, Dear Little Me, and let your imagination wander. Pretend like this younger you will have access to read this letter. What would you want them to know about you? How would you try to comfort them? What do you want to leave them remembering? There are no right or wrong ways to do this activity, but try not to overthink your intentions. If you really want to try to tap into your younger self, consider writing this letter with your non-dominant hand and use crayons or markers (like a child would).
Engage in activities or hobbies that you enjoyed during childhood: Oftentimes, healing entails allowing ourselves to engage in playfulness and fun. Your inner child intuitively knows how to enjoy life. Think about some of the activities you liked as a kid. Whether it was jumping rope or swinging on the swings or playing hopscotch, give yourself permission to spend some time revisiting these former passions.
Ask yourself what ‘little you’ needs: What did your inner child need during childhood? Love? Acceptance? Security? Friendship? Financial stability? All of the above. It may help to write down some of the things you felt you lacked in childhood. This isn’t meant to attack your caregivers or hold onto resentment. It’s meant to acknowledge that you had needs as a child- as every human does- and you may still struggle with trying to meet those needs as an adult now.
Identify ways in which you (inappropriately) act like your caregiver: We often repeat intergenerational cycles, even if we don’t want to act in those ways. That’s because our caregivers provide a template for how the world operates. We act in ways, therefore, that feel familiar to us. Spend some time reflecting on how you act like your parents. Consider making a list of pros and cons when it comes to your behavioral responses. For example, maybe you like that you’re compassionate like your mother. But you dislike that you get loud and aggressive when you get upset.
Eat favorite foods from childhood: The act of eating unlocks two important senses: taste and smell. These are some of our earliest senses remembered in childhood. Go to the grocery store and carefully examine the items in each aisle. Which cereals, snacks, or juices remind you of childhood? Which easy, go-to meals did you enjoy? Can you make room for adding some of these nostalgic items in your everyday life?
Use a mantra to connect with your inner child: Your inner child is part of who you are. They are always there with you, guiding and supporting your decisions. It may be helpful to develop a mantra you can refer to whenever you want to access your younger self. For example, a mantra might be, I am tuning into my inner child right now.
Practice more self-compassion: Try to treat yourself like you’d ideally treat a small and innocent child. If a child made a mistake, would you berate them mercilessly? Probably not. If anything, you’d comfort them and explain what they could do differently next time. The next time you catch yourself engaging in self-loathing, pause. What would you tell your younger self right now? Better yet, what does your younger self need you to tell them right now?
Spend time with children: Commit to spending more time around children, whether they’re your own, family members, or volunteering. It’s helpful to see their development before your own eyes. It’s also eye-opening to watch how children intuit and interact with the world. They may teach you more about life than you realize!
When Should You Seek Professional Support?
Inner child work is undoubtedly powerful. There are many strategies you can use to identify, cultivate, and nurture your relationship with your younger self.
That said, self-help techniques may not always be the best course of action. And in some cases, they may trigger more pain or emotional issues.
Here are some signs you should consider consulting with a professional first:
You feel stuck in past trauma: Trauma can make inner child work feel extremely painful, especially if you have a history of complex childhood trauma. You may feel a sense of apathy, anger, or numbness towards your younger self. Furthermore, thinking of your life during this time may exacerbate trauma-related symptoms like nightmares or panic attacks. If this is the case, it’s important to consider working with a trauma-informed therapist.
Connecting with your inner child exacerbates depression or anxiety: If you find that building a relationship with your inner child worsens other mental health conditions, it’s worth seeking support. This often happens when your younger self coincides with levels of shame or fear. It can also happen when you have significantly low self-esteem.
You struggle with dissociation: Dissociation refers to feeling disconnected from your body and self. It’s a common trauma response, and it’s an automatic reaction to feeling emotionally flooded. So, if this happens when you’re engaging in inner child work, it may be helpful to talk to a therapist.
You’re in an acute crisis: If you’re in a crisis, you need stability and immediate coping skills. A crisis can include anything from feeling suicidal to struggling with problematic substance use to coping with a sudden death. Timing is critical during these moments, and it is rarely appropriate to dig into the past when the present needs such imminent support.
Inner child work offers a rich, profound experience for healing. By connecting to your younger self, you can reconcile painful parts of your past. You can feel more present with your current self, and you can also feel more supported as you navigate future obstacles.