Inner Child Work: How Your Past Shapes Your Present

children playing in a tent in front of a Christmas tree

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The inner child is a young part of our psyche that influences how we think and react as adults. Often used in psychotherapy and spiritual settings, the inner child can symbolize hardship, trauma, and even triumph we experienced during our youth.

Yet, when we ignore our inner child and subsequently ignore how our past is painting our present, we do ourselves a major disservice. We can end up overlooking important formative experiences that may be critical in healing some of our maladaptive coping mechanisms.

This article will explore why our inner child is important, what might trigger it, and how you can tap into your inner child and start healing. 

Why Is the Inner Child Important?

The concept of the inner child was first introduced by renowned psychologist Carl Jung. Our inner child can drive many of our emotions in our daily life, especially when we are unaware of it.

You can think of your inner child as who you were during an important time in your life, someone you may have lost touch with despite their importance to you. However, the relationship with the inner child is different than relationships you might have with others you’ve lost touch with.  

When you lose conscious awareness of your inner child, you lose conscious awareness of a part of yourself. In turn, you may experience difficulty regulating your emotions and act from a regressed state when upset.

For example, you could find yourself having an angry outburst akin to a temper tantrum. Alternatively, you might feel shameful and lonely, just as you did as a child. Finally, you may notice that when stressed, you switch moods swiftly, similar to how a child may navigate an unsettling situation.

Our inner child can be behind many of our emotions and it can bring about great healing when properly nurtured. 

What Is an Inner Child Wound?

An inner child wound refers to a damaging experience or repeated experiences a person lived through as a child.

In turn, these experiences can result in unresolved trauma that manifests within adults. When you find yourself acting out of character or having emotions that feel uncontrollable, you could be behaving from that younger part of yourself that was wounded. 

What Triggers Our Inner Child?

When the inner child is triggered, you will notice the aforementioned behavior that doesn’t feel like it is in line with your true character.

Inner child triggers aren’t much different than any other triggers we may stumble upon. Referred to as trigger events, these issues can be mundane examples of disruption in an otherwise ordinary day.

For example, being late to work could lead one to feel unreasonably concerned that they will be publicly shamed, chastised, or fired, despite having perfect attendance and flawless reviews. Yet, this person could have experienced an unstable home environment where they were continually shamed, yelled at, or even physically abused for the smallest mistake.

Let us be clear—the inner child isn’t a mere source of discontent. The inner child can present as free-spirited, excited, and light. Think back to a moment you felt genuinely excited and giddy. It could have been when doing something you enjoyed or when receiving excellent news. This is an example of a positive inner child trigger. Even if you’ve never had this experience, there are ways to access it by tapping into your inner child.

How Do I Tap Into My Inner Child?

Inner child work can be emotionally arduous—especially if you have a trauma history. With that in mind, you’ll want to refrain from revisiting any traumatic events from your childhood by yourself. Having a psychotherapist by your side as you dive into painful memories can help avoid retraumatization and ensure your hard work is fruitful. 

Consider ways you can tap into the joy of being a child. Was there an activity you loved as a kid? Consider taking it up. Were amusement parks your thing? Plan a trip and lean into the silliness of it all. 

Healing Your Inner Child

If you’re noticing that your inner child feels triggered often, it may be time to consider some healing work. First, psychotherapy is a fantastic option. There are some forms of talk therapy that incorporate inner child work.

Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy

Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a form of therapy that focuses on the different parts of a human being. Each part has a role that it strives to play, even if it results in lackluster coping mechanisms.

Sound familiar? It should—everyone has a younger part that is working to protect the individual as a whole. However, in the same way a 5-year-old isn’t going to be the most skilled in navigating safety concerns and troubleshooting major conflict, the younger part of a person isn’t the best candidate to command one’s daily life decisions. Thus, IFS focuses on bringing all parts of a person’s psyche into harmony. 

Psychodynamic Therapy

Another modality of therapy that may be particularly helpful in healing your inner child is psychodynamic therapy. This form of therapy postulates our present is shaped by our past and focuses on helping you heal from past trauma.

Furthermore, psychodynamic therapy uses the relationship between the client and the therapist as a powerful vehicle for change. Let’s say you find your inner child triggered by your therapist. A skilled and compassionate psychodynamic therapist will work with you to sort through what the therapeutic relationship might represent for you, drawing upon family dynamics and relational wounds. These parallels will be used as fodder for understanding your psyche further and deepening your healing journey. 

Reparenting Yourself

A clinician can help you learn how to reparent your inner child. However, there are steps you can take on your own. The goal of reparenting is to care for, give, and allow yourself to receive the validation, love, and nurturing that you may not have received in the way that you needed it as a child. Here are some ways to get started:

  • Begin a dialogue with your inner child (you can choose any age - 5, 8, 10, 12, etc.), ask them how they are doing and if there is anything they would like to share with you, and engage in a mindful and intentional dialogue with them. Listen to what they may have to say to you in response.
  • Write a letter to your inner child and allow them the opportunity to respond by writing back to you.
  • Say nurturing things to your inner child (I love you, I appreciate you, I value you, I'm proud of you, I hear you, thank you, I’m sorry).
  • Look at photos of yourself as a child and tell them everything they needed to hear then; allow them (and you) to receive it now.
  • Think and write about what you loved doing when you were young and make and protect time to do those things now.
  • Engage in meditation and creative visualization with your inner child.

You can validate the pain that has come from not having your needs met as a kid. Assure your younger self that while you may have been in situations that weren’t safe then, you’re a competent adult who will keep that child part safe at all costs. Nurture that younger self. If you notice you’re triggered and getting flooded with negative emotions, grant yourself patience. 

Where to Get Help

If therapy feels like a cost-prohibitive venture, don’t let that stop you from getting the healing you deserve. Open Path Collective is a directory with a wide variety of clinicians who have diverse identities and sessions range from $40 to $80.

If you’re someone with a marginalized identity seeking support, check out Inclusive Therapists to find a provider who can truly understand you. Finding peace is possible and you don’t have to go it alone.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.