You may be intrigued about working with the inner child in a therapy setting. In this article we are going to take a look at some of the theories that support inner child work and a bit more about why it might be a helpful exploration to present day self.
Who Created the Idea of the Inner Child?
The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) first used the term “inner child.” The divine child archetype is one among many defined by Jung.
If we look as Carl Jung did, at the psyche through the perspective of self being separated into archetypal parts or subpersonalities, we might start to identify that these parts have different motivations and personalities. We can explore the personality of a part by finding out how old the part is, what they want, want they don’t want, how they react to situations, what kind of relationships they make and in this way deeply get a feeling for who this part is. We might identify our personal experience of a part with an archetype, and indeed Jung offered 12 core arcetypes for his clients to work with, The Innocent, Everyman, Hero, Outlaw, Explorer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Lover, Caregiver, Jester, and Sage.
The Innocent Archetype
Our inner child is the innocent or our younger self part that contains our childhood experiences. When we start to discover this part in therapy, it is often the part that is holding the core wounds. We might find that this part has been completely exiled and our first job is relationship building and making first contact. Our work in therapy might be about building safety, connection and communication with our inner child part, and through the process of acknowledgement, compassionate enquiry and ultimately care giving we can hold space for the inner child to transform and integrate.
What is Inner Child Theory?
This kind of inner child work blends together frameworks that acknowledge subpersonalities such as Jungian Shadow work, Internal Family Systems (Richard Swartz), and Psychosynthesis (Robert Assagioli). It also brings in relational frameworks such as Attachment theory and Transactional analysis (Eric Berne), as it looks at the places that the inner child didn’t make the development steps needed to form healthy relationships. However it draws heavily upon body psychology frameworks such as somatic experiencing (Peter Levine) because the key factor here is that the reclamation of the inner child part is accessed through connection to embodied feelings.
The energy of the inner child part might be trapped in the body’s nervous system triggering a constant replay of trauma responses such as fight, flight, freeze, faun and flop. Many of these theories or types of therapy are rooted in the ideas that our past influences our present, our bodies and unconscious hold wisdom, and there is hope and potential for new connections to be made, within and without.
However current thinking on trauma is to access freedom by being in the here and now and working with the trauma responses that effect the self in the present lived experience. So in that way our early years trauma, or unmet developmental needs (which is a type of trauma) lives in our body mind system in the present tense. But as we access the unconscious we can also access our own internal wisdom and reset our nervous system creating new neural pathways in our brain that do not continually replicate our wounded self. Polyvagal theory (Dr Stephen Porges) demonstrates that inner child trauma does not need to be relived to be resolved.
So in this way we might be able to interupt our trauma responses by connecting to our inner child, as essentially our body system is expressing our unmet developmental childhood needs. And to take this a step further many great minds have linked our bodily expression of physical disease to our unmet unconcious needs, or trauma stored in the body.
When The Body Says No
Dr. Gabor Mate in his book “When The Body Says No” looks at the inner emotional landscape of the chronically ill…..
The Wounded Inner Child
In this way most adults have childhood trauma. This is a reflection of our whole system, our social order, our collective attitudes, our own parents wounds passed onto them by their parents. Often a person might be caught up with the idea that nothing traumatic ever happened to them, that their childhood was happy and safe and they have no place to complain. Doing inner child work and ACKNOWLEDGING the things that compromised the development of authentic self does not mean that your parents are to blame or that everything was wrong. Its more a case of understanding the whole-self needs and recognising that we all deserve our basic human needs to be met fully but its rarely the case.
This can be ancestral, for example it might be that somehow you are still carrying the shame around your sexuality that was inflicted upon your grandmother when she became pregnant out of wedlock, and this is subtly effecting your sexual relationship in the present. The body keeps score and ancestral memories are passed down the generations. Studies have demonstrated the existence of “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance” as it is called. Prof Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, said the findings in this study were “highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders” and provided “compelling evidence” that a form of memory could be passed between generations.
However at the other end of the spectrum some people are very much on the receiving end of active neglect or abuse in childhood from their care givers or adults in authority. This has most likely been buried and some sort of survival behavior has got that individual through the years to the present day. The psyche can be very fragmented, as this is our way of keeping ourselves safe. We compartmentalise, disassociate and fragment. Our body mind steps in to help out and bury this trauma in our subconscious so we can survive. And here we are in our present day lives acting it out.
So How Does Inner Child Work Help?
So by building a relationship with our inner child archetype we are disrupting our survival homeostasis. So we firstly might need to start getting to know our defence mechanisms or parts of self that have been suppressing or dissasociating from our core wounds. These parts of self really deserve our respect as however disregulated their behaviour might be they have kept our inner child safe and ensured our survival. Ultimately we will need their permission if we are to gain access to our own inner child. We can view these parts like the bouncers on the door or the gatekeepers.
However when we are working with our inner landscape and breaking our psyche down into parts, we are separating or un-blending from a part and in that way we are changing our relationship to this part. To do this we need to find our SELF energy, who is the “I” at the other end of the relationship or our inner witness. The Self can witness, acknowledge, listen, see and acquire insight. This part might not be present when a client first begins inner child work, so the therapist might be mirroring this part initially but its important that Self can become present and then eventually take the drivers seat in the car. The point of identifying the parts, including inner child is the understand i am not this part completely, this is part of me and it sits in the backseat of the car. Its story is not happening now and its energy is not in charge of my life.
Who is the Self?
In Internal Family Systems therapy (Dr. Richard Swartz) the Self represents the seat of consciousness and what each person is at the core. The Self can demonstrate many positive qualities such as acceptance, confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership and perspective.
Carl Jung saw the Self as an archetype that represents the unified unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual. Jung often represented the self as a circle, square, or mandala.
Carl Rogers who developed Person Centred theory, the foundation of humanistic psychology, believed that the authentic self had a tendency to evolution and under the conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence this self would and could re-emerge from under the layers of conditioning and learnt behaviour.
So we are looking to this core self (and the presence of a therapist) to be the constant that can build relationship with the inner child by listening, acknowledging, nurturing, holding, and making sense of the inner child’s world. And in this way the relationship to the inner child can change and the inner child’s needs can be met.
Working with the inner child in therapy is a journey and it has its own pace and rhythm. Patience is needed and trust with a good practitioner. Its going to take time for the inner child to let itself be known as being in hiding has been its modus operandi for survival. Because the work is about building relationship and communication both ways, keeping a journal can be helpful. Writing a letter from the inner child part in response to a question from Self, or writing to Self from the inner child can be part of this. The journal part also include pictures or words that makes the inner child feel happy and alive. It might be a place to let the inner child express itself through making some art, colour or collage. A place to hold and contain the inner child as they come out of hiding and begin their process into living and potentially unburdening.
- Jungian Archetypes: Jung, Gödel, and the History of Archetypes by Robin Robertson
- The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel van der koke
- When The Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Mate