In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is the inner child.
The concept of an inner child, or childlike aspect within each of us, has some roots in psychology, but it’s also a pop culture phenomenon. The first page of Google Scholar search results on the topic includes articles/sites that appear to be pretty low quality, which isn’t a great sign.
The earliest mention within the field of psychology appears to be Carl Gustav Jung’s description of a child archetype, which represented a milestone in individuation. Jungian archetypes have since been adopted for use in the New Age movement.
Psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli, who was a contemporary of Jung and Freud, developed an approach called psychosynthesis. From what I can gather, it moved in a more fringe direction in the mid-1900s.
In the 1970s, a group of psychosynthesis practitioners began to incorporate the concept of an inner child, describing it as the core of the self. Instead of trying to heal that child, the focus is on healing the relationship with it, as it needs to be heard, understood, and mirrored.
Internal Family Systems
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model also recognizes an inner childlike part. The self is seen as being comprised of three different subpersonalities or parts:
- managers: these take protective roles
- exiles: the parts affected by childhood trauma, that the other parts try to block out
- firefighters: try to distract from the pain coming from the exiles, which may involve risky, impulsive behaviours
IFS work centers around the relationship between the parts and the core Self. That emphasis on the relationship seems similar to the psychosynthesis approach.
An article in Psychology Today describes four different destructive inner child dynamics:
- the tantrum king/queen
- the manipulator
- the good soldier
- the rebel without a cause
Does everyone have an inner child?
Another article in Psychology Today assures us that “the inner child is real. Not literally. Nor physically. But figuratively, metaphorically real.” The author goes on to say, “We were all once children, and still have that child dwelling within us. But most adults are quite unaware of this. And this lack of conscious relatedness to our own inner child is precisely where so many behavioral, emotional and relationship difficulties stem from.”
The sense I get, and I may be wrong, is that it’s not a concept that’s universally recognized within the field of psychology, but those therapists who do endorse it are all in. I can’t say I buy what the real/not-real/real author is saying about this being an issue for everyone. I do think it makes a great deal more sense when there’s a history of childhood trauma.
Personally, I don’t feel like I have a distinct childlike part. I had a very good childhood, and as I moved into adulthood, I felt, and continue to feel, well-integrated overall. I don’t feel like any unresolved bits and pieces are hanging on from childhood that would keep a child part separate from the rest of me.
Do you see a distinct inner child within yourself? Is it something you’ve done any work on in therapy?
- Diamond, S.A. (2008). Essential secrets of psychotherapy: The inner child. Psychology Today.
- Firman, J., & Russell, A. (1994). Opening to the inner child: Recovering authentic personality. Psychosynthesis Palo Alto.
- Weber, J.P. (2015). When your “inner child” hijacks your adult relationships. Psychology Today.
- Wikipedia: Child archetype | Inner child | Internal family systems model
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.
40 thoughts on “What Is… the Inner Child”
I have only come to accept my inner child in the last 6months or so. Having learnt that I dissociate and have many black out memories in my life some complete years. Learning that this was the way my inner child self protected me. When I was not able to as an adult my inner child seems to step in resorting to management tools that have worked for so long. So part of my work is to take responsibility off my inner child and thank her for all she has done. Yet she still takes over when my anxiety reaches a peak, or I am overwhelmed. I am thankful for her as I really feel that this is why I was able to reach adult hood and create a career and life, before my breakdown. It all became to much for her and me.
Dissociation can be such an important survival mechanism that it’s really no wonder that it persists even when it’s no longer necessary.
It was strange Ashley I knew I had missing parts in my life. It is only through working with my psychologist that I know what it happening. It helped me so much to understand it was not a negative thing but a survival management chosen by my inner child. they are pretty clever.