What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… the Inner Child

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.  A search of Google Scholar for inner child psychology gives a first page of results that look low quality, which is not 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.

Psychosynthesis

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

Internal Family Systems 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

Internal Family Systems work centers around the relationship between the parts and the core Self.  That emphasis on the relationship seems similar to the psychosynthesis approach.

Other dynamics

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 that “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.  There aren’t any unresolved bits and pieces 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?

Sources


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

The what is… series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically psychological tests here.

45 thoughts on “What Is… the Inner Child”

  1. Good morning. ☀️ I definitely think during ten years of therapy there were childlike aspects to my personality that need(ed) healing. Integration may be a good topic to cover. How do we become whole after suppressing or repressing parts of ourselves? I feel we can be childlike in our view of the world. Ive read many books, especially on shame. We hide aspects we feel are not accepted by others. Parts that hold memories separate from our waking life where we function in society. Trauma is the key. Cant teach an old dog new tricks but dogs that stay puppy-like can always be trained. 🐌🐌🐌✌🏼❤️

  2. Yes, there is a inner child in me. You may remember me mentioning once or twice on my blog.
    I came to recongnise and accept it.

    It has been discussed in counselling when it came to past trauma re-surfacing because of last year with the counselling I had with this private counsellor.

    When I had my last counselling sessions before a couple of years ago or three years ago, I can’t remember off top of my head, but blogged about it, the inner child was mentioned a fair bit then. The first time I came across this.

    I sometimes forget my inner child though.

    1. Coincidentally, we watched “Hook” yesterday. It was a dreadful movie, but we were not really familiar with the Peter Pan story. Our therapists thought that odd in that we are in many ways a forever lost child. T #3 suggested we watch the movie.

      We do not like being reminded of our helplessness. We were noticeably repulsed by the filthy, parentless children in the movie. And we used to be the angry adult Peter to our children. That part hurt, too.

      Our primary T says almost every client in her career is dealing with some sort of disconnect between childhood and adulthood. Could also be that if T is looking for that causality, that T will find it.

      Obviously, we are not your typical human—for better or for worse. We have mostly children inside and they rule us. They have the wisdom of children, which is to say we are not effective at adulting. And we have shame so that we are not getting the benefits of children, like creativity, enthusiasm, wonder. Nature still wows us. So we will go there soon. We are magic. We just lost it. We forget our own Spouse every day, and we get reminded. We have survived almost 50 years! Long way to go to love ourself. Love this post 💕

  3. O this is totally me. Without the representation of the Little One I still would be dwelling on different thoughts in my head. To place ‘me’ outside of ‘me’ makes it possible for me to feel self-compassion and therefore healing.
    The concept of the inner child is practiced in some therapies but they do differ. I do believe that in dramatherapy it is used quite a bit but there you sometimes also can ‘speak’ to people who are not there. You can imagine that your mother is sitting in the room.
    I just like the Little One, I don’t put her in a category, she doesn’t have a distinct role or something like that. She is just with me and I hope she can grow up to ‘be’ me. I know it can sound a bit ‘out there’ but when it works, it does work. I love it!

  4. I do feel like there is some disconnection between the adult me and the child-like part of me. This is all so weird really.
    That could be because I’d been suppressing most of my emotions – particularly the so called negative – as a child, and am still doing it now to some degree as it has become a default thing for me and is hard to unlearn. Also in some ways I had to grow up quickly as a child, or at least felt I should, and there were some things in my childhood that weren’t quite typical which could have an impact on that. And both me, and people around me – whether it’s family, or friends, or sometimes even people who only know me a bit but have been able to interact with me for a bit longer and in various situations – see that there’s some sort of a dissonance, because on one hand I can be very mature, and that has always been the case even when I was very young, sometimes some people used to find it striking, and still a lot of people say that I seem older to them mentally or intellectually than I am, and I’m quite aware of that as well myself.
    On the other hand though I can be very immature and I’ve been hearing that too from people, that I seem really child-like sometimes, and because I also look a bit child-like I’ve even had people assume that me and Zofijka are about the same age when there is a ten year difference between us, and I can see that for myself too, but still that has always seemed a bit strange to me.
    As a child (and even teenager) I used to talk about myself frequently in first person as Bisbis or Bibiel (for example “Bibiel thinks that…”, “Bibiel is…”), which made some people in my surroundings think I must be autistic – I’ve had some assessments both as a child and as an adult and that doesn’t seem to be the case – I’d even written my first blog almost entirely this way 😀 and people often found it either really awkward and unnerving or quirky and intriguing, and many asked me why, but I couldn’t really say. In any case, I was reluctant to change it unless I really had to, and sometimes I would say “I” and sometimes Bibiel, depends on how I’d feel, or maybe a bit randomly. Finally my therapist, as well as one friend a bit later, asked me why I do that, like why do I sometimes say Bibiel instead of “me”, and only then I seriously thought about why I do it, and what I came up with was: “Because Bibiel is Bibiel, and me is me”. 😀 Much later on I talked about that with another therapist and came to a conclusion that I used I or me when I felt the need or pressure to be more mature, while the Bibiel was the more childish and in a way more natural and unrestrained part of me. I have unlearnt always talking about myself as Bibiel, but I sometimes spontaneously do when I’m very enthusiastic about something or very relaxed or just kind of “feel like” Bibiel, or I do that consciously only when talking/writing with someone whom I know I can trust and who I know will understand and/or who knows about the Bibiel, Zofijka always calls me Bibiel and I call myself Bibiel whenn playing with her. I see Bibiel as my inner child and a bit of an imaginary friend or something, but despite I seem to clearly be somewhat disconnected from her, I think she’s healthier than me emotionally. She’s very creative and fun-loving, very enthusiastic about things and likes to laugh and has tons of strange ideas, is not restrained by what others will think of her based on her behaviours or feelings. I think Bibiel is the only aspect of my personality that I truly like without any major reservations and that’s not screwed up by the AVPD thing, I think Bibiel helped me to cope with things as a child. Though I think there is some more vulnerable child-like part of me as well, perhaps somewhat traumatised, I don’t know, I don’t like to think about myself as a “trauma survivor” or “traumatised” because there are people who have been through so much more, anyway it seems to be a part of me that I have more of a hard time accepting or even understanding, but that has an impact on my life and the way people see me just as well as Bibiel does.

    1. Oh my, I wouldn’t say that acting childlike is immature, though! I act childlike all the time, and my dad loves it. He’ll say, “How’re you doing?” And I’ll say, “Instagraham crackers.” Or I’ll say, “Osterizer,” which is my favorite appliance name, or, “Ink and toner!” which is my favorite department at the office supply store. (So many colorful inks!) The way I see it, unless someone says, “We need to have a serious discussion about [whatever],” then why not act childish? It doesn’t really hurt anyone!! I really believe there’s nothing wrong with being childish. “Flingety blingety bling!” See? There I go! 😀 Oh, hey, spring has sprung, and guess which T-shirt I’m wearing today? It has a special kitty on it! I love this shirt! It fits great and is so feline and elegant!!

  5. My dad and I are very playful. When we see bunnies around our neighborhood, we name them. We’ve had the Dr. Phil McGraw bunny who’s secretly married to the Her Royal Highness Queen Oprah bunny. (Don’t even ask how the Robin McGraw bunny feels about all this, or even the Stedman Graham bunny.) My dad and I are completely simpatico in this playfulness. Honestly, when I’m around other people, I suppress it to a large degree, because it feels… socially wrong? One thing I love about Sonya is that I can be myself around her to a certain extent, and she’s one of the few people I can actually LIVE with. (That’s major.) For our society, I’d like to see more playfulness and whimsy, which doesn’t have to take away from personal responsibility (like going to work or raising kids) at all. I mean, why grow up and lose it?

  6. Hi Ashley. Great post! You mentioned Jung and the New Age Movement. Do you have any thoughts on following that particular belief system when you are dealing with a mental illness? Very curious of your perspective. 🙂

    1. I’m pretty anti-New Age in general, but in terms of the inner child, I think it’s probably a construct that’s a good fit for some people but not for others.

  7. Nooooo, my comment got eaten because my internet cut out. Now I don’t clearly remember what I wrote.

    Something about finding some parts of the theory of structural dissociation useful.

    Basically I think “inner child” is an ego state and personalities can fragment or never integrate in the first place. And that is a spectrum from well-integrated shifting moods to distinct alters in an OSDD/DID system.

    In my own experience, “inner child” is a useful shorthand to describe certain things. I do feel like I have an inner child, but it isn’t an alter. It’s simply… a frozen in time, somewhat separated part of “me” that doesn’t feel like “me”, yet is still me, if I make sense. Sometimes, like during imagery rescripting in schema therapy (ego state therapy like IFS), I feel like I have to maintain a strange dual awareness between “Younger Me” and “Current Me”.

  8. My therapist is big on inner child work. She believes that this is the way to go to heal childhood trauma though she did tell me that if it wasn’t working we could shift focus. But for the most part, I believe it has been beneficial for me. I still often feel very much like a child. When overwhelmed I explode which often looks like a temper tantrum (yelling, crying, slamming doors, hitting myself etc). Learning to communicate with and care for my inner child has kindled some healing. I don’t hate myself as much now that I understand where my behaviors have been coming from.

  9. This is so interesting, I’ve been giving it some thought recently and I feel that there is an inner child in all of us. I wonder if play is associated with our inner child? I’ve read that play is so important for the mental wellbeing of adults as well as children

  10. I’m curious to hear more about the destructive dynamics of
    • the tantrum king/queen
    • the manipulator
    • the good soldier
    • the rebel without a cause

    I had no idea about the childhood trauma of abandonment that led me into addiction. I didn’t think my parents divorce and my mom leaving my freshman year of HS had all those much of an impact on me. I must have blocked it out. It wasn’t until I got sober that all these feelings of resentment and animosity towards her came to light. Rather than running back to substance abuse, I have faced, accepted and forgiven, but have set strict boundaries with her. It all comes down to cultivating the self-love and self-worth you never felt like you deserved.

  11. Interesting post 🙂 I grew up in an alcoholic family and certainly had some work to do. I do believe there were parts of me that were stunted at certain ages and I’ve had to go inside and coax them out to maturity, if that makes sense. We are such glorious complex beings!

  12. I do a lot of work in therapy with our littles, child alters, since of course we have did! I do believe we all have an inner child even if the inner child isn’t vocal! We were all kids and still hold some of the traits of when we were kids! Well I think we do!

    1. I guess the way I look at it for myself is that I am the same person I was as a child, so it was a smooth transition rather than a disrupted one. But it certainly seems like most people with difficult childhoods identify with the idea of an inner child (or children).

  13. 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.

      1. 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.

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