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.
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 the inner child, the focus is on healing the relationship with it, as the inner child needs to be heard, understood, and mirrored.
Internal Family Systems model also recognizes a form of inner child. 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.
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
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 inner child issues going on 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 an inner child 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?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.
- Psychology Today: Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy : The Inner Child
- Psychology Today: When Your “Inner Child” Hijacks Your Adult Relationships
- Psychosynthesis Palo Alto: Opening to the inner child: Recovering authentic personality
- Wikipedia: Child archetype
- Wikipedia: Inner child
- Wikipedia: Internal family systems model