There is a part of us that never forgets. We are all child-like in some way, and just as a body remembers past events and feelings through emotional muscle memory, our inner child lives on inside of us for our entire lives. It may come out in ways we react to certain situations, such as how we respond to a new person who reminds us of someone we knew as a child, or it might come out as we go through life cycle transitions. We grow up, find partners, live on our own or with a partner, have children, get married, develop new patterns and coping mechanisms. Living independently of our parents physically, financially, and socially can reignite patterns of ways we have managed transitions before, and our inner child might react against a choice we make. For example, a colleague recently told me about a client she has who exhibits fiercely protective feelings towards her brother. The client cannot understand why she becomes enraged when she sees him being taken advantage of by his partner. The woman had been physically assaulted when she was a child and she states that she has always felt like she wanted to protect those she loves because she has been made to feel unsafe in the past. The client and her therapist are working on expressing the needs, fears, and feelings — perhaps never safely expressed before — of her inner child and understanding how this interacts with her present day life.
Psychotherapists refer to the inner child as the emotional memory and experiences that we have stored in our brains and bodies from our very first memory. An inner child can come out in playful ways, as grandparents bond with their grandchildren and play in ways they have not engaged in for decades. I feel that animals have inner children that never lose their light; I have reveled at many dogs who have played with and loved their humans in puppy-like ways until the day they died. The inner child can be a joyful expression of hidden and forgotten youth; it can also be an expression of trauma and hurt from childhood that has not been healed yet. Therapists have long studied the inner child and how it affects our personality, functioning, and relationship styles. In the 1970s, the concept of the inner child developed alongside the concept of codependency, connecting the needs of the inner child to the patterns of relationship formation and behaviors later in life.
Carl Jung called the inner child the “Divine Child” and Charles Whitfield called it “The Child Within”. I am fascinated, like many psychotherapists before me, with this concept. I believe that within each of us is our authentic and true self, and that our inner child is the purest form of who we are. Throughout our lifetimes (and perhaps even beyond) our inner child stays innocent and true, though it is affected by experiences that we have throughout the years. I can imagine it as an enormous old tree, the kind that has been around for a hundred years and has grown twisting, gnarling branches and bark all over its form. It has housed nests, dens, and perches. It is chipped away at by storms, by humans, by squirrels and birds, and it suffers from disease at times. But inside, beneath all of that “living”, is the sapling from which it grew. Trees are resilient things and can withstand many torrents without altering their worth and purpose.
I believe that same thing about humans: we can endure many storms, but inside of us lives an innocent child who, though he or she may have some chips, dents, or knicks, lives on as the inner light and inner child that expresses who we truly are. Through counseling, support, and love, our inner children can be freed and healed. How do you connect with your inner child?