Inner-Child Work: Overview, Benefits, and Effectiveness
THC Editorial Team October 19, 2021
- What Is the Inner Child?
- What Is Inner-Child Work?
- How Does Inner-Child Therapy Work?
- What Are Some of the Benefits of Inner-Child Work?
- How Effective Is Inner-Child Therapy?
According to inner-child therapists, individuals have an internal, emotional child-like state, or states, that harbors any unprocessed pain, neglect, or other harm related to trauma or dysfunction from their childhood.1 Professionals use inner-child therapy to help people connect to and communicate with their inner child and to process trauma or other maladaptive states. Their overall goals are to help people heal from early traumatic events, fully integrate psychologically, and improve their general functioning as adults.
What Is the Inner Child?
The concept of the inner child is thought to have been present since before the time of Christ;2 however, in the psychological lexicon, it appears to be attributable at least as far back as to the work of 19th- and 20th-century psychoanalysts Sándor Ferenczi, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.1,2 More recently, the concept was popularized by the work of John Bradshaw and Richard Schwartz (internal family systems).1
Proponents of inner-child therapy believe that everyone has an inner child, which is a part of the self that reflects the childhood experiences of the child within and manifests in adulthood as particular internal felt perceptions, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs or as external behaviors and actions.1 Various psychologists have referred to the inner child as the “child within us who we once were,”3 as child-like aspects of ourselves,4 as our authentic or true self, as our emotions, and even as our bodies. Margaret Paul, author of Inner Bonding: Becoming a Loving Adult to Your Inner Child, writes, “The Inner Child is the aspect of our personality that is soft, vulnerable, and feelings oriented—our ‘gut’ instinct. It is who we are when we were born, our core self, our natural personality, with all its talent, instinct, intuition, and emotion.”5
According to practitioners in the field, the inner child can serve as a critical source for information and healing for many people who have experienced childhood trauma.6 Because young children who undergo traumatic experiences are unable to understand and/or address them properly,7 related memories become suppressed and reside as unexpressed emotions and pain in the body. Adverse childhood experiences can later negatively affect people’s experiences as adults and might even manifest as general child-like behavior or inappropriate reactions. Further, therapists suggest that many adult challenges involving trust, intimacy, codependence, and addictive and compulsive behaviors may be traced back to a wounded inner child.7
Carl Jung stated, “The ‘child’ is all that is abandoned and exposed and at the same time divinely powerful; the insignificantly dubious beginning, and the triumphal end. The ‘eternal child’ in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, and a divine prerogative; an imponderable that determines the ultimate worth or worthlessness of a personality.”8
What Is Inner-Child Work?
Inner-child work, sometimes known as inner-child therapy or inner-child healing, is a therapeutic process used in many forms of therapy to help clients address and recover from harmful, maladaptive experiences that occurred in early childhood. It focuses on assisting individuals in accessing and re-experiencing any repressed memories and emotions to cultivate awareness, acceptance, and healing. One of the goals of inner-child work is to allow “childlike patterns to gradually evolve into adult life,” or, in other words, to allow the “healthy integration of the inner child as part of a whole adult.”1
Practitioners of inner-child therapy suggest that each person’s inner child may have a wide range of needs, experiences, personality traits, and ages. Even as a person ages, their inner child remains a component of their psyche. Many forms of therapy either directly incorporate inner-child work or utilize similar therapeutic processes to explore how a person’s inner child may affect their everyday lives. These include:1,3,9
- creative arts therapies
- art therapy
- drama therapy
- play therapy
- music therapy
- somatic therapies
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- compassion-focused therapy
- gestalt therapy
- ego-state therapy
- schema therapy
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- internal family systems
- transactional analysis
- psychodynamic therapy
- emotion-focused therapy
How Does Inner-Child Therapy Work?
Many therapeutic approaches maintain that present issues are rooted in early childhood experiences.1 Drawing on attachment theory, psychoanalytic and psychodynamic modalities, somatic therapies, and mindfulness- and acceptance-based therapies, inner-child therapy focuses on probing unconscious parts of the self related to such experiences. According to practitioners, people who learn to see early trauma from a different vantage point will be better able to express their feelings and heal.10
Inner-child therapy may involve a limited reparenting process by a trusted individual.1,11 This reparenting can be facilitated by a therapist or, through self-help work, through a healthy part of the client themself.1,11 Therapists employ an accepting, compassionate approach, which is particularly important in this work since many inner-child issues relate to shame-based beliefs and behaviors.1 Acceptance, compassion, and nonjudgmental witnessing of these parts of the self can lead to the inner child feeling heard and catharsis taking place.12
Therapists might take several approaches to help clients do inner-child work. They might role-play various traumatic experiences that their clients had as children by assuming the role of a parent while the client takes the part of the child. Suppose a client expresses an emotional reaction to an everyday experience that is out of proportion to what happened. In that case, the therapist might ask the client to tell them about the earliest time they can remember feeling the same way. This can help the client remember the traumatic childhood experience in a safe environment that allows for healing. The therapist may then role-play the experience and help the client process the pain and trauma in a healthy way that they could not as a child.
By listening to a client’s inner child and communicating with them, therapists can help people resolve the trauma they experienced as children.1 Therapists might also use other therapeutic tools, including hypnosis, age regression, creative arts therapies, and more, as part of inner-child work.
Inner-child self-help work involves personal awareness, acknowledgment, acceptance, and ultimately being a loving adult to, or reparenting, our inner child. Becoming a loving inner adult to our inner child can be a particular challenge for individuals who themselves have endured adverse childhood experiences and particularly emotional trauma.5
Alluding to the child within a therapy client, Ron Kurtz, founder of Hakomi therapy, says, “I want you to imagine what you would do if you had come upon that real child in the original situation.… What’s a reasonable, compassionate thing to do for a child that’s confused and upset? You sit and talk with the child. You listen to it. You find out what’s bothering it, help it understand, comfort it, hold it in your arms; later, you play with it a little, explain things, tell a story. That’s therapy in its oldest and best sense: nothing fancy, just kindness and patience.”8
What Are Some of the Benefits of Inner-Child Work?
Inner-child work can have many benefits. It might especially benefit those who suffered from general dysfunction, neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse as children.4,6,7 Inner-child work can help people process trauma by identifying and addressing underlying causes of any current psychological wounds that impede their ability to function as adults. Some of the benefits of inner-child work include the following:1,2,5,7,8
- improved quality of life
- reduced symptoms of depression
- reduced anxiety
- improved responses that are proportionate to the situation
- improved functioning
- integration of ego states
- better interpersonal relationships
- improved vitality
- returned sense of child-like wonder
- improved emotional regulation and maturity
- greater authenticity and whole-person behavior
Paul writes, “When our Inner Child is feeling consistently loved by our Inner Adult, he or she is a wondrous being—trusting, creative, imaginative, curious, passionate, playful, energetic, enthusiastic, spontaneous, soft, sensitive, sensual, with an incredible sense of wonder and aliveness. Delighted just to be alive, he or she is open and receptive to new ideas and experiences.”5
How Effective Is Inner-Child Therapy?
Pioneering inner-child work practitioner John Bradshaw writes, “Three things are striking about inner child work: the speed with which people change when they do this work; the depth of that change; and the power and creativity that result when wounds from the past are healed.”8
Today, inner-child work is eclectic, and therapists within many different modalities use it. Much of the reported research on its efficacy involves individual case studies rather than large-scale controlled studies. Notably, research supporting the effectiveness of other forms of therapy that either directly incorporate inner-child work or use similar processes is more robust.
For example, a study by Sjöblom et al., conducted with Swedish-speaking, cognitively healthy senior citizens in 2016, found that adults in their 80s and 90s are still affected by their inner child.13 Researchers were able to help these participants access their inner child by recalling events in early childhood. They found that the participants reported using negative childhood experiences to inform how they treated their own children as adults and that doing inner-child work with older adults was an essential strategy in providing holistic healthcare.12
In a study published in 2017, a researcher described a case study with a terminally ill person and reported that inner-child work, specifically portrait therapy, helped the client heal their childhood trauma and come to terms with their illness and impending death. Particularly, they concluded that the therapy helped the client “develop an increase in their creative capacity to adapt to the way illness impacts upon their inner child and to gain an increased sense of self-identity coherence.”9
A 2019 case study in South Korea with a woman in her 50s found that inner-child therapy helped end her withdrawal from relationships and isolation. The woman was able to improve her marital relationship and friendships by healing from her emotional wounds from childhood.14
Researchers in India found that college students who received inner-child work showed improved adjustment to life in college. The 68 students who had undergone the 3-week training intervention program on Healing the Inner Child, based on therapeutic techniques put forth by John Bradshaw, also demonstrated better emotional intelligence and adjustment than before the training program.15
Generally, research suggests that this form of therapy may help some people uncover underlying causes of maladjustment in adulthood and process childhood-related trauma and grief. However, more research is needed to explore its effectiveness.