Becoming a loving parent to you inner child is an imperative step in becoming a fully grown and psychologically healthy adult.
While everyone grows up to become an adult in a physical sense, many of us are still children in our minds. We act out from the unconscious and unaddressed programs we learnt in our past.
In this post we will learn how to become the loving parent of these inner children. But first, we need to get clear on what, exactly, an inner child is.
What is an Inner Child?
When we were young, we had powerful developing brains. As things happened to us, good or bad, we learned to categorise our experience. When an event was particularly impactful, we filed it away as “how things are”. For example: if you had to cope in an unsafe environment your child brain may have concluded “the world is unsafe”. If a kid on the playground punched you in the belly after you asked them to play with you, you may have concluded “people don’t like me”.
Sometimes, these are called defining moments, and they can be good or bad. Jim Carey, for example, talks frequently about receiving a bike when he was quite young and poor, the day after praying for one. That moment he saw the bike, he concluded that the world would give him anything he wants. This shows the power of the “how things are” beliefs we create as a child. Jim Carey is now one of the most successful men in the world (and reportedly, extremely happy).
Unfortunately, most of us did not have the Jim Carey experience. Later in this post, I’ll offer an exercise of how to uncover your defining moments, and sadly, for most of us, they’re pretty negative beliefs. Many of us did not receive the kind of love, support or nourishment we needed to grow up healthy and complete. Many of us were physically or emotionally abused or neglected.
To make it through each experience as a child, we created what I like to call a “program”. We could only create that program with the resources we had at the time. As young children, those resources weren’t very good.
A program includes our new beliefs about how things are, and also our damaging beliefs of how we are (I am bad, I am wrong, I am worthless, I am unlovable). Then, it creates an operating system to carry us through those new beliefs. This system, or program, may include a variety of mechanisms, like striking out at people first, or isolating from social situations, or becoming a people pleaser. We pick a program that works for us at the time, using the best resources available to us, and we lock it in.
How Your Inner Child plays out as an adult
As humans, our tendency is to only accept information that aligns with our existing beliefs. Therefore, as we grow into adulthood, we are unlikely to change the powerful defining moments we learned as kids. We will act out from these wounds as long as they remain untended to.
This is best demonstrated using an example: so let’s continue with our inner child that was punched in the belly at four years old, and let’s call him Jim. Jim is now 39 and has become a successful business man. He’s secretly a little depressed, but mostly, he thinks life has worked out for him. He’s just been invited to a party and his hands are sweating as he enters the room. His feels sick, and he can’t understand why this is so hard for him.
Jim has always hated parties, though he’s not sure why. His heart is racing and he wishes he’d just stayed home with a movie. Problem is, Jim is incredibly lonely, He’s been single since his last break up, over six years ago, and all he wants is a companion. He’s afraid he’s running out of time to become a father. Jim finds his friends and relaxes little. He smashes a shot and a beer and starts to calm down.
Jim has no idea that he is acting out a program that is thirty five years old. Since he hasn’t done any investigation into his childhood defining moments, he has barely thought about being punched in the belly. If Jim sat down quietly and did an inner child exercise, he would most likely remember the event clearly. Jim might even cry when he realises how much that punch hurt, not for the physical injury, but for the lasting scar in his heart. For Jim to realise his dream of being a loving partner and father, he will need to update his program to an adult version.
Creating a New Program
So how does Jim make the unconscious conscious? How does he update this belief he learned as a child that people don’t like him? The first step is the become aware of the inner children that are unconsciously running your adult life. There are a few ways to do this.
Parenting your Inner Child
Looking into your past in this way allows you to make contact with your inner child, or children. You may be able to specifically visualise, or feel, the different versions of yourself that are still present, running the show. You can ask, is there a child in me that was teased, beaten, neglected or assaulted that is still running the old program that it used to survive? Once you have found him or her, you can begin to be a loving parent to those children.
Parenting you Inner child means that you are attentive to their needs. You are aware enough to notice when they are hurt, or throwing a tantrum, or stamping their feet to be heard. You might be at a party, like Jim, and be conscious enough to acknowledge (when one is looking) that there is a scared little boy inside, longing to be accepted, and that it is HIM running the show.
When this happens, you can quietly acknowledge that version of you. You can give the child what he or she needs: whether it is love, attention, safety, or care. When you are there for your inner child, it’s like you put them to rest. Now the adult you can take the driver’s seat, which is far safer, and more appropriate than letting a kid run the show.
Although you have probably never heard of it, the Adverse Childhood Experience’s study is creating a paradigm shift in the medical community’s approach to disease.
The study, which began in 1995 and included more than 17,000 middle-class Americans, documented that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can clearly contribute to poor physical health outcomes and early death.
Recently, I took the test myself, which calculates a score based on the 10 most common or significant childhood traumas. I was staggered to find that I scored an 8. Usually, a result above 6 indicates early death (though the way I see it, this is what happens when childhood trauma’s go unchecked).
I attribute my good health to the way I have attended to my trauma over the years: seeking therapy when needed and engaging in self-care and self-love behaviours. This is the good news: the common effect of trauma can be undone.
I wanted to share with you the ACE study and to give you the test to take for yourself. At the end, I’ll offer my thoughts on the way we can undo the harmful effects of trauma and heal our lives.
The accidental beginning
The roots of the ACE study began by accident in San Diego, California, in the mid 1980’s. Dr. Vincent Felitti, the head of Kaiser’s Department of Preventive Medicine, was trying to figure out why 50% of his clients were dropping out of his obesity clinic, despite the fact that they were successfully losing weight.
During a line of questioning with one of his drop-outs, Feleitti slipped up. Instead of asking, “How old were you when you were first sexually active?”, he asked, “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” The patient answered that she was forty pounds (18kg). Sobbing, she revealed she was only four years old, and it was with her father.
In 23 years of practice, Felitti had only come across 2 cases of incest. He decided to dig further, to see if he would find similar results in the other drop-outs. Of the 286 people whom Felitti and his colleagues interviewed, most had been sexually abused as children. He was shocked.
The study is formed
The ACE study was born from there. The initial surveys were from 1995 to 1997, with the participants being followed for more than fifteen years. The results showed that there was a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, perpetration of violence, work issues and shortened life span.
There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Obviously, there are many other types of childhood trauma: racism, bullying, losing a caregiver, homelessness, foster care, witnessing other abuse, and many more. These 10 were chosen for their commonality and because they are well studied in research literature.
It is also important to truly take in the staggering results: Two-thirds of the 17,000 people in the study had an ACE score of at least one; and 87 percent of those had more than one. In other words, childhood trauma is insanely common.
Take the test
Prior to your 18th birthday:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or, act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? Or, ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? Or, attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? Or, your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? Or, your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Or, Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? Or, ever repeatedly hit for at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Did a household member go to prison?
No___If Yes, enter 1 __
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score
What does my score mean?
A score over 3 increases your risk of psychological disorders, like anxiety and depression. With a score of 4 or more, physical disorders become common. For example, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease, or COPD, increases by 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1220 percent.
As your score rises, so does the risk of perpetrating domestic violence, being later raped, teen sexual behaviours or early intercourse, and decreased work performance.
With an ACE score of 6 or more, the risk of a shortened life span or early death sky rockets.
Why does this happen?
There are many theories as to why childhood trauma greatly increases the risk of mental and physical ailments and early death. First, it is commonly understood that stress can physically damage a child’s developing brain. When children are in fight or flight (and overwhelmed with stress hormones), they can’t learn or relax in school. They may not develop healthy relationships with friends, teachers or other adults.
When children can’t focus, perform or connect, they may develop anxiety, shame, or isolation. They may use chemicals or high risk activities in a failed attempt to self-soothe their wounds.
These develop into addictions, or repetitive comfort seeking behaviours. It is these very behaviours: overeating, drug use, risky sexual behaviour, violence etc that begin to damage the physical and mental form. Further shame, guilt and isolation are layered on top, and the cycle continues.
It is important to understand that addiction, or repetitive compulsive comfort seeking, is as natural a response to ACE’s as bleeding is to be cut. In other words, it is to be expected.
So, what do we do now?
The answer to how we reverse, or salvage, these proven and harmful effects of childhood trauma is vague, at best. But what we do know, is that it IS possible to lead a long and fulfilled life.
The very fact that I am here now, a fully functioning, healthy adult with an ACE score of 8, is the proof.
The way I see it, it is the neglect, abuse, and loss of self care that leads to illness and a shortened life. Knowing this, we can see the antidote: attention, affection, self-love and self-care.
We need to begin by starting to take care of our minds and bodies, or at the very least, to maintain our current standard of health. That may mean we need to get help. We don’t assume that the baseline of discomfort we feel, or the way we think less of ourselves, is standard. It’s not.
If you’re not relating to yourself with self love, and kindness: you need to look into that. If there is some way you are not taking care of you: this means there is some self-loathing going on.
As we learn to tend to ourselves: one little piece at a time, we sew the fabric of our life back together. Therapy, coaching, healthy friendships, long baths, good food, and nourishing activities all play a part in how we love and cherish who we are.
No matter how high your score, just know this: you are not alone. There is so much support out there for you. You can change your life.
If you’ve taken the test and your score is over one, we’d love to hear from you. We are here for whatever you need to begin your journey of self care, so please, get in touch now.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services: https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences
Centre for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html
Right now as you’re reading this, there’s a voice in your head talking out these words. Can you hear it?
Even when you stop reading, you may find that the voice keeps talking. Let’s try it for a moment. Stop reading, close your eyes and have a listen to what that voice might say….
(Go on, really do it)
What did you hear? Was there a running commentary? An endless stream of words? Or was there silence?
Could you notice the quality of that voice. Was it curious and friendly? Was it judgmental and mean?
For many of us, the voice inside our head is a bit of an A-hole. It is unpredictable, needy, and incessant. Not only does that voice never shut up, it also struggles to keep a consistent message. It changes its mind on a whim, frequently contradicts itself and for the most part, is completely unreliable. When that voice decides to put on it’s judging cap, which is often, I like to give it a name…
The Inner Critic.
The inner critic is always judging, and the subject of it’s judgements is most often YOU. If you’re not careful that voice may berate, belittle, and shame you into a corner. It might disable your ability to live a full and meaningful life. It may tell you that you can’t have your dreams, go for what you want, or try something new. It will probably tell you that you aren’t really good enough, that you’re a fraud, or that no one likes you. Even a nice-ish inner critic can cause low-level unhappiness, doubt and discontent in its wake.
I mean, just imagine, for a moment, that you meet the voice in your head. You court, fall in love, and get married. And then every single moment of every single day, you had to live beside that voice in your head. How long would you tolerate the things she or he had to say? How long would it be before you got fed up and had enough? I guess I’m asking: would you tolerate, from anyone one else, the kinds of things you say to yourself?
Probably not, right? Yet there you are, living every moment of your life with that voice in your head, and then wondering why you’re not happy.
That Voice Isn’t You
Over the years I have discovered three powerful questions that bring my clients to an immediate and life changing awakening of their inner critic. These three questions are so valuable that I call them, “the three questions to being your own coach”. When my clients do this exercise I watch them become aware of how ridiculous their inner critic is. I watch them get some space from that incessant voice in their head.
I watch them understand that that voice isn’t THEM. That it doesn’t need to be listened to. That it can be changed.
I watch them not need me so much anymore, and not needing me means that I have achieved my goal. I want my clients to be their own coach, I want that more than anything, And I want you, dear reader, to be your own coach too.
So, get yourself into a quiet space, maybe even grab out a journal if writing is your thing. Take a few breaths and ask yourself this set of three questions:
Being your own coach: The three questions
1) Would you speak to anyone else like your voice speaks to you?
Take a moment to consider this, or write it down. Then, ask yourself why not? Why wouldn’t you speak to someone that way?
2) If someone stood next to you and spoke that way to you all day, what would you do with that person?
Take moment to write down, or just consider what you might do. Really get into it. You can even swear if you want to….
Or get rid of them (you want to, don’t you?)
If you felt the desire to get rid of your inner critic, then guess what, you’re normal, and you’re on the right track. Can you feel a sense of spaciousness from that pesky voice in your head?
3) Imagine you could be a coach, and you got to coach someone (like you). In order to get the very best from that person, to raise them to two or three levels above where they think they can be, how would you speak to that person?
Take a moment to consider or write it down: how you would speak to someone like you? Why would you speak that way?
You can consider these subquestions too, which may help you to identify other areas:
+How would you deal with this person if they made a mistake?
+How would you deal with this person if they’d been hurt or hadn’t measured up?
Are you worth this too? Take a moment to really consider this, or write it down.
Making a commitment
Many of my clients feel intense emotion after realising that they’ve been their own worst critic, so if this is happening to you, allow whatever arises to be. Maybe you’re feeling sadness, or love, or compassion for the hard time you’ve given yourself over the years. Maybe you’re still giving yourself a hard time.
Sometimes, there is apprehension or doubt that there can be another way to relate to yourself, but I promise you there can. Changing your relationship to the inner critic is one of the best things you can do with your life. So, can we make a commitment, you and me?
Can we make an agreement that you will aim to be your own coach from now on? It makes sense, right? A coach could only ever be with you one hour a week. But you, you’re with you all the time. Wherever you go, there you are.
Did you want to write this commitment down? Say it out loud? Find a friend and tell each other what you’re going o do? You can send me a message if you like, and let me know you’re going to keep asking yourself these questions, and keep being your own coach.
It’s likely that you’ll make mistakes, so don’t worry too much about that. It is counter productive to beat yourself up about slip ups (that’s really just your inner critic at work again). How would you speak to a toddler learning to walk? In that way, simply keep picking yourself up with kind words of encouragement.
Be efficient in your capacity to forgive yourself. And relentless in your ability re-commit, over and over, to being your own coach.
It might seem counter intuitive to allow ourselves to feel depressed or anxious. Neither of these conditions are comfortable or pleasant, and we may feel ashamed or weak for feeling them.
Yet, the statistics are out: Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. In Australia, around 1 in 6 women and 1 in 8 men will experience some level of depression.
On average, 1 in 4 people (1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men) will experience anxiety, making it the most common disorder in Australia right now.
In addition, around 12 per cent of Australians will experience PTSD in their lifetime and up to 40 per cent of the population will experience a panic attack at some time in their life.
Yet, only 35 per cent of Australians with anxiety and depression access treatment.
Why? Well, let me ask you: would you go see someone if these unpleasant human conditions happened to you?
And if not, why not?
For many of us, we don’t recognise anxiety and depression as a normal part of the human experience. Thus, we usually think something is wrong with us when were feeling anxious or down.
We are likely to do anything other than accept these so called “negative” experiences.
I’ve seen this over and over again in my work as a psychotherapist. And I have a different way of relating that I’d like to propose to you…
We need depression and anxiety to survive.
It’s right there in the Darwin theory of evolution. Due to this theory: if we didn’t need a quality in order to survive, then we simply wouldn’t posses it anymore. Therefore all of the parts, functions and emotions of our current day body are exactly what we needed to get us here.
We have been passed down all the traits we possess by our ancestors, or what I call “the long line of survivors”. They passed down fear, so we could prevent harm or injury. They passed down sexual desire so we would continue to replicate. They gave us love, paternal instinct and attachment, so we would band together as community, raise our young, and work together.
Depression and anxiety are not just part of the human condition, they are necessary to it. It is the very rejection of this fact that keeps us stuck in these states, instead of allowing ourselves to efficiently experience them as they arise. Allowing them to come, and allowing them to pass.
Depression can escalate to the point that I call the “impossible task” state. In other words, the individual experiencing the state can no longer do simple tasks. Getting out of bed, showering, or even eating can seem impossible.
What is often happening in this state is a self criticism, judgement and berating. The person’s thoughts may be saying something like:
“You’re hopeless. Look at you, you cant do anything!
You will always be depressed.
You’re a waste of a life.
You are so useless that no one even cares about you anymore”.
The energy the affected person has towards themselves is harsh and unwelcoming. There is little to no acceptance of the depressed state. Under these conditions, the person is likely to remain, or progress further into the depression.
Have you ever experienced a state like this? Self criticism and judgement? Harsh and unaccepting energy?
The alternative to the above scenario is to let yourself lie there. You were going to anyway, right? But this time, you could do it with permission. Acknowledge that for whatever reason, this is what your body needs right now for its survival. It needs to be slow, it needs to rest, or it needs to be sad.
You could let it. You could grab a blanket and curl up. Stay home and read a book. Have a warm bath or cry until your eyes hurt
Then, be completely aware of your inner voice and your energy. What are you saying to yourself? Start to be as kind and nurturing as you can. If you could create the dearest, most loving caregiver in the world right now to be there with you and say all the right things, what would they say?
Then, say that. Be that type of caregiver to yourself, offer that kind of unconditional and loving energy.
Eventually, as you continue to practice this kind of allowing, your phases of depression will become more and more efficient. What used to take weeks to get through may simply take a day, or a morning, or maybe just an hour.
It is counter intuitive to go into depression willingly, to release all the judgments of your experience. But just remember, if states of depression weren’t what your body needed to survive, they wouldn’t still be here.
Now, lets take a look at anxiety
The nervous system is regulated by the limbic brain. This is the mammalian part of the brain responsible for alerting us to danger.
Bessel Van De Kolk, a leading trauma psychologist, referred to the limbic brain as a smoke detector. The detector is made to alert us when the house is on fire. For someone with anxiety, the smoke alarm is hyper-vigilant, sounding off wild screeches when we’re just cooking bacon or making toast.
IN this way, anxiety is what happens when we have an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system. The body secretes adrenaline when it senses fear, which like the faulty smoke detector, is far more often than average.
Once the body is full of adrenaline, it can be difficult to calm down. And because the feeling can be unpleasant, the likely response is to push it away by doing more, staying busy, or resisting rest.
As anxiety escalates, the person affected can become triggered by very small events or thoughts, becoming more and more anxious to the point of panic. Self-critical thoughts usually arise, and we don’t know how to rest, stop, or feel ok anymore.
Yet, if we learn to tend to the very small triggers with kindness and self-soothing, then we can begin to heal.
As with depression, the key to anxiety is allowing. This is counter intuitive, as almost all of the clients I have worked with want to push the feelings of anxiety away, or power past the symptoms. Instead, we need to turn toward anxiety and learn to be our own gentle elder.
It is important to note that the limbic brains language is emotion. Language and logic were developed with the prefrontal cortex, so the limbic brains stimulation cannot be soothed by words and thoughts. Rather, we must treat ourselves as we would a frightened animal. For example…
Imagine a dog trembling at the sound of thunder. How would you calm him down? Would yelling at him help? Or, would you use a soft soothing tone; approach lightly with kind energy; petting, hugging or holding him with a gentle touch?
In this way, we must soothe our frightened self. Rather than ignoring, we turn toward the fear, using a kind and loving attention. We can breathe softly, place a hand on our heart, or lie comfortably in a yoga pose or in soft blankets. The attitude we need to bring to the feeling of anxiety is of comfort and kindness, like a wise protective elder.
Getting in the Flow
The most important thing to do is to accept and face whatever feeling arises in you. It is resistance that causes the anxiety and depression to perpetuate itself. This can be difficult, and at first you may need the help pf a professional.
Yet, sometimes it can life changing to see the truth: That as long as we are in this human experience, this bag of flesh and bones, we are going to feel all of the spectrums of emotions. Joy cant exist with sorrow, elation without depression.
All things come and go, in a moment to moment flow. It is allowing them to move through you that prevents you from getting stuck.
SOURCE OF ALL STATISTICS:
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS