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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Reparenting Your Inner Child

One of the more consistently confronting and at times embarrassing concepts that psychology forces us to consider is that of an ‘inner child.’ An eye roll or small sigh can be expected at its mention in all those who pride themselves on intellectual sophistication and worldliness. 

The disdain is easy to understand. All of us have along the years made such efforts to become adults, to accede to sensible and contained ways of handling ourselves in public, that it can be at once grating and dispiriting to be told that there might, nevertheless, be an ‘inner child’ still lodged somewhere within us — as if we were regularly inadvertently leaving the house with our baby bonnet still on, or might at any moment break into gurgling noises in a board room.

However, we should be careful not to let our dignity get in the way of an idea that lies close to common sense — and, more importantly, possesses immense power to calm our more elusive fears and anxieties. We contain within ourselves a version of all the people we have ever been. There is, in recessive form, somewhere in the folds of our natures, a confused teenager, a sad child, a jealous or hungry infant. No version of us entirely disappears, it is merely added to and buttressed, just like an oak tree that still contains, in its rings, the marks of all its former circumferences.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Furthermore, if we follow the psychological thesis, some of our inner children are likely not to be especially well. They might be dealing with a hurt that they have no idea how to cope with, they might have suffered a loss without any chance to understand who and what is to blame, they might be lonely, distressed or ashamed. No one might have taken proper care of them during a crisis or bothered to sympathise with their unusual difficulties at school.

Despite their pain, it isn’t that the inner child’s cries are in any danger of breaking through into the public realm. That is precisely the problem. Inner children cause psychic distress not because they are too present, but because they are not present enough. They have been too effectively locked away. Their cries have been seamlessly forgotten and ignored. They have been pushed into a sound-proof chamber from which no murmur emerges. And yet still they exist.

We are dealing with unwanted restless ghosts who have not been appeased or understood —  but whose ongoing ignored unhappiness threatens the course of our lives. The subterranean sobbing undermines our confidence; the repressed loneliness saps at our smiles. To appeal to the metaphor of the self as a house, we rest on foundations with substantial unattended damage below the ground floor. 

The task ahead requires a perhaps even more grating and obtuse word: reparenting. The inner child needs to be identified, their distinctive troubles understood and their pains soothed and becalmed. In a perfect world, it is parents themselves who would carry out this work at the time the difficulties arose. But in the real world, some of the work gets left behind and lingers, which requires a bizarre-sounding manoeuvre to correct. We — as adults — need to become parents to the children we once were. We need to gather together our adult capacities for kindness, reassurance, empathy, generosity and warmth and direct these towards the three or five or fifteen year olds who still exist in our minds. We need to take stock of these young people’s sorrows and help them in a way they were not helped at the time in the name of helping ourselves right now; for we are standing on their shoulders — and can only be as stable as they are.

For a sense of what the work of reparenting might look like, we can imagine going through our lives from their beginnings, and pausing at key difficult moments to ask the frightened, sad or confused version of ourselves what we would, from an ideal vantage point, like to say to ourselves now.

Challenging moments in the pastAgeWhat would you like to tell your younger self?

The dominant emotion while completing such an exercise might be sadness — for all that we had to go through and for how unprepared we were, for all the bitterness and cruelty we had to endure in silence and confusion. If only we could have been on hand back then; not so much to change events, but to nuance how we were able to interpret them. We would have been able to give more context — and to soften the blows of shame and regret. 

The difference between what should have happened and did happen may elicit — for the first time — a range of emotions. It’s when we can directly imagine what a good and kind person might have said to us, and yet when we are simultaneously aware of how little anyone did actually say, that we might be suffused with compassionate tears for our former selves; we may register a trapped sadness that at last has an opportunity to be seen, worked through and expunged. We might feel a lot lighter afterwards and we might then regularly — perhaps late at night — repeat the exercise: revisiting the inner child and bringing them an extra dose of comfort and tenderness so that they (and we, for we rest as a collective) might sleep more easily.

The Dutch artist Ard Gelinck gives us a metaphor for what this idea of reparenting might look like in a project where he placed celebrities next to their younger selves. The gawkiness and helplessness of the former child feels particularly heightened beside the resourcefulness and capacities of the adult. However much more modest our accomplishments might be, we are all a version of such a contrastive coupling. We would all have so much to say to the little us — that could be so helpful and so kind.

Photos by Ard Gelinck from Instagram

We probably know well enough how to treat real children around us: true liberation awaits us when we finally learn to treat the children inside us with as much tolerance, patience and warm encouragement.

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