The term “Inner Child” has been around psychotherapy for what seems like forever. Jung discussed an archetype related to a child. Self-help and pop psychology had focused extensively on the inner child for decades. Lately it does not seem as popular.
The inner child is often representative of the trauma of youth. It often relates to a child feeling insecure and not good enough. It relates to other traumas that leave the child’s psyche wounded in some way. Much of therapy has focused on adults learning to self-soothe, and otherwise deal with these childhood feelings. But there are other meanings to this inner child.
One popular meaning is how adults handle not getting their way. According to this idea, adults revert to childish behaviors that worked when they were children. In her Psychology Today post, “When Your ‘Inner Child’ Hijacks Your Adult Relationships”, Dr. Weber discusses four tactics: The Tantrum, Manipulation, The Good Soldier, and The Rebel.
A popular saying today has to do with “adulting”. Perhaps because I have a lot of contact with college age people, I see this term on social media regularly. In a study regarding how old an individual feels as compared to his / her chronological age, Nancy Galambos found that North American adults over the age of 25 generally feel younger than they are (Steinberg, p.101). This likely contributes to the feeling that one tries to act like an adult, without actually feeling like one.
One’s automatic responses to events can also be an indicator of this inner child. It is said when one acts selfishly, throws a tantrum, or, on a positive side, is spontaneous and creative, the inner child may be at work. As Madeline L’Engle said, “We are every age that we have ever been.” My argument is that we are children much more than we think, despite being adults. This is generally a negative, but can be turned to a positive.
What do you think of, when you think of adult characteristics? Some characteristics considered adult include being calm, responsible, displaying leadership qualities, demonstrating good judgement in decisions, and self-sacrificing for the greater good. But how often do we witness adults behaving in ways that run counter to these adult characteristics?
You don’t have to look far to see people considered adults behaving as if they must have their own way, as if their way is the only true path, and otherwise behaving in a fashion more expected of a child. As I wrote in, “You’re so Selfish”, adults are often selfish without even realizing their self-serving motives. It is part of our nature it seems. Yet it doesn’t project the adult characteristics one would most like to espouse.
Beyond behaving selfishly, humans are riddled with biases which justify their self-serving motives. As I’ve written dozens of times, the human brain works diligently to protect one’s ego. We lie to ourselves, and then deny we are doing it. This all happens unconsciously, but without awareness, without questioning oneself and underlying motives, simply supports self-serving ends.
There are many positives to the inner child also. When one gets lost in creativity, some believe the psychic energy of the inner child is driving this state. This is also true when one is spontaneous, or loses oneself in an activity. These are thought to be positive uses of the inner child.
Additionally, in Zen literature there is the idea of “beginners mind”. Beginners mind consists of forgetting what you think you know, and just experiencing the moment as fresh and new. Maslow described this as “continued freshness of experience” (Goud, p. 123). The idea is to experience life, as often as possible, with the wonder of a child.
As with most things, there is good and bad that arise from the inner child. Most adults feel younger than they are, which I believe is a positive. At the same time, we act like spoiled children more often than might be beneficial. One strategy to help combat this is more awareness of the inner child, embracing the positive qualities, and a more conscious effort to espouse the positive characteristics of being an adult.
Copyright William Berry, 2017
Goud, N; 2009; Psychology and Personal Growth; Ed 8, Pearson Education.
Steinberg, L; 2014; Adolescence, ed. 10; McGraw Hill, New York, N.Y.
Weber, J; 2015; When Your “Inner Child” Hijacks Your Adult Relationships; Psychology Today; Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/having-sex-wanting-intimacy/201507/when-your-inner-child-hijacks-your-adult-relationships