Is your past still controlling your present? How to heal your inner child.

The concept of an 'inner child' is one of the more popular buzzwords in pop psychology, but what does it mean, and how do mental health professionals use it? Psychologist Jane O'Keeffe explains how our childhood can impact our life as an adult and what it means to heal the inner child.

As we navigate the challenges and stressors of adulthood, we may find that emotional wounds from our upbringing are impacting our relationships, self-esteem and our ability to find joy and fulfillment in life.

Inner child work is a therapeutic approach that focuses on healing and nurturing the emotional, psychological and developmental aspects of a person's childhood experiences. It involves addressing unresolved emotions, trauma, or relational issues that impacted us in childhood and may continue to impact us in our adult lives.

In practice, it often involves conceptualising a symbolic child version of ourselves who can be talked to, supported, and guided in ways we may have missed out on in childhood. Those activities and conversations with our younger selves can be particularly powerful, leading to profound moments or realisation and self awareness. However, it's something that really needs to be guided by a mental health professional, since it's a delicate and highly individual process that varies based on each person's unique needs and experiences.

Watch: Break the stigma around Children's Mental Health. Post continues after video.

Video via Children's Hospital Colorado.

The concept of an 'inner child' was first articulated over a century ago by renowned Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who believed that childhood experiences leave a lasting imprint on our psyche. Those formative experiences in childhood shape the psyche of our originally pure and innocent 'inner child', Jung suggested, and those impacts can continue to influence our behaviour, emotions and relationships as an adult.

In the years since, a range of psychotherapeutic approaches have incorporated a form of inner child work into their framework, using it to identify patterns and triggers, build self-awareness, shift thinking perspectives, process emotions and develop recovery skills.  

The therapeutic technique of re-parenting – building resilience and emotional well-being by meeting our own unmet childhood needs – is closely linked to the concept of the inner child. Both can be powerful ways to help us heal from trauma in our younger years.

Do you need to heal your inner child? 

Childhood wounds that carry into adulthood can take many forms. Common sources of childhood trauma include experiencing emotional or physical abuse; neglect or abandonment; parental addiction or mental illness; unrealistic expectations or constant criticism; witnessing family conflict or violence; the loss of a loved one or family instability. 


At its best, childhood offers us a safe, supportive and nurturing environment to learn, grow and mature. When parents or authority figures fall short of that, it can push us to internalise dysfunctional thinking or social behaviours, which we might call 'wounding' our inner child. We may not even be aware of it.

One telltale sign: There are things in adulthood that trigger overly emotional or "childish" responses. It's a sign an echo of a feeling has activated a wound from our inner child we experienced in the past.

Inner child work may not be appropriate for everyone, and can risk opening up destabilising trauma at a time or in an environment when we don’t have the support or capacity to deal with it. It really is an approach that needs to be guided by professionals, and ideally as part of a wraparound treatment approach or inpatient program.

A wounded inner child can manifest in a variety of ways in adulthood including:

Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships. 

If our care was inconsistent or caregivers failed to maintain healthy boundaries during our childhood, we might find ourselves struggling to establish and maintain close, healthy and balanced connections with others due to fears, insecurities or dysfunctional attachment styles. 

Persistent feelings of shame, guilt, or unworthiness.

A wounded inner child can lead to internalising negative feedback from authority figures and holding deep negative beliefs about oneself, leading to feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.

Fear of abandonment or rejection.

Childhood experiences of feeling unsupported or abandoned can lead to a pervasive fear of being rejected in adulthood, driving us toward unhealthy coping mechanisms and dysfunctional relationships. 


Emotional outbursts or difficulty regarding emotions.

If your inner child is in pain, or your parents failed to model and support mature emotional behaviour, you may struggle to manage your emotions effectively in adulthood leading to intense emotional reactions or mood swings.

Self-sabotaging behaviours.

If we were unable to fully express our emotions or have our emotional needs met as a child, we may engage in behaviours such as self-isolation, people-pleasing, or addiction as a way to avoid pain and cope with unmet emotional needs.

Chronic anxiety or depression.

Unresolved childhood trauma puts us at high risk of long-term mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression.

Difficulty trusting oneself or others.

A lack of trust, stemming from childhood experiences, can create barriers in forming healthy, secure attachments in adulthood.

While many of us may struggle with such issues, each person is different and inner child work may not be the best approach in all cases. Those of us who are experiencing severe mental illness or psychosis, or who are struggling through an active crisis or ongoing emotional distress, are likely to be better suited to alternative treatment approaches.

Inner child work can be emotionally intense and requires a willingness and ability to confront and process painful memories and emotions. Sometimes we need to address more immediate issues and build up a bit of a foundation or resilience before attempting inner child work.


What inner child work looks like.

For those who are ready, inner child work can be a powerful way of healing past emotional wounds, breaking free from unhealthy patterns, developing self-compassion and fostering personal growth and emotional resilience.

It can take a range of forms, depending on an individual’s situation and experiences. Common approaches may include:

Inner child dialogues.

By writing or facilitating a conversation out loud, we can ask questions of our inner child and think about the type of support and assurance they deserve to be given. This can help with acknowledging our inner child's feelings and unmet needs, helping build self-awareness and stronger resilience. A literal dialogue with our inner child can create a greater understanding of our emotional experiences and triggers, and can direct our personal growth. 

Therapy may be structured around CBT and DBT frameworks, and can be particularly helpful for those dealing with anxiety, depression, or issues related to self worth.

Guided visualisations.

This involves a therapist using imagery and visualisation techniques to create a safe and nurturing space for us to explore our inner child. A therapist or mental health professional may guide us through a visualisation exercise, encouraging us to create an imaginary space where we can feel safe and supported.

This may be twinned with other therapeutic techniques, including talk therapy, inner child dialogue, art-therapy, mindfulness and emotional validation. It can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with trust, communication, emotional regulation and self-worth. 


Creativity and self-expression.

Art-based therapy and other forms of guided self-expression can provide a safe and nurturing environment for our inner child to express emotions and experiences. Engaging in creative activities such as drawing, painting, or writing can allow us to communicate our feelings in a nonjudgmental and supportive space. Creative expression can lead to a deeper understanding of experiences, help us process trauma and promote healing.

This approach can be well suited to those of us who have difficulty expressing our emotions verbally or who find traditional talk therapy challenging. It can be particularly effective for people who have experienced trauma, emotional neglect, or abuse.

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Identifying and Validating Emotions.

Recognising and validating our inner child's emotions and needs is a crucial part of the healing process, with therapists encouraging self-awareness twinned with self-compassion. This process may include a strong focus on mindfulness skills and helps us build emotional resilience and address unmet needs ourselves.

This approach may prove effective for those of us struggling with emotional regulation or who have a history of invalidating, unsupportive or highly critical environments. It can be helpful if we’re dealing with issues of self-worth, trauma, or emotional neglect.


Re-parenting is a therapeutic technique in which we learn to nurture and support ourselves, providing the compassion and guidance our inner child may have lacked. We may work with our therapist to replace a negative, critical inner voice with that of a nurturing, compassionate and supportive parent.


This approach involves consciously adopting healthier coping mechanisms, setting better boundaries, and addressing our emotional needs with positive self-talk. It may be well suited to those who experienced childhood trauma, neglect, abandonment, enmeshment or high-pressure parenting. 

Jane O’Keeffe is a psychologist at South Pacific Private, Australia’s leading treatment center for addiction, trauma and mental health issues.

Inner child work is best approached with the guidance of a mental health professional. South Pacific Private specialises in childhood trauma, offering a range of treatments for addiction, depression, anxiety and PTSD. Learn more about the workshops and programs or call South Pacific Private on 1800 063 332.

And if you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Mamamia.

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