Caring for the Inner Child

Addiction recovery dictates that the age at which we started drinking and drugging is the age at which we stop maturing emotionally. While many of us grow in all other respects and experience success outwardly, we remain sad and scared children within. What we are less aware of is that childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and trauma, also arrested our emotional development and robbed us of having a sense of safety and security.

My friends in AA have an expression, “The kid’s driving the bus.” This refers to our “inner child” as the decision maker in our lives. Sadly, I’ve listened to hundreds of people speak of that child with contempt. They want to kill that part of themselves. This is of course, impossible.

As cliched as the inner child concept is, it’s incredibly useful. It’s what Freud called our ‘id’ – the part of us that feels, wants, and needs. Freud said that every decision and action we make is a result of conflict between our Id and our Superego.

The superego is the part of us that judges, thinks critically, and draws on our beliefs, values, and problem-solving abilities to make decisions. The superego is like an internalized parent who is responsible for the child. So, when folks tell me that the kid is driving the bus, I ask, “Who gave them the keys?”

One of my favorite Facebook memes: “How you speak to your child becomes your inner voice.” Those who grow up in healthy families tend to have inner parents that are nurturing and supportive. Those who grew up with abuse and neglect learned to be extremely self-critical and rejecting of self. In essence, we relate to ourselves in much the same way that our abusers did/do.

A great deal of my growth occurred when I decided that I would be damned if I was going to live as though they we right. Let’s keep this simple:

There is no such thing as a bad child or a child who is, “not good enough.” There has never been a child who deserved abuse or to be shamed. We distanced ourselves from our inner child because we couldn’t tolerate what s/he remembers. When we tried to forget and numb the pain with substances, we shut down a part of ourselves that continues to live in fear.

Working on the inner child is hard. Working on the inner parent is much easier. I say start there. Become aware of how you speak to you. Notice the contrast between how you speak to yourself and how you speak to others.

Journal. Put all of the thoughts and feelings on paper or a screen. It is far easier to change when we make things overt. Use the Golden Rule in reverse – treat yourself the way you treat others. Consider the possibility that you believe many things that aren’t true. Ask healthy people for input.

Stretch your imagination. There are children who come through my clinic everyday because they have been deeply hurt. Imagine blaming them, shaming them, or telling them the things you tell yourself.

If you want a short cut, find a mirror. Look only into your own eyes and say to that child, “I am so very sorry and I promise to take better care of you from now on.”

There is a trick that therapists sometimes use to communicate with the inner child. It’s done with handwriting. With your dominant hand, write questions. With your non-dominant hand, answer them.

Find a picture of yourself as a child. Look at that child with compassion. Notice that they were innocent and yet never carefree.

Protect your inner child by setting limits for yourself (we’re human doers not human beings) and set boundaries with others – especially those who are sick and selfish.

In each decision, ask yourself, “Is this congruent with my values and beliefs, or is this a choice based on how I feel?” Feelings are the worst possible basis for decisions. They change often and most of react to them with fight, flight, or freeze.

Be patient and kind to yourself. Make investments in your self-care. Do yoga, Reiki, massage, therapy, and exercise. Eat healthy and drink water. Be creative. Be silly, Do things that are fun. Allow yourself friends who are on similar journeys. Ask your Higher Power to send such people. Listen to your gut and you will recognize them. Open yourself up slowly, slightly, and notice how you’re received.

Meditate. Ask the child what it needs and if you are kind and patient, they will tell you.