When Ellen Line started therapy in her late 20s, she was struggling in her marriage, and with her perfectionist and people-pleasing tendencies.
One day, her therapist asked her to envision her “inner child”: a metaphorical part of herself frozen in childhood, still clinging to the emotions, beliefs, and memories she had at that time. She saw “a little girl sitting all alone and isolated in the bottom of a pit—how I’d often felt as a kid when I was ignored or sent to my room for having emotions,” says Line, 34, who is now a psychotherapist based in Baltimore. “My therapist asked me what I needed in that moment, and I said a hug. She asked me if I could imagine giving that little girl a hug.”
Line has been on a journey to heal her inner child ever since. “Realizing that I could support myself in the ways I needed, but my parents were incapable of, was a game-changer,” she says.
Inner child work is buzzy on social-media platforms: Hashtags like like #innerchildhealing and #innerchildlove have been viewed billions of times on TikTok, with some people sharing healing activities and others describing conversations with their younger selves. But the concept isn’t new. Psychologist Carl Jung is credited with coining it about 100 years ago, and research has long suggested that the quality of our childhood relates to later-in-life outcomes.
The theory goes that we all have an inner child, says Shari Botwin, a trauma therapist and author of Thriving After Trauma: Stories of Living and Healing. “We grow up, we get bigger, and our brains become more logical, but that doesn’t erase our thoughts, feelings, or memories from childhood.” Some people had happy and healthy childhoods with supportive caregivers who buffered them from stressors, and they’re naturally in tune with and accept their inner child. But others endured difficult experiences—abuse, neglect, losing a parent to illness, dealing with poverty or divorce—and lack the capacity to process those feelings and make sense of their pain and suffering. “Most people don’t realize that the effects of those memories from childhood are what drive us to make the choices that we make in adulthood,” Botwin says.
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Our brains are associative and tie together memories, feelings, and experiences that relate to each other, says Tanya Fruehauf, a therapist based in Vancouver. Imagine, for example, that something causes you to feel embarrassed or ashamed at work, and you have a disproportionate reaction—maybe crying hysterically or erupting in anger. “It’s likely that your inner child is being activated because it remembers feeling shamed and rejected by a parent,” she says. Or, maybe your partner doesn’t text you back immediately, and you’re convinced that means he’s leaving you, because you felt abandoned as a little kid. You might realize you’re responding in a way that doesn’t match your adult age, because you’re mimicking childhood behaviors and emotions.
If you’re wondering whether you might benefit from inner child work, consider whether you’re able to reflect on your childhood with emotional regulation and balance, suggests Jessica Stern, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia. Some people with a wounded inner child will experience a sense of disconnect or incoherence—like saying, “Oh, yeah, my dad died, but then I was totally fine.” That indicates a break in the narrative, and that they’re skipping over something painful, perhaps because it’s too hard to look at, she says.
Botwin suggests asking yourself these questions to figure out if inner child work might be helpful:
- Do you often feel like a victim?
- Do you let others dictate how you feel?
- Do you struggle to set boundaries in relationships?
- When you get upset in situations in the present, are the feelings you’re having all about that day—or related to things from your childhood?
- Do you frequently find yourself reliving experiences that already happened?
- Do you feel safer when you put walls up?
It’s possible to work on your inner child by yourself; lots of resources exist, like digital and print workbooks and exercises, and a variety of podcasts. Journaling and meditating are often effective. But it can be particularly helpful to work with a mental-health professional. Experts say ego-state therapy, internal family systems therapy, and schema therapy are all proven approaches.
The work typically consists of first gaining awareness of your inner child, and then validating its point of view, Fruehauf says. As you begin to understand its purpose and needs, you can turn your attention to cultivating a sense of security and reassurance. You’ll learn how to reparent your inner child, which means making sure it feels the love and safety you lacked during childhood. The goal is “having the tools to be able to protect ourselves better, and to understand how to respond [to triggers] in a more adaptive way,” she says.
Practitioners utilize an array of exercises. For example, Botwin recalls working with a woman who was 10 when her younger sister died from cancer. “Her healing was about trying to not continue to blame herself for her sister being dead,” she says. Botwin asked the woman to imagine her 10-year-old self sitting on the couch with her current-day self, enacting the conversation the two would have.
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Fruehauf sometimes has clients do what she describes as “left hand, right hand writing.” You use your dominant hand to write a question to your younger self, like: Why are you so sad? “And then you’d put the pen in your other hand, that you’re not used to writing with, and you’ll feel very vulnerable, and it will look like a kid’s writing,” she says. You’ll use that hand to pen a response to yourself, and continue switching back and forth. “It’s amazing what comes out. It’s about finding dialogue between these parts.”
Healing your inner child doesn’t happen overnight; the work can take years. But it’s worth it, Stern says. “You’ll probably be capable of healthier adult relationships,” she notes. Childhood trauma is associated with a sense that you can’t depend on others to keep you safe and be there for you, which is called insecure attachment. Addressing unmet needs makes it more likely that you can evolve to a secure attachment style.
Inner child work can also promote feelings of autonomy and competence. If you grew up in a controlling environment, for example, you might feel stuck at a certain age and unable to make your own decisions, which you can overcome. Plus, you’ll likely feel more comfortable expressing both positive and negative emotions. “It could be that when you’re sad or grieving a loss, you bottle that up because it’s vulnerability—and you got punished for that when you were a kid,” Stern says. But with time and effort, you can realize it’s healthy to feel those feelings. Another benefit, she adds, is a greater sense of spontaneity and play.
Botwin emphasizes that there’s no wrong time to begin inner child work. “Don’t let other people tell you how or when—or where or why—to do this work,” she says. “Do it in a way that feels right for you. And just know that the benefits you reap when you confront those younger parts of yourself that were hurt, unprotected, or taken advantage of will make your life so much more worth living as an adult, and so much happier.”
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