Reflections On The Inner Child In Group Therapy

In the latest group therapy session, we investigated the Inner Child through meditation and visualisation. This is not a new exercise but it went a little deeper than normal and went on a little longer. Using a visualisation of nature, the participants met there inner self while strolling through a secret meadow. What I had hoped was going to be a positive experience for all revealed just how powerful inner work can be. A range of emotions came up and when we tried to integrate the child into the adult in transformation, the overriding feeling was one of loneliness. Upon discussion, words such as fear, caution, vigilance and terror were stated when the participants were asked to describe their childhood. One participant revealed she is working hard to release anger that she couldn’t as a child.

While I had hoped for a more positive reaction to the meditation, the reactions above depict the struggles that adults have coming to terms with a dysfunctional childhood. We never lose the protection measures and the feelings we had as a child unless we acknowledge them and work through them. Inner child work puts a whole new emphasis on child development and how that inevitably goes wrong. How trauma is generational, if not stopped and how children are passed the legacy of trauma and dysfunction to carry into their own families. In the discussion concerning nature versus nurture, I am firmly on the nurture side that we come into this world with a perfect Self and that is slowly fragmented as we soak up the influences of the environment around us. Parenting is not perfect but it can mostly be much better than it is.

What Is The Inner Child?

Who you are today – your strengths, problems, level of self-esteem, habits – is in large part a product of your development. At each age, from birth to toddler to child to adolescent, you were met with certain typical challenges. If your caregivers raised you in a natural way that allowed you to healthily traverse each stage and master the skills necessary to progress, you most likely ended up a well-balanced, confident individual with a strong sense of yourself. However, at each stage, there are countless traumas, big and small, that can occur and keep you from resolving the issues of that stage. Our inner child carries this trauma and is our core wound. We love ourselves to the degree we accept and love our inner child. So if we ignore our inner child, we can’t fully love ourselves or anyone else. Our core wound is developed by being around our caregivers as we grow up and that is where the issues start. Many people just cannot face this part of themselves and find it difficult to connect. There is always a sense of sadness as adults know what that child is going to go through and they are grieving for a childhood lost around people who didn’t have the skills to help them.

So where do parents get it wrong? Most parents fail to learn from their own childhood and carry forward dysfunction allowing their own children to carry their baggage. I refuse to believe that anyone who is faced with being a parent cannot learn good parenting skills with positive discipline and connection at the core of parenting. These factors for me are the most important in child rearing and of course, take the most effort. This is, for me why it doesn’t happen as much as it should. Let’s look at these factors individually:

What is a good parent?

There would be many interpretations of this question and every parent would have a different opinion. Some would see providing financially and for education as important, others instilling values and principles. Some adopt a disciplinarian approach, and some are permissive. In my opinion, a good parent is one who understands their child and their needs, who understands that children go through specific phases and needs change. Hence, a parenting style has to adapt. It is safe to say that when a baby or toddler cries, there is usually only a handful of reasons. They are tired, hungry, need changing or they need attention from their parents (a dirty word for some). Children at that age are very receptive to the connection to their parents. If the connection is there, their world is ok. However, you only have to take a trip to a local restaurant or shopping mall to see how this can go wrong. Parents staring into smartphones while their children go unsupervised, dragging them by the arm and smacking when they disturb them, with loud voices and terrorising them. So a good parent is one that connects with their child, supervises and observes, sets healthy, safe boundaries and is always tuned into their child’s needs. Hard work? Yes… but this is parenting!

Connection: A child’s welfare very much depends on the connection with you as a parent. Children look for it, crave it and often don’t receive it. Some parents even use it as a form of punishment by withdrawing it when they feel the child has misbehaved. Most “bad behaviour” exhibited by young children is due to dysfunctional connection with parents. Children at a young age are extremely sensitive to this aspect of childhood and it can feel devastating for them when the connection is not there. It is, in my opinion, one of the key aspects in the development of codependency. Many children carry an insecure attachment style into adulthood and the parents are to blame, pure and simple. When your child cries, pick them up, hug them, get down to their level. When your child is “misbehaving”, understand why and comfort them. This is what they need. If you smack, you are an abuser, period! There is no justification for lack of connection, physical violence or raising your voice toward a young child. If you cannot do it, learn!

Positive Discipline: Seen by many as too permissive and “new age”, positive discipline is the key to good parenting. Not shouting, smacking, restricting, helicopter parenting but effective, realistic dealing with your child. We are looking here at autonomy or actually, a sense of autonomy. When a child has a healthy sense of autonomy, he respects the boundaries set by the parents. He knows he is free to explore the safe world set up for him and will develop the sense of making healthy choices. We as parents, can promote this by providing a framework through our attitudes and actions. This means: 

Be kind but firm: Always follow through by doing what you say you will do. Another factor here is respect. Even young children should be given the opportunity to finish an activity before moving onto another. 

Teach your child by doing: This means less talk, fewer lectures and more action.For example, most toddlers tend to hit either the parents, other children or pets. We often make the mistake of telling them not to hit or hitting them back. This behaviour is often just exploration. Modelling appropriate behaviour would mean taking the child’s hand and saying and doing repeatedly “touch nicely”.  Show your children what to do and model appropriate behaviour. Avoid telling them what they cannot do. Encourage your child to think by involving him by asking “how” and what” questions.  

Offer limited choices (all of which are acceptable) and avoid open-ended choices that promote “no” such as “do you want to go to bed?” Ask instead “what do we do before we go to bed?” 

Use ample distraction and redirection: This is one of the key tools of positive discipline. Teaching a child what they can do instead of telling them what they can’t. Children will explore, and many are taken away from the desired inappropriate object and given no alternative apart from confinement, leading to frustration, doubt and shame. Effective distraction means giving the child an appropriate alternative activity which is best done with the parent involved. This will need to be repeated and this is where time and patience come in. Avoid spanking, slapping or harsh words. Avoid power struggles. A hug and a little time-out mean more than shouting matches involving “yes” and “no”. 

Recognise the difference between wants and needs: Needs should be responded to, wants give an opportunity to teach. Provide a safe environment for exploration and remove heavy and dangerous objects. Provide careful and loving supervision that teaches skills. Above all. Focus on connection, love and relationship.

For many, it is too late to enjoy the benefits of the above and they are left with dealing with their childhood as adult children. The inner child is then the most important relationship they can foster. We then have to do what our parents couldn’t and reparent that lost child.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Being MJ Everyday

    Most of this post was triggering and a strong reminder of how I was parented. It was and will always be my goal to parent and grandparent with respect, love and kindness. Hopefully my 35 year old son will say that I have succeeded and now he parents the same way.