When a child growing up is traumatized, often she has to hide the trauma and “act normal.” The wounded part gets split off and the pain or shame becomes a secret, even to the child herself. Sometimes actual memories, as of abuse, are suppressed or lost, while for other people it’s more like the feelings get lost somewhere. A part of the growing person gets stuck in a young place. Later, events that remind us of what happened to the suppressed part can trigger reactions that feel disproportionate to the circumstances—a good clue that young feelings are involved.
Getting in touch with our wounded inner children can be scary when it lets out feelings of fear, anger, pain, and sadness. The feelings seem huge because they’ve been bottled up like genies for all those years. But listening to the child-parts allows us to integrate more parts of ourselves over time.
In addition, we need to re-frame and re-order our worldview. While we were growing up, we had to accept our family’s view, more or less, including all the denial and distortion. Listening to the inner child and re-orienting our reality to include the knowledge of abuse is a huge, life-changing task.
I’ve also found that the joyful and free parts of my child-self got lost in the split. Those parts came back slowly when they saw it could be safe.
Getting in touch with our inner children is not always easy. Sometimes my inner child was afraid to speak up and she kind of hid from me. Also, at first it seemed that she just wanted to cry and cry. That’s natural. The parts of us that were split off at a young age had to go away for good reasons—abuse, fear, neglect, misunderstanding. These young parts were not allowed to express their overwhelming feelings, so they took the feelings away with them.
How do we soothe the inner child? When we invite these lost inner children back into our lives, we have to be ready for them to express a lot of distress. But what do we do then?
First of all, it’s a process and it won’t get done all at once. You need to learn how to parent your own particular inner children. They will teach you what they need as time goes on. You will have to be just as patient as if you had adopted a real child with a troubled background.
Second, you need to take those feelings extremely seriously. “Soothing” the child does not mean saying, “There, there, dear. It’s OK. Stop crying.” You may have heard voices like that in your past, but your job is to be a different kind of parent, one who really listens to the child’s feelings. So the first part of soothing is to hear the feelings. The child might not be able to tell you why she or he feels sad or angry or scared. Your job is to pay attention to the feelings.
If you can, find a safe a quiet place where you can literally sit down and listen. Let the feelings emerge. Accept all of them, even though it is painful. If you can’t bear all of it at once, tell the child that you will listen for ten minutes, or five, or two minutes. Then promise the child to make another time later to listen some more.
As the feelings emerge, focus on loving the child who is entrusting you with these valuable and vulnerable emotions. Tell the child that you are proud of her or him for coming forth. Sometimes you may feel completely overwhelmed and inside the feelings, like you are being the child. That’s OK. If you stay in that place, just notice what’s happening. See if you can detect any shift where you might feel a little more like a grownup holding the child. Ultimately, you need to be an adult, so you can care for the inner child.
Here are some ways to work with soothing the distressed inner child:
Value all those difficult child-feelings and validate them.
Let your body express the love you have for this child by holding a pillow or stuffed animal, rocking, humming, stroking, doing anything you’d do to comfort an actual child.
Trust your instincts on this. Let the child tell you what feels good to her or him.
Don’t let any critical voices tell you that it’s silly to rock and hum a lullaby. It’s not silly–it is valuable practice in loving yourself.
Remember, you will need to do this practice over and over as your inner child gradually learns to trust you.
Over time you will learn to be the caring parent that this child never had. You will share your future with the wonderful, free, and loving spirit that is your original inner child.
By Jane Rowan