One of the most common exclamations I hear from new adult clients is something along the lines of: “I don’t know why I’m reacting this way, I feel like a child!” For those people who have experienced trauma* (which is, let’s be honest, pretty much everyone to some degree), this feeling of reacting to a trigger in a childlike manner might feel familiar.
Childhood trauma commonly disrupts the development of the emotion regulation, attachment, processing, and communication parts of our being. Fun fact: time is a social construct, which means that our brains, and therefore nervous systems, do not function off of a linear timeline. Simply put, our brains do not “know” time. When we are in a “triggering” situation now, our nervous system will commonly respond the same way it did when the trauma happened in the past; fleeing, fighting, or freezing. If we have not processed the trauma, a part of our system gets stuck in the survival response. Cue the birth of your inner child**.
Whether our survival mechanism was running away, becoming aggressive, or feeling immobilized, what most of us needed in those moments was a caregiver figure to be aware of what was happening, to validate the pain, and to provide unconditional love. The heartbreaking reality is that this while this response is what we need most, it rarely happens in traumatic situations. The good news is this: because our brains don’t know time and this trauma part is active in our adults selves, we can still meet these needs. It is never too late to heal.
Awareness, Validation, Unconditional Love: this is the recipe for nurturing the inner child.
“I’m here, I see you, I love you.”
In this work of nurturing our inner child, we embark on the journey of becoming the caregiver that we needed. We learn to listen to body cues that tell us our inner child is activated, we learn to identify what triggers our inner child and what reactions come from the triggers, we learn to speak internally to our inner child with soft patience and steady presence instead of harsh tones and recapitulated abandonment, we learn to make space for our inner child in our lives and relationships in the form of emotional expression, communication, self-care, and self-compassion, and we learn to give our inner child, and by extension our whole self, the unconditional love that we so desperately ached for.
*trauma: any disturbing experience(s), internal or external, that disrupts your ability to biologically, psychologically, socially, or spiritually function in a stable manner, relative to your level of awareness as a developing human.
**inner child: I use this term because I most frequently work with people who experienced childhood trauma. This traumatized part does not have to be child-aged, it can be whatever age the trauma occurred at and there is commonly more than one inner self active in the journey of healing from trauma.