How to talk to your inner child

Part of an ongoing series about life with complex post-traumatic stress disorder

We all have parts to us — you know when you want to make a decision, and feel pulled in different directions? Or maybe, you feel like there’s a part of you that self sabotages and clicks, “watch next” on Netflix when another part of you just wants to go to sleep.

There is a theory / modality (IFS) in trauma psychology that most of us who experienced childhood trauma have younger parts, that as you heal, present themselves at the ages where their development stopped. These are parts that never received the acceptance, instruction, and nurturing that they should have received at their appropriate age, and they need that now. When you feel these parts come forward, stop and ask yourself, “what age does it sound like that voice might be?” to figure out what it may need.

Here’s what it feels like for me when a younger part comes forward (something I am still learning to recognize):

  • “I just did a thing, where’s my parent to show me how good I am?” / “Where’s the adult to congratulate me or make sure I did this right?”
  • “I want cookies, I want ice cream with whipped cream.”
  • “Why was that person so mean to me?”
  • “I want a present, where’s my present?” (when someone else receives a gift)
  • Wanting to be silly, have a dance party, color, or ignore responsibilities in exchange for something fun.

So, when this happens, we have to “reparent” ourselves, and talk to that little inner child inside all of us. But, many people with CPTSD may not actually know what healthy, emotionally attuned parenting sounds like. This is something I’m personally focusing on learning, for when I feel younger developmental parts of myself come forward. Here are some affirmations you can say to yourself that my counselor or I recommend as reassuring reparenting phrases:

Reparenting Affirmations for Self

  1. We are kind to each other.
  2. We share our things.
  3. We use our words, not our hands.
  4. When we are tired, we rest.
  5. When we are hungry, we eat.
  6. We are respectful of others and their needs.
  7. Our needs come first before others’ needs.
  8. It is not our job to make others comfortable or happy.
  9. I see you and I hear you. It is normal to feel [emotion] when [action] happens. You are not alone.
  10. How much I love you is not conditional on how hard you try to please me.
  11. You are enough, and you are worth loving and knowing.
  12. Things do not always go as planned; what is most important is how we respond.
  13. Other people’s behavior in relation to me does not reflect who I am.

Accept what you are feeling or noticing, and speak kindly to yourself. It may be kind of alarming to realize you still have younger aspects, but it is very normal for people who had difficult childhoods. It’s also completely valid to take some time out to have fun or embrace childlike aspects of self — go jump in that puddle, do some meditative coloring, or take up a hobby that brings you back to a favorite childhood activity (mountain biking, ballet, painting, whatever).

On a related note, to become emotionally mature, we have to learn to self regulate — notice our emotions and triggers, our responses to them, and influence those responses — and heal by developing self compassion for our inner child, and appreciation for the childhood we lost. Teaching yourself to identify what different parts of you are feeling can be helpful in this pursuit. For people who did not learn this growing up, here’s an excerpt from a tumblr post about how this process typically goes as a child is raised in a healthy home.

There’s a reason lots of good parents say to babies stuff like…

“You’re excited to go to the park!”

“Oh, it makes you mad that we can’t go outside.”

And then when the babies get a little bit older the parents can say…

“You seem upset. Are you sad?”

“Are you excited that grandma is coming over today?”

Which lets the kid (who is learning to utilize speech) respond with yes or no, which may prompt more questions, like…

“So you aren’t sad, are you angry?”

“Yes, does it make you happy when grandma is here?”

And then, finally, when the child is learning to use language in a more complex way, the parents can say,

How does it make you feel?”

Why are you feeling like that?”

And it’s all about teaching emotional awareness. I really recommend using the process on yourself. Learn to ask: “Am I happy?” “Am I sad?” “Am I anxious?”

Then, practice identifying, out loud or on paper if you can, “I’m happy.” “I’m upset.” “I’m sad.” “I’m anxious.”

Final step: “Why am I feeling anxious? I’m still thinking about that awkward conversation earlier.” “Why am I happy? It’s such a beautiful day outside.” “Why am I sad? None of my friends are responding to my messages.”

It really helps you notice patterns (“I’m more likely to be happy when I’m around this person.” “When I haven’t eaten, I often feel angry.” “If I don’t plan ahead, I get anxious.”), which is the first step in avoiding things and people that are bad for you and encouraging things and people that are good.

Basically, don’t forget that you’re just a baby who got more complicated.

If you want to specifically focus on reparenting yourself by identifying emotions and then corresponding soothing/regulating techniques, you can create a “time in” corner in your home. Generation Mindful sells charts of emotions, as well as emotional regulation techniques, that you can put up to visit when you feel a big emotion, and need some help identifying what you’re feeling, and what steps might come next. You might like to make a grounding box of activities to keep nearby (with something soft, cold, or that you can play with to distract yourself) as well.

I hope that these are some helpful thoughts when it comes to how to interact with your inner child, and how to build awareness around some of the skills you may have missed out on as a child. It may feel like you are behind and have a lot to catch up on, but we can all grow by showing up each day, keeping promises we make to ourselves, and trying to be a little bit more compassionate and in tune with our needs, feelings, and parts than the day before.

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