Every child deserves the fundamental right to feel safe, secure and protected.
But not every child does.
Growing up, it is the emotional and biological responsibility of our parents and family members to create a safe environment for us. But not all parents accept that responsibility, are aware of that responsibility, or have the capacity to fulfill that responsibility.
Safety doesn’t just mean physically protecting us from harm, feeding us, or the other essentials. Safety also means supporting us on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels inherent to us as human beings.
What happens when we don’t feel safe as children? What happens when this feeling of endangerment is constant and long-lasting? The answer is that a huge gaping wound appears in the psyche. This painful wound is often unknowingly repressed by us as adults … but its impacts are profound and far-reaching.
The point of this article is to help you get into a reflective space. If you are interested in working with your inner child, I want you to reflect on your own childhood, the timeline of your early years, and how you felt as a child. Did you feel safe? Did you feel a sense of belonging in your family? Were you permitted to be you? What is your current relationship with your inner child like? All of these questions are extremely important to ask, and if you haven’t asked them yet, I hope you do.
Why am I so insistent about you asking these question and exploring this topic? The reason is that inner child work is one of the most serious and profound forms of inner work you can do. So much of our behavior, aversions, and neuroses in the present can be solved by exploring and communicating with the inner child.
Table of Contents
- What is the Inner Child?
- Feeling Safe – What Does it Mean?
- 10 Ways We Were Made to Feel Unsafe as Children
- Types of Childhood Neglect
- 25 Signs You Have a Wounded Inner Child
- How to Support Your Inner Child in Feeling Safe
The inner child is the part in your psyche that still retains its innocence, creativity, awe, and wonder toward life. Quite literally, your inner child is the child that lives within you – within your psyche that is. It is important that we stay connected with this sensitive part of ourselves. When we are connected to our inner child, we feel excited, invigorated, and inspired by life. When we are disconnected, we feel lethargic, bored, unhappy, and empty.
Safety is not just physical, it is also emotional, psychological, and spiritual. When we feel truly safe within our family environment, we have our physical and emotional boundaries respected, our authentic selves accepted, and we feel close to and love by our family members (most notably our parents). We also need to be given permission to grow and change and have all of our basic physical necessities met (food, water, a safe home or neighborhood).
The reality is that life isn’t ideal. The families that we are born into aren’t always great matches for us.
Growing up, there were a number of ways we may have felt unsafe. Before we proceed, I want to clarify that I am in no way blaming our parents or caretakers here. It’s important to remember that our parents did the best they could with the level of information, education, and emotional/mental maturity they had. Blame and resentment only serves to intensify the pain your inner child may be experiencing. So be mindful and know your limits when it comes to doing this work.
Here are some of the most common ways we were made to feel unsafe. How many can you relate to?
- You were taught that it’s not OK to have your own opinions.
- You were punished when trying to speak up or act differently.
- You were discouraged from playing or having fun.
- You weren’t allowed to be spontaneous.
- You weren’t allowed to show strong emotions such as anger or joy.
- You were shamed by your parents or family members.
- You were verbally criticized/abused on a regular basis.
- You were physically punished, e.g. smacked, beaten.
- You were made to feel responsible for your parents and their level of happiness.
- You weren’t given physical affection, e.g. hugs, kisses, cuddles.
This list is by no means exhaustive. So if you feel I have left something out, please share in the comments.
Let’s further break down the ways you were made to feel unsafe and unloved as a child (if you had a dysfunctional upbringing).
Here are the three types of childhood neglect you may have experienced:
1. Emotional Neglect
Your parents/guardians didn’t show interest in your emotional needs for love, support, protection and/or guidance. They either didn’t pay attention to you or condemned emotional expressions of need from you. The likely outcome of this was that:
- You developed low self-worth and esteem for yourself.
- You began ignoring your emotional needs.
- You learned to hide from, avoid or repress your emotions as they were associated with feelings of neglect from your childhood.
- You developed psychological or physical sicknesses connected to your inability to listen to, accept and deal with your emotions in healthy ways (e.g. emotional repression).
2. Psychological Neglect
This type of neglect was manifested in childhood by your parents/guardians who failed to listen to, embrace and nurture the person you were. As you grew older, you likely developed any variety of these symptoms:
- You developed low self-esteem issues due to forms of abuse such as ridicule, put-downs, overly high expectations, being ignored, rejected, or constantly punished.
- You developed deep-seated anger issues both from unresolved childhood trauma, and an inability to love oneself.
- You developed addictions and neurosis to create a misguided sense of comfort and safety within your life.
- You developed psychological and/or physical illnesses.
- You have problems sustaining healthy and respectful relationships.
3. Physical Neglect
At a basic and fundamental level, physical safety and nourishment are some of the most intrinsic elements of a loving relationship. We can see this in nature, with mothers and fathers nourishing their chicks, pups, and cubs with food, shelter, and protection. When this is lacking, however, the following issues can develop:
- Low self-worth resulting in physical neglect/abuse of oneself, e.g. eating disorders (anorexia, obesity), maintaining an unhealthy diet, self-harm.
- Intense safety-seeking behaviors (psychological complexes such as OCD) or extreme risk-taking behaviors (e.g. unprotected sex, obsessive daredevil feats, etc.)
- Addictions to drugs, alcohol, violence, food, etc.
- Sexual dysfunction or promiscuity (often due to sexual abuse).
Take a few moments to breathe a connect with yourself after reading this list. Likely you will feel some strong emotions (but it’s okay if you don’t). I encourage you to take your time and go slowly, being gentle with yourself.
It’s helpful to remember that while some, or even many, of our problems stem from childhood neglect – grudge-holding and blame will get us nowhere. People are victims of victims, meaning that the reason why our parents/guardians behaved the way they did was most likely because of their neglected upbringing, and their parents experienced the same traumas – and so on and so forth.
Pay close attention to these signs. They will help you learn the general extent to which your inner child has been wounded and the level to which you feel unsafe in this world. The more signs you say “yes” to, the more you need to seriously consider inner child work:
- In the deepest part of me, I feel that there’s something wrong with me.
- I experience anxiety whenever contemplating doing something new.
- I’m a people-pleaser and tend to lack a strong identity.
- I’m a rebel. I feel more alive when I’m in conflict with others.
- I tend to hoard things and have trouble letting go.
- I feel guilty standing up for myself.
- I feel inadequate as a man or woman.
- I’m driven to always be a super-achiever.
- I consider myself a terrible sinner and I’m afraid of going to hell.
- I constantly criticize myself for being inadequate.
- I’m rigid and perfectionistic.
- I have trouble starting or finishing things.
- I’m ashamed of expressing strong emotions such as sadness or anger.
- I rarely get mad, but when I do, I become rageful.
- I have sex when I don’t really want to.
- I’m ashamed of my bodily functions.
- I spend too much time looking at pornography.
- I distrust everyone, including myself.
- I am an addict or have been addicted to something.
- I avoid conflict at all costs.
- I am afraid of people and tend to avoid them.
- I feel more responsible for others than for myself.
- I never felt close to one or both of my parents.
- My deepest fear is being abandoned and I’ll do anything to hold onto a relationship.
- I struggle to say “no.”
If you answered yes to ten or more of these statements, working with your inner child should be at the top of your priority list. If you answered yes to five or more of these statements, you should seriously consider reconnecting with your inner child.
Hold the hand of the child that lives in your soul. For this child, nothing is impossible. – Paulo Coelho
We all have an inner child. When was the last time you spoke or connected with yours? How often do you take the time to tune in and listen to your needs? Do you regularly make space to play and enjoy life?
As human beings, we are not linear or two-dimensional creatures. We are all multi-faceted and have multiple selves. Think about it for a moment: the ‘you’ currently reading this article is very different from the ‘you’ joking around with colleagues, isn’t it? The ‘you’ in the middle of the night is very different from the ‘you’ going to the movies with your partner or friend. The ‘you’ talking to your parents is very different from the ‘you’ talking with your boss.
Your inner child is an essential part of the intricate patchwork that makes up your identity. When you ignore or deny your inner child, he/she is doomed to wither away within the deep dark vaults of your unconscious mind.
Disclaimer: there is so much pain to be faced with inner child work. But there is also so much joy and so much vitality to be experienced. One of the most exciting and miraculous parts of inner child work is that often hidden gifts and aptitudes that we’ve long lost touch with emerge. Not only that, but many of our relationships improve, our addictions/habits lessen or fade away, and our connection with ourselves deepens. Self-love and acceptance are finally possible. I’m not saying you will experience all of these benefits right away, but you will most certainly experience something beneficial so long as you’re committed!
Also, I want to say here that these exercises are not intended to replace therapy, programs or groups for the inner child or child abuse. If you’ve gone through child sexual abuse, severe emotional abuse, or have a mental illness, seeking professional help is essential. This article is only meant to be a supplement. Finally, if you experience strange or overwhelming emotions while practicing the advice below, please stop immediately. Seek the help of a professional counselor before proceeding.
Remember that everything takes time. The practices below are not quick fixes. They’re not sparkly wands that will immediately make everything better. But they will give you the basic tools you need for feeling safe, secure, and protected at a core level. I truly hope you find something below that will nourish you and your relationship with your inner child.
Here are the summarized points:
- Reflect on the timeline of your childhood
- Write a letter to your inner child
- Write a letter from your inner child
- Share your pain with a trusted person
- Loving and supportive affirmations
- Do an inner child visualization/meditation
- Be your own protector and nurturer
I’ll go more in-depth into these points below:
You might like to get a piece of paper or document on your computer and divide your childhood into the following stages: Infant Self (0-9 months), Toddler Self (9 months to 3 years), Preschool Self (3-6 years), and School-Aged Self (6 years to puberty).
Within each stage, try your best to recall how you felt, what life was like, and how safe, supported, and accepted you felt. Keep in mind that feeling safe as a child didn’t always have to do with the family environment. Often the school or other environments that we spent a lot of time in shaped our inner child. Record any memories or physical sensations you had, even if they feel fragmented. Record the tones of voice, expressions, and words your parents or teaches used when interacting with you. Even if a memory seems silly or a reaction you remember having seemed excessive, please write it down. As an adult, it’s important to honor what your inner child authentically experienced, even if it seems ridiculous or exaggerated as an adult.
The more information and emotionally-charged material you have for a particular age range, the more you need to focus on connecting with that particular stage. I’ll share with you how below.
Imagine that you’re a wise, gentle, and loving wizard or fairy godmother. Imagine that you want to adopt your inner child. As you write the letter, tell your inner child how much you love them and want to spend time with them. Write in a way that makes you feel safe, cared for, and understood. Here’s an example from a letter I have written to my inner child:
Dear Little Ale,
I’m so happy you’re born. I am here to protect, love, and care for you. I want to help you feel loved and accepted for who you are. I want to show you that it’s safe to be heard, to feel, and to be seen. I want you to feel like you will always have a home with me no matter what. I want to help and guide you every step of the way. I love you so much.
Love, Fairy Godmother Aletheia
If you feel emotional during this process, it’s okay. Let yourself cry and be proud of your courage to express how you truly feel.
Using your non-dominant hand (in order to bypass your logical side of the brain), write yourself a letter from the perspective of your inner child. For example, if you are usually right-handed, use your left hand to write. Using your non-dominant hand will help you get more in touch with the feelings of your inner child. Here is my own example of my inner child speaking to me:
I want to find home. Please protect me. I don’t want to feel alone anymore.
Love, Little Ale
You can write back and forth between your Wizard/Fairy Godmother self and your little self. Creating this conversation often reveals a lot of surprising and buried emotions, and new information.
It is important that the pain you went through as a child is validated and heard by someone. Whether you seek out a caring friend, support group, or trusted therapist please understand that sharing your feelings is essential to all inner child work. Sure, you can do it alone. And you can do a lot of deep work alone in general. But in order to experience a ‘breakthrough’ or even just to heal deeply, sharing is important. We are social creatures who need others to hold space for us. Your pain needs to be lovingly validated. If the person you’re sharing your inner child work with is questioning, arguing, or trying to give advice to you, you’re not getting what you need!
Here, it is vital for me to emphasize the need to seek real caring and nurturing support. If you don’t have friends who are mature or capable enough of doing this, please consider finding a therapist or spiritual counselor. There are many affordable options out there. Investing in your well-being and mental health IS worth it. There are also many professionals out there who specialize in inner child work or hold workshops. Counselor and self-help writer John Bradshaw writes “I believe that group work is the most powerful form of therapy” when referring to inner child work. But one thing: please don’t share with your family members, even if they are caring. Family members who have not done their own inner child work are much less capable of dealing with yours. Defensiveness, anger, finger-pointing, and grief may result in sharing your feelings with family members, so please don’t do it.
Sharing takes tremendous courage and inner strength. It’s normal and okay to feel scared! Feel the fear, and if you feel ready, share anyway.
Loving affirmations are a powerful way to affirm your worthiness and support your journey in feeling safe. When repeated consistently, affirmations have a way of rewiring the brain and sinking down into unconscious layers of programming. Repeating such messages can result in deep change and healing at a primal level.
Here are some loving and supportive affirmations you can say to yourself throughout the day and during meditation:
- I will stay here and support you.
- Welcome to the world, I’ve been waiting to hold you.
- I love you just the way you are.
- I’m so glad you’re here.
- I want to take care of you.
- I want to spend time with you.
- I want to hear your thoughts and feelings.
- It’s OK to feel sad and scared.
- It’s OK to be yourself.
- You’re allowed to say no.
- You are so special to me.
- You have so much to offer the world.
- I believe in you.
- I will protect you against harm.
You can say these affirmations as many times as you need, whenever is necessary during the day. You might even like to use a special voice when saying these affirmations, such as the voice of a wise old man or a loving mother.
Also feel free to create your own loving affirmations! The list above will help you get started, but often the most powerful affirmations organically arise from your deepest needs.
You will need to dedicate about half an hour or more to this exercise. Find a quiet and comfortable space, and either sit or lie down.
Imagine that you are about to meet your inner child. You walk outside into your backyard and he/she is playing in a sandbox. What age is he/she? You walk up to your inner child and sit down. “Hello,” you might say, introducing yourself. You look into the eyes of your inner child. What is he/she feeling towards you? Curiosity? Trepidation? Shyness? Skepticism? Excitement? Respect your inner child and his/her boundaries. If he/she wishes to hug you or shake your hand, let that happen. If not, it’s okay. Your inner child may just need to warm up to you. You might next wish to ask, “What do you need the most?” If you are communicating with your infant self during this visualization, the response might come as a visceral feeling as opposed to communicating with your school-aged self who might respond verbally. If your inner child tells you what they need, provide a safe space for them. Let them feel heard, seen, understood, and loved by you. You might like to share with them how much you love and care for them, and wish them to be cared for. If your inner child wishes to be cradled, hugged, or held, embrace the opportunity. Once you feel that your mission to connect with your inner child has been completed, you can visualize yourself walking back into your house. Focus on your breathing, stretch your body, and open your eyes.
I recommend journaling about the experience. Journaling is a wonderful tool for self-reflection, deepening your self-understanding, and also serving as a way to document your progress. So take a few minutes to do it!
As adults, it’s important that we take responsibility for our emotional well-being. Feeling safe in this world is extremely important and essential for our inner child to thrive. Signs that you feel unsafe in this world may include:
- Constant anxiety around others
- Tendency to worry excessively
- Inability to trust others
- Inability to trust yourself and your abilities
- Feeling afraid to do things by yourself
- Harsh criticism of yourself
- Fear of trying new things or going to new places
- Assuming the worst in every situation
If you can relate to the feeling of constantly ‘being on edge’ in the world and around others, I strongly recommend focusing on feeling safe with yourself. Constant self-criticism, ignoring your needs, lacking personal boundaries, always putting others above yourself, and changing yourself to be accepted all keep you in a fearful state of not feeling safe.
While our parents or guardians may not have fulfilled most of our needs (or any of our needs), the beautiful truth is that we can. The concept is strange, even foreign to us, but we can be our own parents!
The benefits of re-parenting yourself?
- Greater happiness and optimism
- Improved creativity
- Healthier mind, body, and soul
- Stronger friendships and relationships
- Development of essential life skills: acceptance, forgiveness, vulnerability, compassion, self-love
If you find it really hard to re-parent your inner child, seeking help from an inner child work familiarized therapist will be a wise investment. Therapists, after all, act as substitute parents. They can listen to and help coach your inner child, while supporting and strengthening your inner parent.
If you prefer to go solo, that is absolutely possible. However, please do seek out a support network if you can, whether online or in real life.
In order to be your own protector and nurturer, you need to create a clear ‘policy’ about what is and is not okay self-treatment. Focus on fostering self-love and acceptance each day. Listen to the needs of your mind, heart, body, and soul. Practice self-care. Take time out for yourself. Eat food that nourishes you. Say no and draw clear boundaries. Reclaim your sovereignty over your life. Explore practices that support feeling safe. If need be, you can even go in search of a guardian angel or other spirit guide who can help you to support and nourish yourself.
Although we may have suffered misfortune as a child, it is never too late to re-live our childhoods and reconnect to that childlike side of ourselves. When we take responsibility for our happiness in life, we have the power to feel safe, heal ourselves, and create greater wholeness. This gift can never be taken away from us.
I hope the exercises and practices I’ve mentioned in this article help support the healing process of your precious inner child by aiding you to feel safe. You can read more about inner child work in the following article: