What Is Inner Parenting?

Inner parenting is a form of self-coaching or self-leadership, where one consciously and consistently uses the most mature, developed, skilled, “adult” parts of the self to compassionately guide the less developed, less mature, less secure parts of the self. The inner dialogue mirrors how an attuned, respectful parent would guide a child.

Inner parenting, or self-parenting, or self re-parenting, is related to the concept of the inner child. The inner child can be viewed variously as a prior version of ourself (the echo of the child we actually once were), the emotion- and fear-driven part of our mind (amygdala/limbic system and its beliefs about the world received in our imprint period), or the parts of our psyche which are less developed because we have not spent as much time there.

Our minds have a cost of specialization – getting really good at certain types of cognitive tasks and building neural “superhighways” between the parts of the brain involved involved in those tasks means that other parts of our brain will only have “backroads” going to them. It’s not that we can’t access those parts, simply that we have to choose to go into them, work harder to get there, and probably get less return for that work because we don’t have a lot of neural infrastructure there. Thus those parts can feel more childlike, both in the sense of being unsophisticated and hard to handle with finesse, and also in the sense of being filled with wonder and curiosity because that space is a novelty.

Our inner child is both a resource and a vulnerability.

As a resource, our inner child can energize and inspire us. It can remind us how to play. It can make us feel alive and excited about life. It can make us feel whole inside our own self, rather than looking for wholeness externally. It can look at the world with fresh eyes, seeing the beauty and the marvelous, looking through the lens of possibilities instead of limitations. It can fire up our imagination and point us toward the experiences and people that bring us joy.

As a vulnerability, our inner child can be easily hurt, sometimes in ways that other people view as incomprehensible or silly. It can be manipulated or fooled by others. It can get frustrated and give up instead of trying again or trying a new way. It can throw tantrums. It can be fearful and needy and demand those fears and needs be catered to. It can get tired and overextended quickly, like over-using muscles we don’t engage very often.

Basically…our inner child shows up as a child would. And, like a child, if the needs of that part of us are not attended to, it will get louder and louder in its demands for attention, support, and fulfillment. Eventually the strength of that demand can wrest control of our adult-life actions from our adult parts, leaving the inner child’s impulsiveness, self-indulgence, and narrow scope of perspective running our life.

The form this inner child “hijack” takes can vary. For some the inner child’s choice is to live in a fear-avoidant way, keeping life to a series of known and therefore “safe” experiences rather than being open to a variety of interactions with the world and other people. For others the opposite might be true – a total rejection of routine, structure, or predictability. For some the inner child’s emotions run the show as demanding, dramatic, and unpredictable, while for others the inner child has withdrawn so much they appear not to have emotions or to be totally closed to connection and intimacy. Self-indulgence or self-soothing with food, drugs, or extreme or risky behaviors can happen, or being trapped in anxiety, overbusyness, and hypervigilance.

If those examples sound extreme, it’s because the needs of the inner child have to be extreme before that part can overpower our more adult parts.

We can also have more muted inner child reactions that might still grab the wheel from time to time – feeling hurt by something we “shouldn’t” be so upset by and being unable to get past it; feeling anxious and in need of soothing or support we don’t know how to find on or own or articulate to another; feeling hopeless and lost in a project that “should” be easy for an adult but is proving to be very difficult for us; feeling scared and alone and uncertain; not knowing what to do say or where to go; procrastinating or avoiding necessary tasks because we feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to do them or don’t know whether we are able to do them; homing in on very minute details of a situation to “prove” we are right; resisting change or a new experience; longing for life and the world to go back the way it was “before” when we felt we understood it; wanting to control everything because that is the only way to feel safe.

Reactions like these are a cry from our inner child for help and support from our adult parts, and we ignore them or suppress them at our own risk. If we don’t meet those needs…eventually they will erupt into the extremes. Ignoring the needs of our inner child is a form of self-neglect, self-abandonment, or even self-abuse.

Proactively meeting the needs of our inner child allows our adult parts to focus on goals and showing up at our true level of development rather than having to focus on controlling the inner child or putting out fires it started from its place of howling demand. It is true self-care – showing up to nourish and protect the vulnerable parts of our self without requiring them to fall into deprivation and pain to “earn” our attention. Caring for our inner child’s needs as we would a physical child allows us to feel integrated and whole, secure and confident in our capacity to meet life and change and challenges. It tells the small part of us that it is wanted and valued, that it does not have to fight to be heard or to have its needs met. It proves that our adult self can be relied upon to value and honor the needs of our full self, not just the parts which serve our “goals.” Put simply, creating a safe space for our inner child and making it feel loved and secure helps the entire system of our “self” to be balanced, aligned, and ready for whatever life brings.

Inner parenting opens a dialogue with the inner child, so it can tell us of its needs without having to try to grab control of our life. It teaches us to speak to ourself with compassion, acceptance, empathy, and wisdom. If we self-criticize and self-shame, we undermine our own confidence, whereas if we speak to ourself with love and understanding, we foster a sense of possibility and hope.

Inner parenting, then, is a process for relating to ourself in way that promotes our growth and well-being instead of encouraging us to cling to the past and limit our future.

I’ll get into some examples of how inner parenting looks in action in a future post, so stay tuned for that!

What Is a Parent’s Role?

Before I can unpack either inner parenting or the impacts of parental wounding, I want to offer my perspective on the role of the parent in a child’s life and development. I believe in respectful parenting, attachment parenting, free-range parenting, and trauma-informed parenting. I am a mother, so these ideas are not merely theory to me but guidelines I have put into practice with my son – and they work.

Being a parent is to be the guide and facilitator for a new sovereign being.

Children don’t need to be controlled or disciplined; children simply need to be taught and guided. There is a time in a child’s life when the parents have to provide certain containers in order to safely facilitate the learning they need to develop properly. Obviously a toddler does not have the cognitive understanding to be left alone completely in their exploration of the world. But neither do they need to be controlled in the sense of being told what to engage with, what to learn about, or shamed for making mistakes of learning and experience (spilling milk, trying to stick something into an electrical socket because they saw an adult stick something in and want to try it).

The role of the parent is to create a safe container for the child’s developmental stage.

That role remains the same for every developmental stage until the child has attained adulthood. The FORM of the role shifts, as the child’s age and needs shift, but the essential POINT remains the same. Creating a safe container includes physical needs (changing diapers until the child is old enough to control emissions and use a potty; dressing them until they are old enough to take over that task for themself; feeding them, and monitoring their eating to be sure that they eat enough and enough variety…my son for example will forget to eat because he gets so focused in what he is thinking about. Part of my job as his mother is to remind him to take care of his body, to check in with it and treat it well vs neglectfully). But the safe container also includes emotional, relational, social needs. One of the big ones is helping with nervous system and emotional regulation. Self-regulation is borne from the experience of co-regulation – having a safe adult anchor you while big emotional storms roll through so that you can experience overwhelming emotions as safe instead of as an existential threat.

Much of Western parenting is based in conformity to roles, parental expectations, and emotional suppression. It is based on the idea that the parents are authorities and the children owe respect to that authority (regardless of if the authority respects them back). It is based on the idea that children are innately wild and ungovernable and must be shamed, punished, and coerced into behaving in a “civilized” way. Emotions are unwanted, inconvenient, and optional in that paradigm; children use emotions to manipulate and get their way and the adults must stand strong against such attempts lest they create a spoiled, entitled, egotistical little monster.

Western parenting…could not more effectively pass down intergenerational trauma if it had set out to do so.

Children have needs. Children need their needs met. Children cannot always explain their needs (seriously, most adults can’t when they first start introspective work!). Even if they could define the needs, children are unlikely to have enough emotional control to say them with words once they are in the space of need. Humans develop our capacity to regulate our emotions over time, by experiencing emotional attunement and safe containers. Children don’t throw tantrums to manipulate in a conscious way. Children throw tantrums to express an unmet need the only way they know how, in an attempt to get their caretaker to help. Technically it’s manipulation in that it is an attempt to influence or force the parent to meet their needs, but fundamentally it is a bid for help. If a child’s needs go unmet for too long, they will escalate into aggression and demand; if those efforts are rejected or punished too harshly, the child’s last recourse will be to withdraw and wall off from expectation or even hope of support. Those latter stages (aggression and withdrawal) set the stage for depression, disconnection, loneliness, anxiety, self-rejection, and more that can stretch into adulthood. The effects can last an entire life if left unhealed.

Controlling children’s behaviors without attuning to their underlying needs creates trauma.

You can teach children to express their needs in ways that are less disruptive and less likely to cause conflicts or ruptures in their relationships, but what reinforces the guidance is the child’s certainty that their needs will be met if they ask in a gentler way. The parent is there to spot the underlying need, meet it, and teach developmentally appropriate ways for the child to express it. Part of the parental job is to keep updating the child’s relational skills as they grow and develop.

I have consciously parented from this perspective (the meeting needs and creating safe containers for developmental stages vs. the authority/need to civilize style), and my son never has tantrums. He sometimes has emotional meltdowns, clearly linked to overwhelm or exhaustion or having had enough. All that was needed when he was a very young child was for me to pick him up and hold him, offer comfort, let him cry it out, and then he was right as rain again. We’re navigating that emotional space in different ways now that he’s a little older – healthy ways he can express his anger or frustration or sense of unfairness – but the dynamic remains that when his needs get met he goes right back to being loving, thoughtful, cheerful, and curious. I don’t have to force him or manipulate him to express those positive behaviors; they are a natural emergent of his lived experience of being loved, having his needs met, and being accepted unconditionally.

Being a good parent isn’t hard for the reasons we think. Children don’t need us to be perfect or to be able to discipline them into conformity. They need us to love them as they are, meet them where they are, and meet their needs so that they are free to express their joy and love and joie de vivre instead of having to fight for their needs to be met, or fall into dissociation to survive a life where their needs are not met.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to drive with empathy and attunement to the needs of another.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside the behaviors we witnessed and absorbed from our own parents (and often other adults). We must heal our own developmental arrests and triggers in order to be able to parent mostly from a space of wisdom and emotional centeredness.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside our own egos and lead by example with admitting and owning mistakes, apologizing when wrong, offering grace and compassion instead of holding grudges, separating accountability from judgment, and valuing the connection and the relationship more than being right or having everything our own way.

Parenting is definitely a crucible for personal development, but the hardest step is to recognize that and look for the opportunity in it. Rather than going in expecting yourself to be able to magically do it right the first time every time, plan to learn from the inevitable mistakes in order to become the kind of parent you want to be. We all need a bit of trial and error to get there; the question is if you are willing to recognize that and keep trying, or double-down on your own infallibility and ego.

For more resources on respectful parenting, look at the work of Laura Grace Weldon and Free Range Learning, Janet Lansbury, Magda Gerber, Trauma-proofing Your Kids (Peter Levine), Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenburg), The 5 Love Languages of Children (Gary Chapman), and for exploring the impacts of unattuned parenting see Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Lindsey Gibson), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (Pete Walker), The Body Keeps the Score (Bessel van der Kolk), and Gabor Mate on trauma (he has both books and innumerable interviews available).