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!