"........When Change is the Challenge."
IN DEFENSE OF THE INNER CHILD
Laurie A. Weiss, Ph.D
Jonathan B. Weiss, Ph.D
It seems characteristic of our society that whenever something gets big enough to be noticed, it comes under attack. Many articles have appeared recently in the popular press condemning the concept of the "Inner Child," and the idea that life's problems can be solved by focussing attention on childhood experiences.
Typically, attacks of this kind usually focus on overgeneralizations, oversimplifications, and extreme examples. Even the thoughtful and provocative work of the noted Jungian analyst, James Hillman, which challenges the whole notion of individual -- as opposed to societal -- healing, has recently been publicized by the press as an attack on the Inner Child.
The notion of Inner Child work, although recently popular, is hardly new. Even in our own society, the Child Ego State was presented to the public 30 years ago in the work of Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis. Jung (translated in 1959) described the Inner Child as a symbol of wholeness in the psyche; and Missildine published Your Inner Child of the Past in 1963.
The theme of the abandoned child appears in the ancient mythology of many cultures, representing the characteristic human need to recapture the freshness and newness of childhood in the face of the stresses of everyday life. The characteristic focus of Western civilization since the time of Descartes on rationality and suppression of emotion only adds energy to the need to find a way to reclaim the childlike part of ourselves that must be controlled by such a system.
In Reclaiming the Inner Child, an in-depth review of the history and application of the concept, Jeremiah Abrams credits part of the popularity of Inner Child work to the widening recognition of the reality of child abuse. Alice Miller's widely read books have highlighted an undeniable connection between child abuse and psychopathology. The popular Adult Children of Alcoholics movement and the book and TV success of John Bradshaw has made "Inner Child" into a buzzword, but popularity has not reduced the validity or usefulness of the concept.
Popular visibility and the resulting media over-simplifications have led to the idea that Inner Child work is about self-absorbed people carrying around teddy bears and whining about their parents. It is undoubtedly true that there are many people "in Recovery" who are busy blaming their parents and their childhoods for the failures of their adult lives. This is a distortion and a corruption of the purpose of competent Inner Child work, which is intended to help someone take responsibility for their current behavior by understanding and freeing themselves from the distortions of the past. Effective Inner Child work is about helping people in pain discover how early childhood experiences have had an impact on their everyday lives.
Eric Berne, in What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, wrote about "Script Decisions," made in childhood in the face of trauma, stress, and ongoing parental programming; he described how these decisions act to limit adults' perceptions of the options and choices that could otherwise be available to them to live their lives satisfactorily.
Several contemporary psychotherapies focus on the idea that our lives are guided by "stories." Sometimes these stories are personal narratives that we have constructed out of our experiences and hold as memories of what "really" happened; at other times, the stories can be cultural or mythic tales that we incorporate into our understanding of who we are and what we are trying to do in the world. In any case, we adopt these stories in childhood, based on a narrow range of experience and a limited amount of personal resources for problem-solving. We can use this understanding to expand our stories and to free ourselves from outdated limitations and restrictions.
The methodology for changing stories usually focuses on personal rituals, creative activities, and dream work; those engaged in direct Inner Child work try to accomplish the same thing by helping clients reexperience the situations in which the stories, myths, scripts, were created in the first place.
Every responsible approach to psychotherapy involves using some kind of model of how human beings function, so that there is some systematic method of deciding what to focus on and what to ignore, as well as what need "correcting." No model can possibly be a complete picture, and every model can correctly be attacked by pointing out what it leaves out. People respond differently to different models. The current popular response to the Inner Child model is a signal that the concept appeals to something fundamental that needs attention.
There is a wide range of activity that can be called "Inner Child work." One widely respected model is Redecision Therapy, based on the work of Robert & Mary Goulding; combining Transactional Analysis principles with Gestalt techniques, it helps clients to reexperience the emotional states in which they originally made the life-limiting decisions that interfere with their current effectiveness. During the process of this work, a mature self is often imagined as providing nurturing and protection to an imagined child self. By recognizing experientially the difference between the childhood emotional states, in which they had few resources for problem-solving, and the current reality of their adult skills, they can make new decisions ("Redecisions") about themselves. These new decisions are immediately evident in changed thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The factor of reexperiencing the childhood emotional states is the key factor in making this therapy something beyond mere intellectual understanding that characterizes the "talking therapies."
Sometimes a client has difficulty making redecisions, because early traumas have severely limited their ability to perceive any other alternatives. The mature self lacks the resources to protect the child self, and the client clings to the early decisions that seemed essential to ensure survival. To deal with these kinds of clients, some therapists have expanded the Redecision model into a framework for interacting directly with the Inner Child, providing nurturing and information that was lacking in the clients' background. The purpose of this kind of direct corrective parenting is to allow the client to incorporate accepting attitudes and beliefs that will facilitate the new decisions about him- or herself.
The process of providing direct nurturing for a client's Inner Child is greatly facilitated by a clear model of developmental stages of childhood. The therapist can use a developmental model to identify specifically what kinds of skills and information the client needs in order to make new decisions. The therapist allows and encourages a temporary, contractual dependent relationship with the Inner Child of the client in order to help the client incorporate new independent and self-nurturing behavior. (We describe this approach in detail in Recovery From Co-Dependency: It's Never Too Late To Reclaim Your Childhood.)
Many clients conceptualize or visualize this process as one of learning to take care of their Inner Child, usually in ways that they never experienced in childhood. They are often startled to realize that they have been treating themselves (and often their children) in the abusive and/or neglectful ways they were treated as children.
Inner Child work is particularly useful for clients who are in reasonable control of their addictive and compulsive behavior patterns, but feel continuous internal pressure to revert to old ways of functioning.
People in recovery from addictions need to be stabilized in their abstinence before Inner Child work can be useful. Clients who are still in chaotic life situations are not good candidates for Inner Child work, since their energy needs to be directed to learning life management skills. Inner Child work is especially helpful with clients who are sufficiently integrated to understand its symbolic and metaphorical nature.
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