Mentoring the Inner Child is a new four-part weekly workshop from BAAM taking place onThursday evenings from 7-10pm in September 2021. For more details click here.
I’ve been reluctant to write a piece on the ‘inner child.’
It’s not only an over-used buzz word but also frequently misunderstood. “Sure, blame your behaviour on a wretched childhood!” This declaration, although common, misses the point entirely. The inner child has worthwhile information to share.
The inner child has its roots in Jungian psychology. It was originally intended to conceptualise the period of human development from birth to puberty, and expanded to include pre-natal development.
The concept is more about examining the influence of the childhood environment on who we become as adults, and less about an actual child.
This period of human development establishes neuro-pathways we reinforce throughout a lifetime. Mind and body connect and learn to cooperate, working in unison to assure survival.
The brain begins forming twenty-five days after conception and the basic neural system is established by week ten. Structures and connections continue to develop through the foetal period and continue after birth, with the brain reaching ninety-percent adult volume by age six.
Pre-natal sensory inputs are largely biochemical, a complicated mixture of chemistry flowing through mother and child. The calming effect of the mother’s oxytocin, or stress response chemicals such as adrenaline or cortisol influence foetal development. Once born, an infant must rapidly adapt to the direct sensory experience of life outside the womb. We continue to develop brain volume and strengthen neural connections as we learn to walk, talk and mimic those around us.
Many picture a somewhat infantilised version of our adult self when asked to consider the inner child. Perhaps the most innocent characteristics of our childhood come to mind, or a moment we felt vulnerable. Some recall vivid memories of traumatic events, neglect, or abuse.
The significance (or lack of significance) we attach to the experience of childhood is often coloured by immature fears or expectations. It’s understandable; we were children. Many claim to have little or no memory of childhood. The notion of examining what you can’t remember or peering into the past may feel more like tricky intellectual jiu-jitsu than valuable inquiry.
We may not recall the details accurately, but even as adults our bodies are quick to feel the emotions. Memories of childhood may be forgotten, denied or avoided altogether yet there’s little doubt this early childhood collaboration of mind and body leaves an enduring imprint that can inform the adult.
Reconciliation and insight are found scattered amidst the memories, events and emotions of childhood. It’s perhaps no surprise that our self-awareness expeditions eventually circle back to when it all began. Early childhood influences provide valuable insight into how our bodies and minds respond to stimulus as adults.
Let me de-mystify what I mean by insight.
A relevant example is in the case of adoption. An infant’s imperative is to survive. A bond with an adult responsive to their needs increases the chance of survival. This bond may be strong, impeded (as in neglect) or severed abruptly (as in adoption). The bonding experience in infancy can determine a behavioural preference in the manner we choose to bond as adults.
Attachment theory attempts to explain some possible outcomes of this developmental process offering four possible outcomes of successful or unsuccessful bonding. Secure, anxious-ambivalent, disorganised or avoidant.
To boil the bonding process down to four possible outcomes is a convenient and expeditious example yet understand, many subtle behavioural derivations exist. Bonding and the way we connect to others remains a unique and critical function worthy of examination over an entire lifetime, in this way the past informs the present.
The tragedies of adoption, abuse or neglect and the impact on who we become often get the attention because they sting or cause mischief. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
But to truly grasp the benefit of searching the inner child experience for insight we are wise to look beyond missed opportunities or childhood trauma. We benefit from searching beyond what was taken or withheld, and look to the human characteristics we may have neglected or abandoned in the rush to adulthood.
Curiosity, spontaneous affection and wide-eyed wonder also roam the experience of the inner child. Human qualities we seldom consider as adults, yet envy when we see actual children play and interact with others in an uninhibited way. Perhaps we were born with easy access and encouraged to temper our enthusiasm. Maybe we were judged by those we admired and simply jettisoned our more endearing human qualities as irrelevant to becoming an adult.
Regardless, re-visiting the period where mind and body learn to collaborate pays dividends.
Imagine the inner child arriving with a bag of marbles. The marbles represent a universe of sensory experiences that shape who we are to become. Unaware the bag has a hole in the bottom, the child leaves a trail of marbles behind. Exploring the inner child offers a chance to examine, discard or reclaim these marbles, and an opportunity to integrate them into our lives with the discernment of an adult.
The inner child is but one period of human development followed by the stressors of adolescence, the rewards of middle age and the grief of our final exit. It’s fortunate that our mind body connection is malleable and capable of change. Life will have its way with us unless we stay awake and use the past to inform the present.
Snake Bloomstrand is BAAM’s special advisor and Leader Emeritus of The Mankind Project. He’s based in Minneapolis USA; find out more here.