Many survivors of trauma and/or abuse will break the silence, talk about their stories and begin the process of trying to make sense of their current life problems in the context of past trauma. But at a certain point they will ask: what now? How do I get past this terrible barrier? Or, What can I do about this terrible pain or dysfunctionality? It is as if their adult self has assembled the facts, but something essential is still eluding them. If the therapeutic relationship is strong, the client sufficiently stable, and the client expresses a commitment to the healing process, then the therapist might suggest that it could be time to get in touch with the inner child or wounded self (child or adult trauma).
The model of the “inner child” or “inner wounded self”
The reason we can postulate that the model of ‘inner child’ or ‘wounded self’ can be used for both childhood or adult trauma, is because of the phenomenon of dissociation. For a survivor of childhood abuse, the term inner child will probably be fairly self explanatory. But a survivor of adult trauma would not expect to find a split-off part of self inside their psychic make up.
It can be explained that in the terror of the trauma, the client would have dissociated, and some of the feelings and memories would have been stored in the separate memory system of implicit memory. So while it may not make sense to call it an ‘inner child’, it may nevertheless feel quite childlike, because during an experience of complete loss of control, or imminent death and terror, the self may have reverted to the fear and helplessness of infancy, with the longing for parental protection.
It is also very likely that some childhood trauma will be found in the person’s past when an adult trauma leads to PTSD. It is as if the original trauma leaves a location in the memory system, and the new trauma gets stored in the same network. There will usually be a link between the two.
Fear or hatred of the Inner Child
Most survivors of childhood trauma and abuse are unaware of the highly conflictual relationship they have with their inner child. Most are not even aware of having a wounded inner child. The term ‘wounded inner child’ refers to the unresolved emotions and traumatic memory stored in the implicit memory system. These implicit memories continue to drive a host of emotional triggers and responses which seriously impair the quality of life in the present. Consequently, the self is conflicted, harbouring resentment and anger towards the part of self that continues to cause this suffering.
Meeting the Inner Child or Inner Wounded Self
Two powerful ways of contacting the inner child are through a visualization journey, or through direct body awareness/somatic experiencing.
The key issue in doing a visualization is to explain that the client is not going back (in imagination) to meet their child self as a memory of her actual childhood past, ie, you’re not asking her to think back to her actual self when, say, 10 yrs old. No, she is going to go inside her Self as she exists now, and meet the part of herself that is stuck in the memory of the trauma, frozen in time.
Often the easiest way to do this is to ask the client to visualize herself walking into the house she lived in as a child, and see where the child self is. If she appears to be recreating actual memories from that time, remind her that this is the world that her child/traumatized self is living in NOW. Encourage her to seek out the little child: what room is she in? Do you feel like going into the room? Where is she in the room? How is she responding to you? (Most survivors report that the child is angry and distrustful of the adult self, who has abandoned them for decades.) How do you feel you should respond to her? And so on. Some survivors do not want to go back to their house even in imagination, so it is better to invite them to look for the child out in the open, in a park playground or serene forest.
This visualization usually leads to important insights as the adult realizes for the first time that there is a separate part of self that is frozen in time, and that it is this part who is driving much of the dysfunctional and/or self destructive behaviour. Usually the client will see for themselves what the healing work is that needs to be done. Along with visualizations, art therapy work can help to bring the wounded self into visual range, can sharpen the image of the child self and provide additional information about this stuck part of self.
The other strategy for meeting the inner child or wounded self is through a somatic / emotional release approach. This is specialised work, and should be done by a therapist trained in somatic techniques, in other words, direct accessing of implicit memory through the physical body. A simple example would be: you have been involved in a car accident and were really shaken up by it. Later you are describing the experience to someone, and you find your body shaking, because the implicitly recorded fear of the moment of impact has been triggered and has surfaced. But it is IN THE BODY that the emotion is expressed, not in the brain. This pathway – the fact that emotion is felt in the body, not the brain, is one of the most powerful tools we have in healing from trauma. But it is a tool that has to be wielded with skill and experience, which is why it is so often a neglected strategy in trauma therapy.