Many believe we have left our childhood behind. But, that little boy or little girl inside us (our Inner Child) recorded early childhood experiences that have shaped our adult personality. Our “child’s brain” only allows us to interpret events emotionally. Our “adult brain” allows us to use logical, rational and reasoning capabilities. Significantly, this part of the brain does not fully develop until about 25 years of age. This means we recorded those childhood experiences literally with half a brain.
The child’s brain has a limited capacity to fully and accurately understand and interpret life events. We need to realize that those early interpretations shape our understanding about how the world works and our expectations of how the world will experience us. And realize that any inaccurate interpretations by this limited child’s brain can result in inaccurate expectations of the world and our Self. These inaccurate expectations can lead to limitations in our relationships, potential achievements, and overall happiness.
I have given these two examples from my own childhood in the past, but I think they bear repeating because of their relevancy and the impact our inaccurate memories can have on our Self-Esteem.
Example #1: As a 5 year old at Christmas dinner, I sat next to my parents, aunt and uncle because I was the youngest. My cousins and brother filled the other end of the table. I remember well the extreme noise level from the many conversations. I wanted to say something so I spoke up. My uncle whom I know loved me, bellowed across the table, “Shut up and eat your dinner”. I was mortified with shame and embarrassment. The fact that no one defended me or comforted me told me that: I was bad and did something wrong, even though I had no idea of my crime. I felt my (inaccurate) assumption confirmed when no one came to me later to support me, or to help me understand that my uncle was grumpy and strict sometimes, and I did not warrant his wrath.
As an adult looking back, I have a more accurate interpretation of that event: My parents admired my uncle greatly, and he intimidated them with his strong demeanor. In addition, in those days parents did not support their children as much as they do today. I’m sure my parents had no awareness of how much shame I felt and so they never said anything to comfort me. So I unconsciously retained my own, inaccurate interpretation of my Self for many years until I suddenly remembered the event. As soon as I thought of it my adult brain took over and within seconds realized that I was not being bad. I did nothing wrong and had a right to speak up. The error lay in the impatience and strict child-rearing of my uncle, as well as my parents’ intimidation of him.
Example # 2: My father worked 6 days a week in my youth. One day he had to run an errand before he could enjoy his Sunday Football. I begged him to take me along since I rarely got to go someplace with him. He agreed and we went to a plant nursery — a playground in my eyes. I had fun walking on a slanted area with tiny white pebbles. Likely, no more than 10-15 minutes had past and I realized that I had wandered away from my father. When I looked around he had vanished. I saw him way far away in the parking lot, almost getting into the car. I remember running after him screaming “Daddy Daddy, wait, wait!!!!” and I also remember thinking (while running) “how does a Dad forget his kid?” My simplistic child-brain developed a simple explanation: “I must not be special enough for him to remember me.”
The accurate interpretation: Years later as an adult the memory flooded back to me. I easily realized my father, who loved me dearly, was not used to being around me in a parental role. Also, he likely had his mind on the football game waiting for him at home. He just wanted to get home. My worth to him was never in question.
Common Examples of memories that can shape our Inner Child
Any number of events can make a child feel unworthy or unloved. If not addressed, the feelings of this Inner Child can lead to limitations in our relationships, potential achievements, and overall happiness as adults.
A child witnessing or experiencing the trauma of physical abuse of the child or a parent. Again, parents often hand down practices through generations. Today’s regulations regarding physical abuse are much more strict and well defined than many years ago.
Any kind of unwanted touching by another child or adult. Again, the guidelines are much more defined and supported today than years ago. This also includes when the child does choose to engage in the activity. A child is not able to understand the emotional dynamics of the situation and is not responsible for their decisions as is an adult.
Emotional Abuse Examples:
- Being scolded in front of others, especially our friends. Parents often do not realize how easily a child feels shame and carries this “Inner Child” at their core into the future.
- A teen suffering from acne being teased or called “pizza face”. It involves insensitivity if from the parent or possible jealousy if from another child. Or the parent was told this in childhood and responds the same way to feel more in control of their Inner Child and dealing with past negative memories.
- A parent consistently being critical of the child, and withholding compliments. Again, this usually signifies critical parenting from the grandparents. Remember, we don’t know what we don’t know, so we often continue hurtful practices.
- Even lesser degrees of physical or emotional abuse will still impact the Inner Child and also damage the adult’s sense of Self. Emotional abuse can consist of constant “put-downs”, name-calling, or putting uneaten food on the child’s face as punishment.
- Not respecting the belongings of a child. This implies that the parent does not value what’s important to the child. This can cause trauma and can leave a child feeling a lack of control in his or her life.
- The parent has no capacity to emotionally connect with the child. It is all about the parent and in no way defines the worth of the child.
- Most often this occurs when the parent did not experience a connection in their own childhood.
- The parent can be on drugs, or very depressed
- A self-oriented parent will prioritize themselves ahead of the child. The child feels unimportant to the parent and that his or her needs don’t matter.
- The parent does not support a child experiencing a difficult time in school or with friends. The child again learns his or her needs are not important to the parent.
- The parent works difficult hours and is not available to the child, or
- The parent is present but emotionally unavailable,
A child is “abandoned” by a parent. This huge emotional trauma can occur whether intended by the parent or occurring through complications and hurt feelings of a divorce. Sometimes because of hurt or anger a parent either backs away themselves or the spouse keeps them away from the kids. A child does not see any difference in the reason. They still feel abandoned and forgotten. Important: Even when a parent dies, the child commonly feels abandoned, especially if it involved the actions of the parent and it could have been avoided. But even when a parent suffers from a disease and passes away, young children especially can somehow believe that if the parent really loved the child enough they would have found a way to not die.
These examples represent just a sampling of the types of neglect, trauma, abuse or disrespect that often inaccurately shape a child’s sense of Self and Worth for life. As we grow into Adulthood we carry these impressions, often subconsciously, into our experiences. We often don’t realize that the fault lay in the parent or person who hurt the child, and never truly defined the child’s worth.
So when you ask yourself “Who’s Eyes are you looking Through?” do you see the little girl or boy looking back through your feelings? Or do you now have the perspective of the adult brain and can see, not necessarily with blame, the inaccurate view of yourself as a child that has stayed with you into Adulthood?
- What memories, especially negative ones, would you interpret differently today than you did as a child?
- Does it change how you see yourself and your Self-Worth?
- When you feel most hurt or vulnerable, is it the child in you who feels helpless to do anything about the situation?
- If so, can you recognize options as an adult that you now have to deal with the situation?
- Sometimes you can have a conversation with your parents to heal from the past. However, you do not want to blame, but to help them understand what affected you and to forgive them if you can. A lack of forgiveness lives within us, not as much the other person. It can eat us up alive if not healed. Also, you can heal inside without involving the other person.
- Some therapists specialize in Inner Child therapy. Make sure you investigate their training and how this works due to the very vulnerable nature of this work.
- Take a look at my article “Healing Negative Childhood Experiences” which posted on August 11, 2017.
References and Further Reading:
- Forgiveness and Loving the Inner Child by Louise Hay
- Inner Child Work: 4 Healing Techniques to Rediscover Your Original Innocence by Mateo Sol (website)
- Healing the Child Within by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D.
- A Gift to Myself: A Personal Workbook and Guide to “Healing the Child Within” by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D.
- After the Tears: Helping Adult Children of Alcoholics Heal Their Childhood Trauma by Jane Middelton-Moz