We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.
Many people have heard the phrase “inner child,” but what does that really mean, and how will it help you lead a better life? Today’s expert explains how she has reinterpreted the inner child archetype for the modern reader. Stefanie Stahl, one of Europe’s leading psychotherapists, shares how the metaphors of the sun child, shadow child, and inner adult will help you improve your relationships. Listen Now!
Stefanie Stahl is a national board certified psychologist, bestselling author published in over 29 countries, and one of the most popular, trusted, and well-known psychotherapists in her home country of Germany and in Europe. Her book, “The Child in You,” has sold over 2 million copies and been number 1 on the bestselling list of the renowned German magazine Spiegel since its first listing in 2016.
Born and raised in Hamburg, she left the North of Germany early on to study in Trier, where she’s based her work and family ever since. She’s a popular speaker and interview partner both online and off, having appeared in numerous magazines, online forums, conferences, and television shows as a trusted expert in psychotherapy and self-development.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health, a Psych Central Podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m your host. I also want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. Want a week free? Just head over to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. And calling into the show today, we have Stefanie Stahl. Ms. Stahl is a national board certified psychologist and best-selling author. She is one of the most popular and well-known psychotherapists in her home country of Germany and has sold over two million copies of her book, The Child in You: The Breakthrough Method for Bringing Out Your Authentic Self. Ms. Stahl, welcome to the show.
Stefanie Stahl: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.
Gabe Howard: You’re very welcome. Thank you so, so much for being here. I’m
Stefanie Stahl: Why do you call me Ms. Stahl and not Stefanie? It sounds too formal. I never know Americans call me or Ms. Stahl like this and so forth, so formal. But the Americans are usually so
Gabe Howard: No, many, many Americans are. I like to do some decorum on the show just to be polite, but no, I love calling people by their first names. So, yeah, as long as you’re OK with it, I’m more than OK with it.
Stefanie Stahl: I’m very OK with this.
Gabe Howard: You know, one of my favorite quotes is that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Admittedly, I’m not quite sure what that means, but it speaks to me on a level I can’t explain. Now, today you’re going to help us understand the concept of inner children. So let’s start all the way at the beginning. How did you get the idea for the book, The Child in You?
Stefanie Stahl: Well, one day, a client of mine, his name was Michael, came to me with a request to do something very down to earth, pragmatic and hands on. So I heard myself say, OK, let’s take a piece of paper and draw a silhouette of a little child on it. Next, I asked Michael to write on the left and right of the head of the child, mom and dad. Then I asked him to look back and reflect on how your parents treated you when you are little. Were they loving, understanding, empathetic and caring or rather bit overwhelmed and stressed out? And write down in bullet points how they behave towards you. And then I asked him to get in touch with his feelings. Which deep rooted convictions he has developed because of how his parents acted. And he said spontaneously, I’m not enough, I’m a burden. So I told him to write these beliefs into the chest region of the child figure. And then the next step, I wanted to know how he feels when you think this way about himself. And he said hurt and angry. And he said these feelings were very familiar for him. So I advised him to write this down into the belly area of this child.
Stefanie Stahl: And in the next step, I want to know what he has been doing to compensate for these unpleasant feeling. And he continues to utter, I try to be perfect and to meet everybody’s expectations. And I need to stay on top of things and striving for control all the time. I always have to very, very concerned that nobody gets the chance to hurt and criticize me. But if I see a criticized or overlook, I flip out and have a really hard time to control my temper. So in a nutshell, Michael made huge effort to not be [dis]respected by other people. He lived his life on the defensive, and instead of having positive goals and pursuing them, his primary focus is action to prevent others from criticizing him. I ask Michael to add these behaviors of his at the bottom of the tree next to the legs of his child. And I call these behavior strategies the self-protection strategies. So, my approach to the inner child is not only feelings, as you see, but belief systems, feelings and the self-protection strategies. And Michael was really amazed about the summary in the form of simple picture. And then I started to expand this model to the inner dark and to the sun child.
Gabe Howard: That is really awesome. You write about the child inside us. Can you explain this concept in a little more detail?
Stefanie Stahl: The inner child, actually, is a metaphor for stance of the child has imprinted that we always see during our upbringing. What you have to know is when we are born, our brain is only 25 percent developed. The emotional spectrum is not that available either. Newborns can only distinguish between pleasure and discomfort. And all higher brain functions, such as a differentiated, emotional life or complex thinking processes developed through the interaction with our environment. And that is why all parents have a huge impact on how our brain will develop. And through our parents we learn how much we are worth to care for and what we need to do to be lost. And carry these influence in the form of psychological patterns unconsciously into our adult lives. That is actually what the inner child is be. And one can say these incidents in our brain serve as a lens we look through to see the world. It all boils down to our self-esteem and self-worth. And in my approach, I distinguish between the shadow child who stands for personal injury, hurts, slights, and the things that didn’t go so well with our parents overall. And sun child embodies our healthy and strong inner parts. The inner adult represents our thinking and rational mind. So with these three inner fantasies, shadow child, sun child, inner adult, you can solve almost any problem. So I would like to come back to Michael, how his sabotage evolved. Michael’s parents had a bakery to manage along with four children. So they couldn’t give little Michael the attention and care he needed. And like any little child, Michael didn’t understand that the parents are completely overwhelmed but thought himself I’m a burden.
Stefanie Stahl: I’m not important. And that is how the views came about. Just like anyone else, Michael carried this childhood influence over into adulthood. And this old wound, this shadow child, can be very easily triggered whenever Michael gets the feeling that somebody doesn’t take him seriously and is overlooking him. But the problem is that Michael was not aware of the connection between his parents, his shadow child, and his current behavior. So if he wanted to escape from his program, he needed to familiarize himself with his shadow child. He would have to understand that his negative feelings actually don’t belong to him, but his parents. If his parents wouldn’t have been so overburdened and have treated him more appropriately, he would have developed differently. It’s really that simple. All Michael has to do now is to be very aware in his daily life whenever he starts channeling his shadow child. When he starts feeling hurt and angry, you should be immediately warned shadow child alarm. And then he can switch to his adult self. And then figuratively take the steps to make sense of himself and look at himself from the outside. And that is the nature of self-reflection. And from there, he can clearly see, and in this way, he could prevent his outburst and act in a more appropriate way. So catch yourself and switch is really an help to so many people that they almost cure themselves only with this method.
Gabe Howard: And we’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsors.
Sponsor Message: Is there something interfering with your happiness or preventing you from achieving your goals? I know managing my mental health and a busy recording schedule seemed impossible until I found Better Help online therapy. They can match you with your own licensed professional therapist in under 48 hours. Just visit BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral to save 10 percent and get a week free. That’s BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Join the over one million people who have taken charge of their mental health.
Sponsor Message: Hey everyone, my name is Rachel Star Withers and I live with schizophrenia. I’m also the host of Inside Schizophrenia, a podcast that dives deep into all things schizophrenia. Featuring personal experiences and experts to help you better understand and navigate schizophrenia, Inside Schizophrenia is a Psych Central and Healthline Media podcast and we are available right now on your favorite podcast player. Check us out!
Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing the concept of the inner child with author Stefanie Stahl. What can parents do to prevent from passing along their shadow child onto their children?
Stefanie Stahl: Well, the idea is that you meet your child’s needs for love, care, protection on the one hand, and to give them enough space and support to develop a healthy coming, on the other hand. And for this, it is very, very important that you are aware of your own child’s imprint. When you were raised by neglecting or loveless parents, you have three possibilities. The first one is the same way as the parents. The second is you might overcompensate your own childhood by over protecting and indulging your child much, and the third way, and that is what I propose, to reflect on your own experiences and do it the right way. So it’s very important that you respect what you have seen from your parents and where your shortcomings might be or the challenges as a parent. But most importantly is that you heed your child’s needs for attachment and love and the need for autonomy and control and. That means that you have the feeling that you can exercise a certain impact on your relationship because autonomy and control, so that’s very, very important because when you give a child the feeling that can exercise a certain impact on the relationship and it’s not only at the mercy of the parents or other people later in life, and it’s important that they get the message that they allowed to feel their feelings and have their own will. Which doesn’t mean that the parent always gives in or don’t help their children to regulate their feelings in the appropriate ways.
Stefanie Stahl: But if parents are able to complement their children to master their feelings, the children establish an inner feeling of authenticity which is most important to become a healthy adult and that is capable of love and to enjoy his life. This is the definition of mental health. So you deliver to your child the message you are OK and loveable as you are, although you make sometimes mistakes and behave in the process. That is the most important of life lesson and people who can handling themselves as they are well able to adapt to other people and build up trust and to determine their own way in life. And I think that is the most important gift that we can give to your children.
Gabe Howard: Stefanie, many people have heard of the concept of the inner child, but what exactly does that mean? What are the practical implications of that?
Stefanie Stahl: The sun child and shadow child both are metaphors for romantic patterns that carry within us. And as I said, the shadow child comprises our negative beliefs, associated feelings, whereas the sun child embodies our positive influences and beliefs, but most importantly, the sun child also stands for all the impact that we have in our adult lives. So we are no longer at the mercy of our caregivers and can shape new beliefs, new attitudes and behavior, because as adults, we have a choice. Michael might have traded some distance now over the age of and the technique of catching and switching have become more aware of his present reality. But right away from identifying with his shadow child, however, he needs an appropriate self-image with which he can identify and that is what the sun child is. And to develop his sun child, Michael first needs to shape new beliefs that are appropriate to his current reality and that detox his negative beliefs. So he could replace his old belief of I’m a burden, and I’m not enough to, for example, I’m welcome and I’m enough, but it is very important that the new beliefs get the approval of his inner adult. So the new beliefs need to be accepted inward to be effective.
Gabe Howard: Stefanie, in a few words, what is the secret to a good relationship?
Stefanie Stahl: Well, the secret of a good relationship is that the partners are quite able to balance their need for attachment on the one hand side and autonomy and control on the other hand. For attachment, i.e. for building up how to relate to other people. You have to have a certain set of skills which contains the ability to adapt to other people, to adapt, to listen to others, to exercise empathy. Otherwise, you don’t understand the feeling of others and further on, you need to be able to compromise sometimes put yourself into the second row and you must be able to trust somebody. Without trust, you can’t establish a close and sustainable relationship. For autonomy on the other side, you need a very different skill set. First, you have to have good contact to your feelings and wishes because your feelings and wishes define the goals to set for yourself. And to attain your goals you need to develop and can stand up for your wishes. To discuss and fight verbally or, in worst case even physically, to set the personal boundaries. And you need to be capable to separate from the person. That defines your autonomy. So this process for attachment and autonomy almost mutually exclusive. But you have to develop a good balance between them that you have always in the situations of choice and do. People who are in good balance between attachment and autonomy can be both. They can adapt to other people and they can assert themselves. And that is the breeding ground for good relationships to flourish.
Gabe Howard: What role does our inner children play in creating and improving relationships, and what advice would you have for our listeners?
Stefanie Stahl: They reflect themselves on the personal nature, i.e., their shadow child, as I already mentioned, the shadow child doesn’t only put a strain on ourselves, but also on our relationship. And the more power it can exercise over people, the more damage it brings to other people. That is why I say the self-reflection is also very much important also for our relationship. Relations all over. Not only love romantic relationships, but also workplace relations to your parents, children, neighbors and everybody. That is the message for this inner child, to really find out your authentic self and to give yourself an allowance to be who you are under the condition that you are not perfect.
Gabe Howard: Stefanie, what is one tip that you can give our listeners to improve their lives and live with more vitality?
Stefanie Stahl: Enjoy your life. For so many people who literally, literally sank into their duties and responsibilities and they hardly ever give themselves the allowance to dive and have a good time. So I’m not much of a workaholic and I do enjoy life as much as possible. And I’m convinced that we only have this one life and we shouldn’t waste it and overextending ourselves in pursuit of fame and success. You have this close connection between our inside mental state and our perception of the outside world. Just to claim it as his or her personal duty to take care for the good life that makes you not only a happier person but also a better person.
Gabe Howard: Stefanie, thank you so much. Where can folks find you and your book?
Stefanie Stahl: Bookstore and online bookshop and I have a website for you. Yes, that is that’s StefanieStahl.com. One word Stahl is S T A H L. StefanieStahl.com. And Stefanie with “f,” not with “ph.”
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Stefanie Stahl: Did you like it, Gabe?
Gabe Howard: Yes, very much so, and I love the book, I love the concept of inner child, you know, children, they’re happy. I mean, not one hundred percent. Of course, there’s no absolutes. But, you know, they play with kids because they’re next door. They look for reasons to play, whereas we look for reasons not to engage. And we judge people by what we don’t have in common and children judge people by what they do have in common. And I often think about just how simpler life was when I was younger. And it’s an interesting field of consideration and study and it sort of ties into both psychology and philosophy in some ways. So it’s just, it’s very cool.
Stefanie Stahl: Yeah, thank you.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Stefanie, for being here and helping us understand our inner child. And all of our listeners, we literally can’t do the show without you. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please subscribe, please rate, rank and review. Write a review. Tell other people why they should listen as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole, as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. I mean, hey, can you imagine having me at your next event? You can grab the book on Amazon.com or you can get a signed copy directly from me and even for less money over at gabehoward.com. We’ll see everybody next Thursday.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@PsychCentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/Show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.