Inner child exercises — like self-compassion, the butterfly hug, and writing letters to your younger self — can help you heal from painful childhood experiences.
Inner child work teaches you to parent and nurture your wounded inner child.
Painful early experiences often stick with us into adulthood — from being yelled at by a teacher or rejected by playmates to experiencing childhood trauma. You might even feel “stuck” at the age of trauma, unable to move on emotionally without first processing your past.
“Inner child work is the process of re-parenting the ‘littles’ that were neglected, abused, abandoned, etc. during childhood,” says Dr. Charity Godfrey, LMHC, therapist and founder of Lifescape Integrative Therapy in Ft. Myers, Florida.
“It’s during the formative years of childhood — 0 to 9 years — that we learn about emotions, safety, and who we are in the world and form connections.”
When an experience feels unsafe at that age and no adult steps in to offer comfort, the pain and shame can linger for years to come. Inner child exercises are one way we can access that younger self and offer them the comfort they needed but didn’t have access to at the time.
Your inner child is not a “childlike personality.” Rather, it’s the part of your subconscious mind that experienced and still remembers your childhood moments and emotions, both good and bad.
Above all, your inner child feels safer when they know you’re paying attention to them. It can help to simply acknowledge them, remind them you’re looking out for them, and send them your love.
Even if the conscious mind doesn’t have the words to talk about it, the body remembers trauma. Supportive physical touch can help you soothe your inner child.
Holding your inner child can bring them comfort. “Rock if necessary,” says Godfrey. “Hold tight to yourself and let the tears flow — or, just as powerful, smile big and know that healing is happening.” You might try doing this for 3 minutes a day.
You can also try the butterfly hug, a self-soothing exercise designed to help people process trauma. Trauma therapists use this technique in Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming (EMDR) therapy.
To practice the butterfly hug:
- cross your hands over your chest
- link your thumbs together to form the butterfly’s body
- position your fingertips just below your collarbones
- tap your chest by alternating the movement of your hands — tapping with your left hand, then your right hand
- take slow, deep breaths and gently observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment
Bringing yourself back to safe, calm memories can help you soothe yourself when you feel overwhelmed.
Can you remember the happiest moments of your childhood? Maybe it was baking cookies with your grandma or going to the zoo. Spend a few minutes remembering how it felt — the pictures, sounds, smells, and feelings.
Notice how it feels in your body to experience this sense of security.
If you can’t remember a happy moment, it’s also effective to imagine one. What would you have loved to have experienced? Grab your inner child by the hand and go there together.
“Negative constructs, such as “I don’t matter,” or, “I’m not good enough,” are often formed in childhood from mistreatment/abuse during these years,” says Godfrey.
Mirror work can help you move beyond these narratives and work on developing a loving connection with yourself.
Godfrey recommends looking deeply at yourself in the mirror each day and making a powerful healing statement, such as:
- “I matter.”
- “What I want matters.”
- “I will not stay silent.”
It’s not always easy to be kind to yourself. If you tend to judge yourself harshly, practicing self-compassion can help you improve your relationship with yourself.
Research by Kristin Neff, PhD — a leading expert in self-compassion — suggests that being kinder to yourself can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
Dr. Neff’s website provides free self-compassion exercises to help you get started, including:
- self-compassionate journaling
- positive self-talk
- self-compassion meditation
- challenging your inner critic
Journaling has mental health benefits, and it can count as inner child work, too. Try writing a letter to your “little” offering the words of support you needed in childhood.
“Don’t delay what you need any longer,” says Godfrey. “State the words in your journal and read them out loud. Read the words you wished you would have heard with love, kindness, and compassion.”
If you’re right-handed, use your left hand (or vice versa) to let your inner child express themself with a story or a picture. You can also converse with your inner child by alternating between your right and left hand.
This non-dominant hand technique is explored in depth in the classic book “The Creative Journal” by Lucia Capacchione. It contains more than 50 prompts to help you release feelings, explore dreams, and solve problems.
What makes you instantly upset, angry, or fearful? Can you trace them back to negative experiences in childhood? Perhaps your dad never truly listened to you, so now you feel rejected when your partner is too busy to pay attention.
When you identify where this pain originated, reassure your inner child that they are safe, loved, and heard.
Try spending time doing what you loved to do as a child.
Get out the coloring books, listen to music, play with clay, write a story, run barefoot in the grass, or watch an old cartoon. The important thing is to feel creative and inspired again.
Play is built into our schedules as children — but play in adulthood is just as important.
In general, practicing meditation regularly can help people heal from past traumas. Research from
Inner infant meditation is a powerful meditation developed by John Bradshaw, the pioneer of inner child work and author of the book “Homecoming.” In this meditation, you go back to reclaim your infant self and bring yourself “home.”
There are numerous books and online resources to help you on your inner child journey. As mentioned above, “Homecoming” by John Bradshaw is a classic on healing your inner child.
“Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation” by Janina Fisher, PhD, offers insights into how trauma affects the child and adult self, plus ways to heal the wounded inner parts of yourself.
These simple at-home techniques can help support the deeper work you complete with a therapist in session where you can begin to reconstruct your sense of self to say, “I am enough,” or, “I do matter,” says Godfrey.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that between 14% and 43% of children experience at least one traumatic event. Of these, up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People with a history of repeated abuse or neglect may experience complex trauma as adults.
If you experienced trauma as a young child — particularly if it involved your parents or living situation — inner child work might be right for you.
This therapeutic technique allows you to work through the coping mechanisms you’ve developed along the way, so you can finally connect with your true authentic self.
If you have experienced trauma, consider contacting a mental health professional. There are many effective therapies for trauma to help relieve post-traumatic stress. If you think inner child work could help you, you might reach out to a therapist specializing in this technique.
To learn more about trauma, its effects, and healing, you can check out Psych Central’s Finding a Path Through Trauma resources.