What old hurts, traumas or unmet needs get triggered for you when parenting? What age are you sometimes left feeling? Maybe it is time to get to know your inner child a little more? It certainly makes for easier parenting.
I have been delivering training to carers in a children’s residential home. The training is all about using attachment and trauma theory as therapeutic caregivers. The team have been amazing. They have reflected upon their own experiences of childhood trauma and neglect. They have noticed how they are triggered during the training and in their work with children.
Trauma and attachment theory tells us that when we have experienced a trauma in childhood that has not been processed, there remains a part of us frozen at that age and time. This can sometimes be known as our ‘inner child’. That is a part of us that can get triggered easily, leaving us feeling young, vulnerable, hurt and scared again. We often see parents triggered by their child when their child is at the same age or complaining about something that mirrors the parent’s earlier pain or unmet need as a child. This can cause difficulty in the parent-child relationship as the parent struggles to be the parent.
Say a child’s parents separated when you the child was 8 years old. Their mother become quite depressed and emotionally unavailable for a while. The child most likely would have learnt to shut off their emotional needs at that time and worked to meet the emotional needs of their mother. Essentially, they would have adapted their style of relating and feeling to maximise the chances that their mother could keep on mothering as much as possible. An 8 year old is dependent on their parents for their very survival. We could guess that when this child becomes a parent, there will be a part of them frozen at 8 years old. They would have an 8 year old inner child, easily triggered by their own young child’s emotional demands and complaints.
How to notice your inner child
You or your family may notice when your inner child has been triggered. You will no longer feel like a parent who can hold perspective and balance. You may get raw and immature emotions such as rage and envy. You may sound childish and unreasonable. Your family may notice and feel uncomfortable – children need to feel their parents as parents, not children. My daughter instantly calls me out on this and tells me to stop acting ‘like a big child’.
How to parent your inner child
When triggered, take a moment away from your family if you can and just turn your attention inside.
- Notice where in your body you feel this strong reaction and ask yourself what age this part of you feels.
- If it feels okay, just ask yourself what is the biggest hurt and needs of this part of you?
- Then make some time to gently parent this part of yourself – can you give some of the care, empathy and thought you give your children to your inner child?
- Finally, let your child know that you are older now, things are better and that you able to take care of them.
Just like a demanding toddler, when heard and held, your inner child will generally kick off less frequently. Your actual child will also feel your reassuring presence as a parent and protest less. Life will generally become a little smoother!
We have some additional tips on staying grounded as a parent here https://pocketfamilypsychologist.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Understanding-and-Managing-Your-Threat-Brain.pdf.
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Dr Andrea Shortland is a clinical and forensic psychologist at Shortland Psychology Associates and Pocket Family Psychologist.