Trauma Survivors: This Is What It Sounds Like to Reparent Your Neglected Inner Child
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There’s a child sitting in the corner of the room. I am not in the room, the room is in my head, and I am painfully aware that none of this is real. It feels silly, pointless and sad to imagine myself floating back through time and standing, as a fully-grown adult, in the bedroom I used to share with my sister, staring down at the little girl with a glazed look in her giant eyes as she holds a Barbie doll in her hands, simply wanting to escape to one of the worlds in her books, but no one will let her because they keep mocking her for playing with something she’s too old to play with. I’m the only person in the world who knows why she likes to hold the dolls, be absorbed in one of the worlds she’s created inside her head and cut the dolls’ hair.
The child says nothing. I know she wouldn’t, even if she recognized me, because she was painfully shy and accustom to adults and even older children laughing at her. She’s used to being perceived as thick because no one sees how fast the cogs are turning behind the glazed look in her eyes. She’s actually incredibly switched on, but dissociation due to trauma has affected her memory, and she will be criticized and mocked for this throughout her life. And as you and I both know, it’s human nature to, at some point, start believing the lies and taunts that are ingrained in our minds due to repetition. It’s funny how it’s so much easier to learn something simply by hearing it over and over again than it is to unlearn something by hearing it over and over again.
If I was to talk to my past self, I don’t think I would beat around the bush. But I couldn’t be blunt either, because the girl sitting on the bed has checked so much out of reality that she won’t know what I’m talking about. And if she does, she’ll be afraid and confused because she’s too young to fully understand the things that are happening right now and the things that are to come. She doesn’t realize she’s being bullied, or abused, or that her life is far from normal. She doesn’t realize she deserves a lot better. She doesn’t realize just how much is going on behind the scenes, with her parents who are trying to get by and are trying to do their best, but there is no textbook for how to wade your way through life when you’re part of a dangerous family.
“Keep going. All the things you’ve ever wanted will come. All the things you’re frightened of and confused by will make sense someday and seem smaller. It’ll feel like you’re wading through tar for a while, it’ll be really tough, but keep going. Because there’s something you need to see.”
I won’t tell her about the good things she has to look forward to in the future. I won’t want to spoil the surprise. And I’m sure there’s an unwritten law somewhere about telling someone their future. It’s like the butterfly effect — one small alteration could drastically change the future. I don’t want to do that to her. I wouldn’t want to take away the good things, or the feeling of surprise, happiness and relief when she finally gets out of the tar and makes it to dry land.
“I’ve neglected you for several years because I couldn’t remember you,” I’ll admit, adding to her feelings of being lost and abandoned. “But I’m back now, trying to reconnect with you. I have a lot to teach you about how to ‘be’ and how to live. It’ll take some time but we’ll get there. We’ll learn the lessons you needed back then, right now.”
The Lessons I Needed
My inner child is deep within me everywhere I go. We all have an inner child. Often in times of intense distress with unknown causes, it could be them who is crying out for their needs to finally be met. As adults, we too forget to tend to the needs of the inner child, and often it is because we simply do not realize they’re calling, or how to tend to their needs because we have never been taught how. We are all capable of listening to and attending to the needs of our neglected, lost and frightened inner child. We can be the parents, psychologists, nurturers or friends to our inner children and help both them and ourselves heal from childhood trauma — we just need to be given the tools to do so. We need to be taught how.
Reparenting or re-educating ourselves starts with a simple exercise if you’re willing to go back, examine yourself and be honest with yourself. It starts with thinking of the lessons you needed to be taught when you were younger. It starts by finding the missing pieces. What would have been the most important lesson for you to have learned when you were younger? Which lesson is most prominent from your childhood that caused the most damage? What lesson do you need to unlearn?
For me, I would like to shrink the critic. I would like to unlearn the lessons drummed into me by the voice in my head that makes me chronically doubt myself, repeating lessons to me that have been ingrained in my mind by the people I was surrounded by in childhood, such as teachers, family members and other children. Lessons such as these: I am no good. I am a loser. I am thick. I will never amount to anything. I’m stupid. My opinion is worthless because I don’t remember anything. I am unreliable and untrustworthy, because of the damage trauma has done to my memory.
Pete Walker has written some amazing, insightful books about how trauma affects children, and how much abuse can still cause psychological harm to a child that they carry into adulthood.
“In extremely rejecting families, the child eventually comes to believe that even her normal needs, preferences, feelings and boundaries are dangerous imperfections — justifiable reasons for punishment and/or abandonment. In the worst case scenarios — where parents use children’s words as ammunition against them — the mere impulse to speak sometimes triggers intense feelings of panic. How could anything the child says not reveal his stupidity and worthlessness… not get him deeper into trouble and rejection? As ongoing neglect and abuse repetitively strengthen the critic, even the most innocuous, self-interested thought or musing can trigger a five alarm fire of intense emotional flashback. To maintain the illusive hope of someday winning parental approval, the child’s anxious striving escalates, and may even become a perfectionism that is truly obsessive/compulsive.” — Pete Walker, M.A.
It is hard to weaken the critic, and takes a lot of practice — but it isn’t impossible. We tackle the inner critic by confronting the negative thoughts with positive replacements:
“I encourage clients to immediately confront the critic’s negative messages and processes with positive ones, for even one such thought can act like a single virus and rage infectiously out of control into a flu-like mélange of shame, fear and self-abandonment. Moving quickly into thought-stopping and substitution often obviates a headlong tumble into the downward spiral of a flashback, just as immediate prophylactic measures can thwart the first hint of a cold. Additionally, I often ask the client to write out a list of his positive qualities and accomplishments to recite when he finds himself lost and drowning in self-hate. This is especially important as flashbacks often create a temporary amnesia about one’s essential worthiness and goodness.” — Pete Walker, M.A.
You can be the person you needed when you were younger. You can be your own parent, guide, inspirational figure, teacher — be who your inner child needs and deserves, which is a loving adult that respects them, loves them and wants to protect them and does not see them as a burden or only offers them conditional love and manipulation.
What would you tell your younger self, if you could meet them again? I hope you will tell them just how brave they were and to trust their gut instincts. In time, you will learn these lessons too.
“Adults can make mistakes too,” I’d say to the blonde-haired, docile, daydreaming child sitting on the bed, clutching her dolls. “Everyone can make mistakes. Teachers. Parents. Sisters. Your friends. Even you. No one is immune to making mistakes because we are all human and no one is perfect. Mistakes are not bad, they are a normal part of life. What matters when it comes to others making mistakes that hurt you is this: that people are sorry when they realize that they’ve made a mistake, and they try with all their might to be a better person. Now I know there’s a lot of people in your life who don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, or know that the way they’re treating you is not OK, but are still mistreating you regardless — isn’t that right?”
The child will nod slowly. She will be thinking of her aunts, uncles and grandfather who think it’s a fun sport to bully children. She’ll think of the children who bully her because she won’t say anything back. She’ll think of the teachers who she knows have labeled her “curious,” even though they don’t say it to her face. She’ll think of so many people, something which saddens me to this day, because the worst crime anyone can commit, in my eyes, is to be cruel to, let down or abuse a child.
“You will learn over time that you do not owe anyone anything. You will learn who the right people are, and how to be with the wrong people. Daydreaming is going to save you, so daydream as much as you like. I promise that I will ensure to give you everything you’ve ever wanted. But for now, don’t believe what the grown-ups say. You’ll soon learn that grown-ups are curious creatures, and make no sense. They do this thing where they pretend to know everything when really, they haven’t got a clue. They’re not as smart as you’ve been led to believe. So trust your instincts instead. Don’t be afraid to be rude back to the people, even if it means your parents might tell you off.” She’ll smile at that. I don’t think the full impact of what I’m trying to tell her will sink in until she is much older.
What thinking about meeting my past self or inner child teaches me is that there is no point in going back. Because as therapeutic as it is to save your neglected past self, it also teaches you that going back is a waste of your time because what matters is that the damage is being repaired now, with lessons you would never have learned if you knew everything when you were younger. It is impossible to know everything when you’re a child because you should be busy being a child. That’s the thing a lot of people who are dealing with childhood trauma are trying to forgive themselves, for simply being a child who didn’t understand what was going on. You didn’t know anything, yet the abusive people in your life have convinced you otherwise, that their shame is, in fact, your shame. This is not true. You were a child. Too much was placed on your shoulders. You deserved more. You have learned this from your experiences, and the only way to right the wrongs of the past is to reconnect with and guide your inner child. Let them know that they are safe, and teach them the lessons they have waited so long to be taught.
You can reparent and heal your inner child. If you’re still unsure how then answer this: what would you tell a child who was struggling with something they really wanted to learn?
“Keep practicing. You’ll get the hang of it. I’ll help you. I believe in you.”
A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.
Photo by Artur Aldyrkhanov on Unsplash