Illustration by Julia Bernhard
by Jor-El Caraballo
To exist in the world is to exist with pain, but to suffer in the world is to hold fast to the pain and hurt from our life’s experiences. For many of us, a large portion of that pain we carry on from our childhoods.
In his work on the treatment of trauma, Dutch psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk talks about how trauma gets stored in our bodies. Often, that pain is so deeply rooted in the earliest part of our lives. This is the inevitable pain we experience being children with needs with imperfect parents who can’t always meet them.
As we grow and do our own personal work, we get better at identifying that long-held pain, but we often find ourselves confused about how to move forward and heal. The process that we can do this is by re-parenting our inner child. And if we do the work to reparent ourselves, our relationships only become healthier.
When I talk about the inner child in my work with my clients, I encourage them to conceptualize their deepest emotions as akin to Veruca Salt from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In the film, Salt is an insatiable, histrionic character—she’s just like our strongest emotions. She defies logic and demands “I want it now!” at every turn. Your inner child exists within you as the crux of all of your most profound emotional needs and desires. Your inner child is as sensitive and demanding as Salt is; we just learn to silence that inner child’s voice to be seen as acceptable adults. Salt ultimately pays for her poor behavior, and as adults we can moderate those emotional and irrational voices to delve deeper into our greatest pains and needs in our relationships.
Reparenting’s Connection to Attachment Theory
It’s hard to discuss reparenting one’s inner child (or evaluating our romantic relationships) without looking at the relationships we have with our parents. Attachment theory is the process of exploring the impact of our interactions with our early caregivers and how that shapes how we trust and interact with others throughout our lives. It doesn’t get much more “inner child” than that.
If you are anxious and find it difficult to calm down, perhaps your inner child is screaming for comfort and validation.
Attachment theory was originally coined in the 1960s and is largely based on a set of observations on parent/child relationships (and later adult attachment observations). Essentially, the types of attachments stem from observed reactions to periods of disconnection from a primary caregiver. Some children reacted well (secure attachment) while others displayed anxious, ambivalent or avoidant reactions—all insecure attachment responses.
So what does this have to do with our social and romantic/sexual relationships as adults?
We tend to react in relationships similarly as those children did in that experiment. Securely attached folks experience sadness but rebound quickly, while insecurely or anxiously attached folks behave in avoidant, dependent, or rejecting ways. Consider this: What happened the last time you were left “on read’” via text? How did you react?
Doing this kind of exploration can be helpful in understanding the needs of your inner child.
If you typically react by feeling very anxious and find it difficult to calm down, then you may be insecurely attached. If you find yourself riddled with anxiety and sending text after text to catch up with the person, perhaps there’s more to the story than just the disrespect of being ignored. Perhaps your inner child is screaming for comfort and validation.
We often seek that validation in the eyes of others. Sometimes validation comes in purely social contact (or “platonic” contact), and at other times we get that validation in sexual or romantic connections. Neither way is right or wrong. However, we should consider the impact on our relationships and mental health. Do we find ourselves often seeking validation in the heart or bed of another? Can we satisfy and affirm ourselves independently, as well? Either way, our reactions in those moments are emotional canaries in the coal mine, telling us that we need to speak directly to our inner child. This is a process called reparenting.
Reparenting Your Inner Child
Reparenting is the process by which we offer ourselves the validation and affirmation that we may have missed out on from our primary caregivers. Contrary to popular belief, in many cases reparenting is not an indictment of our parents, but rather a call to action to respond to the gaps in need that were created by parents who were often dealing with complicated life issues related to their own relationships, work, or illness.
As we take moments to reparent our inner child, we inherently communicate, “I am worthy of this.”
Due to the diversity of our experiences, reparenting can look very different depending on the person. A great deal of reparenting also takes place in the space of therapy. Reparenting can look like working with a therapist to change the negative internal voice that sounds faintly reminiscent of your mother or father. Outside of therapy, reparenting can look like showing yourself love by preparing a cup of tea or a nutritious meal when you’re feeling upset. The strategies to reparent can be quite simple, yet difficult to execute, since negative experiences often lead us to believe that we’re not worthy of care and appreciation.
Investing in a process of reparenting is one of the best ways we can be accountable to ourselves and acknowledge the emotional needs we have, and our own worthiness in meeting them.
How Reparenting Can Help Your Relationships
Consider the earlier example of being left “on read” from someone in which you are interested. If the reason why that incident was so powerful were lingering feelings (and accompanying thoughts) of unworthiness rooted in your childhood, then reparenting is the process by which you can adjust those thoughts and offer yourself the support you need. That kind of self-care helps us better manage our behavior and act in a more balanced way. Instead of acting out of desperation and spiraling into despair, reparenting allows us to self-soothe in the moment and better communicate our needs and frustrations in a productive manner, thus not creating a chaos in our relationships.
As we take moments to reparent our inner child, we inherently communicate, “I am worthy of this.” And when we feel worthy we can have more fulfilling interactions, even more fulfilling and satisfying sexual experiences.
The next time you feel out of sorts, think of what your own inner Veruca Salt might be screaming for. Don’t let her take complete control, but do search for what she’s demanding—and honor that.
Jor-El Caraballo (he/him) is a NYC based therapist and co-founder of holistic health center Viva Wellness. You can keep up with Jor-El on Twitter and Instagram @jorelcaraballo.