John Bradshaw became a pioneer in psychology after battling a long career as an out of control alcoholic.  Through his work in therapy and the twelve step program he learned the language of healing and rose to prominence in his ability to help others. Bradshaw eventually broke new ground in the mental health field when he coined the term, “inner child.”   He became a leading figure in family systems theory and addiction recovery.  His insight, humor, and intelligence lead to a PBS series and multiple books—the best known entitled, Homecoming, Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child.

The “inner child” refers to the part of our psyche that retains all of our childhood memories, fears, traumas, and successes.  The inner child then develops core beliefs about itself through these experiences and carries those core beliefs into our adult life.  

The “inner parent” is the part of the psyche that is internalized from how our parents raised us.  This becomes how we talk to ourselves  (i.e. how we parent our inner child).   Bradshaw asserts that most of us need to learn to “re-parent our inner child” to heal the unfinished business of childhood.

For instance, if you were repeatedly shamed with a comment such as, “What’s wrong with you?”, when you made mistakes as a child, you may then repeat that narrative as an adult in the way you talk to your “inner child.”  If you risk starting a business and it fails, your “inner parent” may say something like: “See, I knew this was bad idea. How stupid to think this could work.  What’s wrong with you?”  

Your “inner child” is then shamed again and the core beliefs about being bad or not good enough are reinforced. Recycling this inner story can easily lead to profound depression, anxiety, and even addictions.  In the above example you could also conclude that you should never try another business.  This is what happens when we live in what Bradshaw refers to as our “toxic shame” or “the shame that binds you.”  Toxic shame says, “I am bad.  I am a failure.  I’ll never be good enough.  What’s wrong with me?” 

Healthy shame in Bradshaw’s teaching is the kind of shame we have when we hurt others, take advantage of them, or act recklessly.  Healthy shame says things like, “I feel bad about how I treated him.  I need to apologize. I should change my behavior.  I need to make an amends.” 

Healthy shame informs how to handle a situation when I make a mistake.  Toxic shame tells me that who I am is wrong when I make a mistake .

So, “parenting your inner child” is essentially paying attention to how you talk to yourself. While most of us are aware we have an ongoing inner dialogue commenting on our experiences, hopes, regrets, and judgments, few people pay real attention to how critical and even abusive they can be to their “inner child”—a part of them that remains vulnerable, sensitive, and in need of encouragement. 

Is it possible you could start a business, have it fail, and respond internally with, “It’s ok, most first time businesses fail.  What you’re feeling is normal.  What did you learn?  I can try again.  I’m sure I’ll do better next time.  I’m proud of myself for trying.”  This would be an example of an internal “nurturing parent.” This kind of re-parenting helps to support and heal the “inner child.” We can encourage ourselves to keep going, strive for our dreams, and remain in a place of feeling accepted and loved.

If we come from difficult backgrounds it can be exceedingly difficult to retrain ourselves to be nurturing to the “inner child.”  Many of us need outside help to achieve this change. Bradshaw says that we sometimes need to find a “family of choice.”  That is, we need people who can help us heal, a kind of second try at the family system:  a support group that we have chosen to join, a therapist than can nurture us, a recovery group that addresses our particular issues such as codependence, drug addiction, adult children of alcoholics, etc.  This “family of choice” can help to do the re-parenting for us until we are able to do it for ourselves.

Below John Bradshaw talks on the “Inner Child.”  See the full series on YouTube.  Check it out: