The powerful experience that is inner child therapy often opens doors that have been closed for many years. This process brings understanding of what was, bringing clarity to what is and can be. Being in contact with our inner child who has been abused is especially hard due mainly to the coping mechanisms and survival tactics that were put in place. However, working through this can be an exhilarating experience.
When we think about child abuse, our thoughts often stop at sexual abuse of minors. However, the term child abuse, often replaced by child maltreatment, has a broad spectrum of definition. The WHO defines it as follows :
“Child maltreatment, sometimes referred to as child abuse and neglect, includes all forms of physical and emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development or dignity. Within this broad definition, five subtypes can be distinguished – physical abuse; sexual abuse; neglect and negligent treatment; emotional abuse; and exploitation”.
Reliable statistics on global child abuse are difficult to come by but most reports highlight an increase in the last 25 years, especially in developed countries. Anyone who has been through and survived child abuse will identify with the emotional scars that are etched on the personality of the resulting adult, causing pain and turmoil and making relationships and intimacy difficult.
One of the unfortunate consequences of child abuse is alienation from the „child within”. That is the normal development of a child, emotionally and physically. This alienated child is subdued by constantly being told that it is unlovable and unworthy. Many survivors of child abuse tell of a feeling of disbelief that anyone could possibly love them and mistrusted their own feelings, unable to come to terms with them. Linda Sanford in her inspiring book “Strong at Broken Places” gives us a relevant example in the story of George who was abused constantly by his drunken mother for what were essentially normal childhood activities.
George also provides evidence that the “child within” can be replaced by the „parent within”. This term describes a situation where the child, despite chronic physical, sexual and emotional abuse takes on a parenting role for the parent, nursing and looking after them in the way it should be done in reverse. These parents generally show a hatred for the inner child of their offspring and consolidated by their behavior, try to subdue it for their own purposes. This is the point where the “child within” with all the characteristics of normal development is replaced by the responsible “parent within”. The author describes this change as “putting on a winter coat” to protect themselves from abuse, this coat no longer fitting in adulthood. This is often the case with parents who were alcoholics or addicted to drugs and other substances. .
According to Sanford’s research, this process appeared to be consciously initiated by the children with the thought in mind that if I look after my abusive parent, they will come to need me and love me and the abuse will stop. Unfortunately, this was not the case and in most of the stories cited, the abuse continued or got worse. Sandford says that such children often gain respect as adults for worthy and successful careers without themselves really knowing why or accepting that it could be anything to do with their own abilities. The child within can, however never be really totally subdued and can resurface at any time, often in adulthood in specific behavior and by complicating relationships. When a child becomes the “parent”, he or she sacrifices part of themselves to please the abusive parent. It is often the positive characteristics of the child that the abusive parents resent the most, such as intelligence and special skills. Seeing the child, reminds them of their own inadequacies. These positive characteristics are often used to get on in life, find a good job and be successful but the emotional side of the ‘child within” remains underdeveloped.
Sanford quotes Tom Robbins in her book when she says “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. Many of the survivors have realized that they must be reunited with their “child within” if they are to rectify the past. Some find it hard to “parent” the child within with the same effectiveness that they “parented “their parents. While some used this “lack of a child within” to justify irrational behavior, others have gone on to become “good enough” parents to themselves by opening themselves up to others who then cater for the needs of the adult and the “child within” replacing some of the things lost in childhood. Sanford says that a healing process must take place, similar to recovery from grief. On one level, this would mean coming to terms with what happened followed by a deeper, more meaningful realization of how awful the trauma was, a process of mourning. Through this, the body can be “reawakened” and the “child within” reunited with the parent within. Survivors who had been through this process talked of a “life change“, bringing new spontaneity and excitement into their life. As Sanford says at the end of her book, we often look for hope and intimacy outside ourselves without ever “taking ourselves in our own arms”.