Updated: Jul 6
Despite what happens to us as children, the one thing that remains with us throughout our lives is the magic of the child. This is the child of wonder who has many gifts to give. Children have this special quality in that they come into the world full of curiosity because everything is new. They are seeing everything for the first time.
Can you close your eyes for a moment and then open them as if you had never seen anything before. Imagine for a minute what it must be like for a child to see something for the first time - a flower or a forest, for example? How amazing that must be.
Too often we reach adulthood and forget to see through those childlike eyes again.
We might have suffered as children and we cannot remember any such experiences at all. But I can assure you, the child you were, found them in moments where they could, because this is the child’s gift. Children have an innate capacity to find the tiny places of beauty, even in the midst of great darkness. Children create fantastical worlds in their imagination which take them away from the present and into another richer and more colorful place.
Here, for a time, they can be free from fear and sadness.
Neglecting the Child Within
What we often fail to see as adults is that this child part of ourselves is usually still present, even when we have been wounded as children and are still wounded. When we ignore it, this part of ourselves makes itself known in ways which can cause us problems. The wounded inner child often manifests itself in self-destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors. It is trying to get our attention and we are exceptionally good at ignoring it - so it must become much louder in its attempts to reach us.
Some of the behaviors we might see are self-harming and addictions like overeating, using drugs or alcohol, overspending and gambling. We could also find ourselves overreacting emotionally or experiencing conflict in a lot of our relationships.
Some of us, despite the fact that we are working hard and trying to get everything done that we need to, keep running into problems. Friends keep telling us we need to lighten up and learn to relax. But they just don’t get it, because we’re trying to get ahead and that requires work and attention. When we do try and relax, we’re like a fish out of water. We don’t know what to do because, after all, we’re not kids anymore. We wonder what’s wrong with these people.
Or maybe we’re the people that are not getting anywhere at all. All the self-sabotaging is making sure we have no success whatsoever. Addiction has taken over and we just find ourselves making one mistake after another and we can never seem to get ahead of the problems that keep cropping up. It's like life just keeps throwing us a curveball and we never seem to get a break. For some of us the problems need to get so big that something catastrophic happens and forces us to stop and reassess what we are doing in our lives that is causing us so much pain and misery.
Maybe we lose a relationship, the marriage finally ends, the job has finally had enough, stress finally breaks our ability to keep going, we go bankrupt, or we end up with a stress related illness. Something finally pulls the rug out from under our feet. We find ourselves saying, “OK something has to give here, what the hell is going on?” Maybe, we say, maybe I need to talk to someone.
I’m going to tell you something, I never liked that thought. I had no idea what talking was going to do to help me. Thankfully, I had run out of any other useful options.
A Lost Childhood
I had a very wounded childhood. My mother had three children but had only planned for two and her last child arrived when her marriage was breaking up. I was that last child. I came to represent the end of everything she had hoped to have. I was the dream that had come crashing down, her last and unwanted child.
She would tell me she never wanted me. She would tell me she needed me as much as she needed two heads. Finally, she told me she would die when I turned nineteen. She started telling me this when I was five years old, after my father had left for that last time and never returned. She died a day and one month before I turned nineteen.
My life with my mother would be filled with a need to prove to her that I had been worth being born. I sold my childhood to the act of proving my worth. In essence I had no childhood. There had been a child, but there had been little space to be a child. I learned to act like an adult because my mother didn’t need a third child.
Once I grew up, I had a child inside that ached to be a child and that caused a lot of trouble in my life, but I never knew what the problems were about. They would ruin the next 15 years of my life and take me many more years to recover from. It took a lot of therapy to make sense of all of this.
The problem with an unlived childhood is you have a child inside you who has not had their time to be a child. You have learned to act like an adult, but you have not gone through the normal maturation process to become an adult. You have missed the normal milestones that children go through on their way to adulthood. I often like to refer to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development to highlight some of what does not develop when children are forced to take on an adult role.
Missed Stages of Development
According to Erikson each stage builds on the one before it and if the outcome of one stage is not achieved it affects the subsequent ones. So one can see how an unhealthy relationship between a child and their parents could have an effect which carries through the child’s development and impacts their lives into adulthood.
One of the effects that I often see people struggle with is identity. This is the challenge of adolescence. Young people often take on different identities in adolescence as they try to differentiate themselves from their parents and assert their own identities. This is a normal part of adolescence - and the bane of every parent. But if the relationship between the child and their parents is impaired this might not happen because there is no space for the child to be able to do this. They may never know who they are or what their role is in the world.
Looking at earlier stages, we see some very important ones concerning trust and autonomy, or independence. If these stages are not successfully navigated this could also leave a person seriously challenged in their life. The relationship we have with our parents while growing up has a profound effect on how we see ourselves and how we believe that others see us. This understanding can either be a supportive force or in our lives or it can have a detrimental effect. If it is a detriment, then we need to do some work around this to change some of the messages we have come to believe.
Sometimes our parents might even have been too protective and too supportive. As a result we may never have developed the ability to stand up to some of the challenges which life can present. This too can be a problem because life is not always easy. We have to be able to handle a crisis when one happens. We have to be able to solve a problem when one comes up. If our parents have been too protective, we may never have learned how to solve problems for ourselves. The good news is that it's never too late to learn.
Nurturing Your Inner Child
Back to the child. Your unlived childhood will not lie quietly inside you. That restlessness you feel inside is that child trying to get your attention. Ignoring it will not work because the restlessness and the uncomfortableness will get louder. It will begin to interfere with all aspects of your life. It will show up when you least expect it and when you absolutely don’t want it too. You will begin to wonder what the hell is wrong with you. It might be the reason why you decide to get some help. You could feel like you’ve been invaded by some alien aspect of yourself. Whatever it is, you want it gone.
What does this child want? It's simple - the child wants a childhood. You might be saying, “Well it’s a little late for that,” but it's never too late to be a child. What kind of things did you want to do as a child? Being a child is about play. How can you play today?
Creativity is about play.
Have you ever painted, drawn, played a musical instrument, danced, sang, wrote poetry, wrote a story, made something from clay or wood, built a fort, a snowman, colored, created a garden, made a model, taken pictures, made candles, played games, baked cakes, staged a play, created a costume, or any other item you could make? The internet is filled with instructions on how to do anything you could ever want to do.
Try a visit to the toy store. Let your child pick a toy or a stuffed animal. The point is to recognize that you have a child inside you that has not been acknowledged. It wants to be seen and wants some of your time. This is the most creative and the most wonderful part of ourselves.
When your inner child has been silenced and banished by the needs of parents it is wounded and needs us to reach out to it and acknowledge that we know it is there and that we care. When we don’t, it becomes upset. It can become angry with us and try all sorts of unhelpful ways to get our attention. The unrecognized inner child will not lie quietly inside of us. It will go to great lengths to get our attention.
Recovery - The Difficult Part
For the longest time I used drugs and alcohol to numb the neal pain I felt inside from growing up with the clear message that I was unwanted. When I recovered from addiction, I was left with this searing pain that would not go away. At times it was so intense that I felt like it was going to kill me. I went to see a counselor who specialized in treating people who had been “Adult Children”. These are people who had to be adults while they were children and, as a result, did not have a childhood. She helped me a great deal.
At first, I was angry when she told me that I would have to learn to parent the child inside me. I questioned, “Why should I have to do that?”and I thought, “Great, I didn’t get parented and now I have to parent myself!” This seemed so unfair. Why couldn’t I have someone to parent me? As a child I had to be a co-parent with my mother and now I couldn’t even have a parent.
I did not want to parent myself!
It took a long time for me to understand that I was the only one that could parent the child inside of me. I was the one that had left her behind so many years ago and I had to go back and get her.
This was not an easy part of my recovery because I found it difficult to get my head around the idea of having a child to take care of. When I finally grasped the concept, it became the best part of myself because I rediscovered that beautiful part of me that we all have inside of us.
Gifts From the Child Inside Me
The child of wonder is the part of me that looks with awe and surprise at the world of nature as though everything was brand new. This is the part that can see what adults cannot see. The one that animals show up for, who makes up stories in her head, and who writes poetry, takes pictures, and paints. When I began to give her the time she needed to be in the world she gave me gifts in return, and my life became much calmer.
The child inside me loves the forest and the water, she loves giant bubbles and taking pictures of gnomes and fairies in the gnarls of the roots of trees. She loves frogs and turtles and the swamps with their lily pads. She loves watching the majestic blue heron sailing into the water with its big wings folding in as it lands. She loves the trees as their branches stretch up into the sky, criss-crossing overhead. She loves what she once loved as a child, before her childhood was wiped away.
Today the child of wonder shows the adult, who forgot, all those things which the child had never forgotten. Once I began to give the child inside me some of my time, she began to give me the gifts that only a child can give. She gave me back the eyes of a child. She shows me what she is able to see close up, because she looks closely at what she sees.