In psychotherapy, the inner child is a part of the psyche that feels like a person’s childhood self. Inner child therapy refers to practices that aim to heal a wounded inner child.

Inner child therapy is not a single approach. Instead, many different therapeutic techniques can incorporate inner child work.

For example, in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapist might identify unhelpful beliefs that come from an injured inner child, and help to change them.

Some people also combine the concept of the inner child into more spiritual practices, as well as self-help books. These are not always evidence-based, though, and may not involve a qualified mental health professional.

Read on to learn more about inner child therapy, including its aims, what to expect from sessions, and how to find a therapist.

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In psychology, the inner child is a way of thinking about the part of a person’s personality that feels childlike, such as the part that feels joyful or playful.

The concept is part of several types of therapy that divide a person’s personality into different parts in order to make sense of them. Together, these therapies comprise the various forms of inner child therapy.

Some of the types of inner child therapy that exist include:

Each of these types of therapy is different, but in general, they include a belief that early childhood experiences can create internal wounds that continue to affect the inner child into adulthood.

Some spiritual and alternative practices also incorporate the concept of the inner child.

The goals of each type of inner child therapy vary slightly. Ultimately, though, the aim is to comfort and heal the inner child so that the adult can reduce feelings of sadness, anger, abandonment, or other emotional distress.

For example, in schema therapy, therapists view the inner child as a mental state that people can move in and out of in daily life. There are several subtypes that a person may have.

A person with an angry child mode may have had negative early experiences that caused rage or a feeling of injustice. This may carry over into their life as an adult, changing how they view themselves and the world, which may result in unhelpful beliefs and behaviors.

Schema therapy aims to address these feelings of anger by exploring their root cause, and teaching a person how to soothe or “re-parent” their inner child. This can help a person manage their emotions, and gradually replace old beliefs with more balanced ones.

Researchers have not studied the effectiveness of inner child therapy as a whole, as it refers to many different practices that all work in slightly different ways. However, there is research on the individual types of inner child therapy, such as:

  • Schema therapy: A 2022 review examined the effectiveness of schema therapy for anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It found that schema therapy can improve symptoms of these conditions, but the authors emphasize better quality research is necessary.
  • TA: A 2021 study notes that, despite being in practice since the 1950s, there have been no empirical studies on TA. However, the authors analyzed the concepts in TA, which include ego states that are similar to schema therapy. They found evidence TA could improve symptoms and improve functioning.
  • CBT: CBT is one of the most well-researched types of talk therapy. A 2018 study argues that combining CBT with inner child work could make this form of therapy feel more meaningful and easier to understand, reducing some of the issues some people have with the technical concepts of cognitive therapy.

There has not been a lot of high quality research on Gestalt therapy.

Inner child therapy sessions will vary depending on the type of approach a person chooses. In general, though, it tends to involve:

  • talking about a person’s childhood, particularly their home environment and upbringing
  • talking about specific events that had an impact on them
  • learning how to identify the inner child’s thoughts and feelings
  • learning how to care for the inner child as an adult

There are other forms of therapy that approach this in different ways. For example, in art therapy that centers on the inner child, a therapist might encourage a person to use creative approaches to envision healing their inner child.

Any type of talk therapy can be emotionally difficult at times. This is because it involves talking honestly about feelings and experiences, some of which may be painful to think about.

However, a good therapist will not make a person talk about things they do not feel ready to discuss, and they will not pursue topics that are triggering a trauma response, such as flashbacks or panic attacks. Instead, they may start with easier topics and circle back to the more difficult topics later on.

Therapy is a safe space. A person can tell their therapist if they do not want to talk about something, or if they are feeling too anxious or overwhelmed to continue.

As a person gets more comfortable with their therapist, they may find that talking about difficult things, or expressing painful emotions, creates feelings of relief after sessions. A therapist can also teach coping skills to help with managing these feelings.

However, if symptoms get worse outside of sessions, tell the therapist.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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There is no research on whether a person can heal their own inner child. If a person has experienced any of the following, though, they should work with a mental health professional:

  • potentially traumatic events, such as abuse, bullying, injury, crime, or bereavement
  • persistent anxiety or depression
  • substance misuse
  • disordered eating
  • self-harm or suicidal thoughts

Self-help techniques that focus on the inner child may be an effective complementary therapy, in addition to mental health support. For example, a person might find it helpful to practice self-help exercises outside of therapy or to try additional techniques, such as loving-kindness meditation.

When looking for inner child therapy, choose a therapist that is fully qualified and licensed according to local laws. People may be able to find one in their area using a therapist directory. Alternatively, online therapy may be possible for therapists that are further away.

When contacting potential therapists, it may help to ask:

  • what types of therapy they practice
  • how much experience they have with inner child work
  • how much experience they have with the person’s specific condition or experiences
  • what availability they have for new clients
  • if insurance can cover the treatment

Inner child therapy uses the concept of the inner child to help people understand and heal emotional pain. It is not a single treatment method, but a collection of approaches that can work alone, or alongside other interventions.

Each type of inner child therapy is different, but in general, they teach people how to “re-parent” the childlike part of themselves, helping to regulate their emotions.

Several types of inner child therapy have research supporting their use for a range of conditions. Look for a therapist who is qualified and experienced in this approach.