You may have heard the term “inner child” before in conversations about therapy or even have seen it on social media, as it has become a popular buzzword in recent years associated with healing ourselves. But, what actually is inner child work and how can it be useful to adults with food allergies?
Although the term “inner child” is buzzing on social media platforms, it is not a new concept. Psychologist Carl Jung coined the term about 100 years ago when he defined various archetypes that we each are born with inside of us, one of which he named the “divine child.” Jung theorized that we each have a divine child or inner child that drives our decision-making on an unconscious level. Now, most psychotherapists view the inner child as the child part of ourselves that never grew up. The inner child holds all of our childhood memories and messages that we learned and internalized from others, both good and bad. Viewing our child selves as our inner children can be a helpful way to recognize how our childhood experiences impact our thoughts and behaviors today while remaining compassionate towards ourselves.
There’s also the notion of a “wounded inner child.” This idea refers to an inner child that may have experienced trauma or received negative messages from others. A wounded inner child can manifest as people-pleasing, difficulty setting boundaries with others, difficulty showing or expressing emotions, a sense of self-worth that is solely tied to productivity or success, and high sensitivity to criticism. The idea is that these behaviors originate as learned responses to a stressful childhood environment but now, as adults, we can learn to work with our inner children and change these no-longer-helpful behaviors.
Inner child work is reparenting ourselves. It involves working with the child part of ourselves, getting to know them, speaking to them, understanding where our beliefs and behaviors come from, and reshaping them. It can involve engaging in a visualization exercise where you imagine your child self in detail, writing a letter to your child self, engaging in fun activities or play that you either loved as a child or always wanted to try, and even simply hugging yourself. Inner child work is not a replacement for therapy, and in fact, is often done with a therapist. As always, please consult with a mental health professional before beginning inner child work if you have any concerns.
You might be asking yourself, how is inner child work relevant to food allergy adults? I’d argue that inner child work is important for everyone, but many of us who were born with or have lived with severe food allergies for most of our lives have internalized negative messages related to our condition. Living with food allergies is an ongoing stress and legitimate fear that involves navigating the world with caution and vigilance. We often are met with negative reactions from others, invalidating environments, lack of accommodations, and feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness over our health. These feelings can be heightened if we have experienced anaphylactic reactions. The research has found heightened levels of emotional distress, hypervigilance, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and depression among children with food allergies, underscoring the potential need for adults with food allergies to engage in inner child work to reparent and nurture this part of themselves. From personal experience, core beliefs that I have struggled with related to my food allergies have included, “I am a burden,” “My allergies are an inconvenience to everyone,” “I am different and weird because of my allergies,” “I am always in danger of my allergens,” and “I don’t trust myself or anyone to keep me safe.” Inner child work, in combination with therapy, has helped me to develop more self-compassion and challenge these core beliefs that have contributed to my difficulties with setting boundaries, speaking up for myself, and advocating for myself in regards to my allergies.
Through practicing different activities to reconnect with my inner child and reparent myself, I have been able to undo many of these unhelpful beliefs and increase my senses of self-esteem and confidence in navigating the world with my allergies. Below, I have included a list of activities that have helped me with my inner child work if you are interested in exploring this.
Inner Child Work Activities
Visualize your inner child. Engage in a visualization exercise, either using a guided meditation or on your own, by closing your eyes and envisioning your child self. Envision what they look like, sound like, and even smell like. If it is helpful, look at childhood photos to further jog your memory and help your reconnect with this part of yourself.
Engage in play. Make a list of activities you loved to do as a child and choose one of them to engage in. Alternatively, choose an activity that you always wanted to do as a child but weren't able to. Let yourself be free in the activity, not putting pressure on yourself to be "good" at it, but to simply spend time being in the moment with yourself and the freedom to play.
Write your inner child a letter. Ask yourself what your younger self needed to hear. Reminders about what they are capable of? Words of encouragement? Comfort in difficult times? Give that to them.
Speak to your inner child. It may feel silly at first, but it can be very helpful to talk to ourselves out loud. Ask your inner child how they are feeling. What are they struggling with? Is there anything they need from you right now to feel better? An example of something I might say to mine include, "I know you wish you did not have food allergies because it makes you feel like an inconvenience. I want you to remember that it is not your fault that you have them and you are not an inconvenience. The people in your life who matter will never make you feel like one for having them. Your food allergies are actually a strength. They make you aware, compassionate, and inspire your love of cooking."
Make your favorite meal from childhood. Food can be triggering for many of us with severe food allergies. Treat yourself by making a favorite comfort meal. Show yourself that you can take care of yourself and eat delicious food regardless of your allergies.
Give yourself a hug. It's really as simple as sitting with yourself and giving yourself a hug. It may sound weird, but holding ourselves, even rocking ourselves back and forth, can be extremely regulating.
Write positive self-affirmations. If speaking out loud to your inner child isn't your jam, writing down positive self-affirmations either on your phone, paper, or even post-it notes can be a useful way to speak to yourself. Some examples of positive self-affirmations include "I am capable of speaking up for myself," "I am an amazing advocate for myself and others," or "I am not a burden. My allergies do not make me a burden."
Practice speaking up for yourself. This is something that I have historically struggled with, but what has helped me is practicing and imagining that I am speaking up for my inner child. I will practice communicating my allergies or setting my allergy boundaries in small-stakes scenarios like role-playing with a trusted friend or to myself in the mirror. Once I feel comfortable getting the words out, I will move to talking with my friends about my allergies and then eventually, with new people. If I am in a restaurant and feeling nervous about speaking to the staff about my allergies, it helps me to remind myself that the little girl inside me deserves to be advocated for. That often gives me the push I need to speak up for myself and not minimize my allergy out of fear of being viewed as annoying or inconvenient.
All of these activities can be useful for any person, but I think inner child work can be especially helpful for teens or adults with food allergies who may struggle with negative self-talk and self-advocacy. As a reminder, these activities are not a replacement for therapy. Please speak to a licensed mental health professional if you have any mental health concerns.