Listening to your inner child: Self-care or self-sabotage?

When I moved three hundred miles away to uni, one of the first things I did was buy a box of super chocolatey cereal, the one from Lidl that’s filled with Nutella. This was my first act of harmless rebellion that I felt I could never afford to have before, one to feed my inner child. As I ate an enormous portion of the chocolate cereal that’d make my mother’s blood boil to see me eating, I felt like I’d done something for the anxious eight-year-old I used to be, who just wanted something sugary and comforting. 

That restricted child was now in the body of an independent adult with all the freedoms that I didn’t have when I was younger in a very strict home. I was officially listening to my inner child. It started fine with the odd cereal bowl in the daytime, but I soon realised that my inner child when unrestricted was a bit more like Chucky and less like the Matilda I used to be. With access to everything a city full of students has to offer, things spiralled into a mess far too often. 

Claire Colomb, a London-based psychologist who specialises in inner child therapy, says that this surface-level introspection to discover what you missed out on as a child is important, but fails to recognise what listening to your inner child should involve. Basically, no, you can’t indulge everything the eight-year-old in your brain fancies and claim it’s good for your ‘mental health’, although it is important to hear them. 

Colomb says: “You can’t give that inner child control, what child do you know that wants total control? That kid inside you’re listening to needs exactly that, to be listened to. That will reveal what the deeper thing you need is and what action you take. You have to look deeper than the initial thing that speaks to your inner child and figure out what that says about your needs now.” (So not listening to the impulse to take whatever pill that random guy just gave you, bake a cake at three in the morning or fight someone getting in your face, just because you never could before and letting that dictate your decisions.) 

The simple fact that ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ had been blocked out of my head by the idea that I was just experiencing new things and independence, healing my inner child by saying yes to everything. That childlike impulsivity feels freeing, but I quickly had to confront that listening to your inner child shouldn’t prevent you from actually growing up, and saying ‘yes’ to everything after a lifetime of having to say ‘no’ catches up with you. 

“I saw on TikTok these kids making slime, and I was never allowed to have messy stuff as a kid, so in my own house thought I’d give it a go,” says Jess, 20, confessing the sticky situation listening to her inner child got her in. “I followed this eleven-year-old instructions, and I don’t know what happened, but I ended up spilling an enormous bowl of sloppy chemicals all over the inside of the fridge. My housemates were furious, and the kitchen had the weirdest slimy smell for ages. No inner children were healed that day despite my efforts.” 

“If you go down a path of impulsive and destructive behaviour under the guise of ‘listening to your inner child’, you are just deflecting responsibility. It’s a way to explore your independence without forcing yourself to grow up,” Colomb says. 

One of the scariest things about your twenties I think is coming to terms with the fact that you are no longer a child, and that’s maybe why after hearing ‘listen to your inner child’, so many of us jump at the opportunity to listen to and revert to childlike impulsivity, as a way of shielding us from being an actual adult. Even if there is unresolved stuff from your childhood, the way to combat it is not to behave how you wish you could have as a child or teenager. 

“My parents are super religious, and when I went back home a year ago, I thought it’d be a really healing thing for me to do to go into my old church after a night out with my mates,” says Ben, 21, recalling the messes listening to his inner child has got him in. “I just couldn’t stop thinking about the altar bread we used to be given. So, we managed to get in, found a box of them and ate them all together in the pews. I don’t think it did anything for my inner child and was a stupid drunk decision, but one thing my inner child had right was that those little wafers are weirdly delicious. I didn’t touch the wine though; breaking into a church and stealing seemed fine at the time, but nicking the wine was a step too far. Reckon I’ll keep my inner child to myself and stick to the kebab shop next time.” 

It is misguided to allow your inner child to take over, even if it’s a fun way to live in the short term and a lot of people trying independently to connect with their inner child can stumble at this hurdle to reach the deeper meaning to what their inner child craves, rather than just shallowly hearing them. 

Thankfully though, Claire Colomb thinks that we have the best tools to do so now and that even though our attempts to therapize ourselves can be a little misguided, it’s best to try. 

“The trend of listening to your inner child is a wonderful attempt for people to allow themselves to be more vulnerable and honest, without shame, they just need to do it in the right way. Your generation is more courageous for starting to look inwards more, and the fact that so many of you are looking to heal something in your 20s, which is such an incredibly tumultuous time, is a great and brave thing.”   So eat that cereal for dinner once in a while, buy a loom band kit, watch the new Minions movie, listen to your inner child, but don’t let them take the reins. Just because maybe you couldn’t say ‘yes’ as a child, doesn’t mean you have to now.

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