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Breaking News—There Is No Child Within

I hate to break it to you, but there is no “child within you” or “inner child.” The term has been around for decades, and I hear it often when talking with clients. If you’re willing to give up this concept, you can replace it with one that is more constructive and healing.

If you’re an adult, you can’t be a child. You have the brain and other body components of an adult. Sure, you may act like a child, think immaturely, feel childish, or be totally in touch with and affected by your positive or negative memories from childhood—but you can’t do this as anything but the adult you are. There is no “part” of you that is a child, as in, “The child in me wants to strike back when someone hurts my feelings” or “There’s a wounded child in me.” Where is that child? Exactly which part of you contains this alleged “child”? You’re an adult from head to toe, always and completely.

These child-referential terms have been useful in understanding your life, and I’m not denying that what happened to us in childhood can haunt us right into and straight through adulthood. I am stating, however, that our choices come from being an adult. History and childhood are with us only via memory. If you view life from the perspective that you’re an adult with a 100% fully functioning brain which you lacked (by virtue of it developing gradually in youth), then you’re on the right track. You have adult capacities and capabilities unless you’re developmentally or intellectually delayed or disabled.

Of course, you might sometimes think, feel or act in ways we call childish (I sure do!), but these thoughts, emotions and behaviors are reactions that occur when you’re not engaging your entire adult brain, but are allowing memories to rule. So, let’s be clear and say that although there is no “child within” or “inner child,” there are your memories which hold impressions of your childhood. Your “acute” memory system is meant to function like a first responder in times of high threat—act first and think later. There are other components of your adult brain (your frontal lobes) whose function is exactly the opposite—to help you think through consequences before you speak or act.

The problem with the concept of believing you have a “child within” or an “inner child” is that you treat it as if it is an actual part of you rather than a set of memories of what happened to you. That’s like the difference between being bitten by a dog and recalling having been bitten. Instead of using “child” terms to describe the roots of your reactive thoughts, feelings and behaviors, substitute the term “memories of childhood.” That way you can function as the adult you are 100% of the time and make better choices.