sad child sitting on the ground

Childhood trauma has lasting effects that can impact us throughout adulthood and can even be transferred to our children. Exposure to various forms of abuse, violence, loss or neglect early in life has been linked to higher risks for addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health conditions.

Treatment for trauma and related disorders sometimes includes getting in touch with your “wounded inner child.” Simply put, your wounded inner child is any emotional and psychological baggage you have carried from early childhood that leads to emotional or psychological problems as an adult. The term “inner child” has been popularized by writers in the self-help field, most notably John Bradshaw, who wrote the best-selling book Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, among others.

How do you know if your adult problems are related to wounds you have carried with you since childhood? The “wounded child” archetype is usually characterized by a person who, as an adult, repeats their childhood patterns of negative experiences or dysfunctional behaviors they learned from adults in their lives. For example, a little girl who watched her mother get abused by her father may repeatedly attract abusive men as an adult.

Therapies for Recovering From Childhood Trauma

Adults who struggle with addictions and mental health issues stemming from childhood adversity can heal those wounds. There are a number of therapies that help people recognize negative patterns they learned in childhood and “re-parent” their inner child, including:

#1 Chair Work

Using an experiential approach called “the empty chair technique,” a therapist will ask you to sit across from an empty chair and imagine that someone (such as a parent or other relative) is sitting in the chair. You will have a dialogue with that “person,” telling them your feelings and thoughts — perhaps explaining what you needed from them (but didn’t get) in childhood. You might also be asked to reverse roles and assume the role of the metaphorical person in the empty chair.

Chair work can be particularly useful when important figures from the past can’t or won’t communicate with you or participate in therapy. Some of the goals of this technique are to get you in touch with feelings about the past and help you reconnect with parts of yourself that you may have denied or tried to minimize through substance abuse or other destructive behaviors. As you reconnect with feelings and memories, you also become aware of how these are linked to your current behaviors and what you can do to change them.

#2 Schema Therapy

Schema therapy can be particularly helpful for people who are challenged by social situations and relationships and/or have poor coping skills stemming from childhood trauma. Early maladaptive schemas often develop in children raised in hostile or dysfunctional environments, and these schemas — problematic coping mechanisms, memories, emotions or thoughts about oneself and others — can continue as dysfunctional responses and behaviors into adulthood.

Schema therapy is an integrative approach that draws on cognitive behavioral therapy and attachment theory, among others. Studies show that schema therapy has a high rate of success in helping to heal problems that stem from childhood experiences. Key to its success is the therapist’s use of re-parenting techniques to reach the “vulnerable child” and meet the client’s core emotional needs.

Through a variety of approaches that might include schema dialogues, diaries, role plays and skills training, schema therapy teaches you how to change the way you view yourself and others, and helps you overcome avoidance or other self-defeating responses to people and situations.

#3 EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is an information-processing technique that can help you ease distress caused by exposure to traumatic events. EMDR therapy helps diminish the effects of psychological trauma that may manifest as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, anxiety, panic attacks, overwhelming emotions and fear.

EMDR involves tracking a stimulus with your eyes, such as the therapist’s finger movements or other sensory cues, while simultaneously focusing inward on a negative mental image, feeling, thought or physical sensation. This dual processing technique engages the left and right sides of your brain to decondition your responses to trauma. The rapid eye movements and the focus on sensory stimuli help you retrieve, process and resolve past experiences that are contributing to your current challenges.

Through these therapies and other approaches, you can find healthy ways to fulfill core needs that were unmet in childhood and keep old wounds from diminishing your quality of life today.