Reparenting Therapy Can Help You Heal From Trauma
Whether we're procrastinating too much, staying up late and sleeping badly, or simply numbing our pain with food or alcohol, it's easy to find a way to sabotage ourselves. Some of these destructive behaviors are rooted in traumatic experiences from childhood, which can make it difficult to regulate our emotions and treat ourselves with compassion.
Examples of childhood trauma include losing a parent or caregiver, lacking structure or security, or experiencing physical or emotional abuse.
Reparenting is a therapeutic approach intended to help you "make peace with early trauma by providing what was missing in childhood," said Deborah Shaw, M.Sc., a person-centered counselor at Living Well UK, an organization providing free mental health services to the Birmingham and Solihull regions of England. "By unlearning maladaptive behaviors, you can learn new, more healthy ways of behaving."
Let's dive in
The goal of reparenting therapy is to integrate the "inner child" with the "functional adult self."
The inner child is the "younger part of you that experienced trauma in childhood, while the functional adult self is the part of you that can guide, care and protect the child self," said Krystal Mazzola Wood, M.Ed., L.M.F.T., a Phoenix-based licensed marriage and family therapist and an author at Confidently Authentic.
The inner child concept comes from a theory of personality called transactional analysis.
As Shaw explained, the inner child represents the part of our personality that is innocent, playful and creative, including our dreams and fears.
Essentially, what you learn in childhood influences how you think and behave as an adult. For example, receiving criticism from your boss or partner might trigger similar reactions you had as a child, such as getting angry or running away from conflict.
Experiencing trauma can erode your sense of worth, leaving you to question whether you're "good enough" or "too much." In the latter case, you might have a habit of overthinking situations, becoming too invested in relationships or going the extra mile when it's unnecessary. As you practice reparenting, you can learn to be more self-aware and vulnerable in your relationships.
Where do I begin?
Reparenting therapy focuses on caring for the inner child by setting healthy boundaries and practicing positive affirmations, which Mazzola Wood referred to as "putting love into action." Instead of seeking external validation, you can acknowledge your feelings with the kind of nurturance you didn't receive as a child or teenager.
The following practices are a good place to begin the work of reparenting:
- Self-validation: To address low self-esteem, you can practice self-validation by affirming how you feel based on past experiences. For instance, Mazzola Wood suggested that rather than telling yourself, "It's silly to be scared of rejection," you can honor your experience by saying, "Of course, I'm scared of being rejected again. Rejection is very painful."
- Self-care: Practicing self-care starts with attending to basic physical needs, such as eating nourishing meals and getting enough sleep. "When you care for yourself, even when you don't want to, you act as if you are worthy of love,” Mazzola Wood explained. Such efforts in this direction can help improve your self-esteem.
- Self-compassion: Being critical of yourself and striving for unrealistic standards can fuel perfectionism. To counteract these effects, you can exercise self-compassion by being kind and understanding toward yourself.
- Self-trust: Learning to trust yourself can help you become more authentic. In doing so, you're more likely to feel empowered and have greater faith in your ability to make decisions.
How does reparenting work in practice?
Therapists commonly use the inner child concept in their work, but not all therapists practice reparenting therapy. If you're interested in this approach, Shaw recommended finding a therapist who is specifically trained in reparenting and can take on the role of a concerned and trustworthy parental figure to help you care for your inner child and develop new coping skills.
By demonstrating compassion and acceptance, the therapist can guide you in reexperiencing difficult memories and emotions, Shaw explained. To facilitate healing, the therapist might use roleplay, hypnotism or art therapy.
Critical to the work of reparenting is learning to set boundaries in your relationships. If someone is yelling at you or behaving in a passive-aggressive manner, you can establish a boundary to prevent them from treating you this way. For example, you can choose not to engage with them until they agree to be respectful, lower their voice and not resort to insulting you or giving you the "silent treatment."
In addition to setting boundaries with other people, you can set boundaries with yourself. An example would be agreeing to drink water daily or sleep a certain number of hours per night as you practice self-care.
Aside from working with a therapist, it's possible to "self-reparent" with techniques such as writing a letter to a parent or caregiver without sending it, Shaw suggested. In the letter, you can release painful emotions such as guilt or shame by naming and expressing them.
Another way to self-reparent is by writing a journal. You can start by imagining what your inner child is thinking or feeling. Using your laptop or pen and paper can be a way to reflect on feelings and connect to your inner child—it's a method to comfort and offer guidance to yourself.
Can I benefit from this approach?
Reparenting therapy can benefit anyone suffering emotionally because of what they didn't receive in childhood. If you've experienced neglect, abuse or harsh treatment, reparenting works to address maladaptive behaviors that can play a role in addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), personality disorders and unhealthy relationships.
Poor boundaries and low self-esteem can lead to the development of codependent relationships, Mazzola Wood explained. However, you don't have to be in a relationship to be codependent. If you continually sacrifice your needs for the sake of others, your self-worth might be contingent on how they perceive you. If you come from a family of high achievers, you might have learned that success is the only way to receive validation.
To get the most out of reparenting, it's important to stay curious and open-minded, she added. The idea of connecting with your inner child might feel strange or contrary to how you make sense of the world. Her advice is to trust your gut when thinking about the age of your inner child and what they feel or think.
Through affirmations and self-nurturance, your adult self can learn to acknowledge your inherent worth as an individual. What your inner child will hear is, "I'm already good enough."