Re-parenting My Inner Child: My Journey of Healing from Childhood Neglect
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
I wear layers of clothing so that I don’t freeze to death and I hoard food to prevent starvation. I’m not homeless; in fact, I’m a financially stable professional. I’m simply navigating the anxiety inflicted by my experiences of severe childhood neglect.
When I was seven years old, my world drastically changed. My father began sexually, emotionally, and financially abusing my mother. As a result, both of my parents became detached, not only from one another but also from their children. They isolated themselves in separate rooms, either reading or fixating on television screens. Days would go by when they wouldn’t speak to me.
I’d come home from school to parents’ blank stares. They weren’t happy to see me and they didn’t ask about my day. I felt unimportant and unworthy. Eventually they stopped even looking at me. It was as if I had slowly disappeared. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it does it make a sound? In my case, if a parent doesn’t acknowledge their child, does that child exist? At times, I wasn’t sure if I was real, or if I actually existed. The loneliness started out as painful then over time became normal, as if it was always a part of me.
At eleven years old, I had learned to be an adult. I made my own meals, met my own hygiene needs, earned straight A’s, stayed out of trouble, and eventually took on the role of caretaker for my younger brother and mother. I looked out for them at the expense of my own needs. These actions were praised by my teachers, by extended family members, and by a society that values a girl acting as a caregiver. I was the “Golden Child.”
Underneath the surface I was unable to form healthy attachments to anyone. The experience of being unattached is like living in a world where you are always surrounded by concrete walls. You can peek over the tops of these walls at people and perhaps even touch them now and then, but they can’t break through and you can’t take these walls down. I could appear like a child capable of love because I learned what to say and how to act, but I didn’t love. I simply couldn’t. I couldn’t make friends or rely on adults for support. I was alone in a house with a family. I was alone in schools full of teachers and kids.
I was plagued with anxiety, including a persistent fear that, one day, I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself. My worries were similar to those of a homeless child; with little help or support. What will I do if I don’t get enough food today? If I miss the bus, how will I get to school? If I get sick, will I die or can I somehow find a doctor? Where will I sleep if I get locked out of the house? What if someone hurts me?
As an adult, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and I learned that my anxiety was created by my experiences of childhood neglect. I had developed survival mechanisms that kept me alive as a child, but these methods no longer worked. These survival mechanisms were to:
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Act perfectly. Meet and exceed all expectations. If you’re perfect, you can’t harm anyone. If you make mistakes, you will hurt someone’s feelings or you’ll cause them inconvenience, and this has to be avoided at all costs. Your value is based upon how well you care for others and/or stay out of their way.
I was perfect. I got straight A’s in school and I never got in any trouble, ever. But, I wish I had. I was severely bullied and I never fought back. As a result I became a complacent target which made the bullying worse. My fear of getting in trouble which is to say my fear of my parents was always more terrifying than being bullied by my peers.
Be invisible. If people can’t see you, they can’t hurt you. Don’t do anything that draws attention to yourself. You can’t stand out. Stay quiet and people will leave you alone and you’ll be safe.
In order to become invisible, I had to physically freeze. My little body became tense and motionless around adults so that they couldn’t see me. I would sit for hours without moving or speaking and the anxiety became trapped in my body. Over time I developed headaches, muscle pains, and ulcers.
Hoard. Hide things that you need (such as food, money, and clothing). You can never have enough stuff as, one day, you’ll need it. Remember, no one is going to help you. You need to survive on your own.
I hid food and medication in the attic. I had to choose food that I could prepare and which wouldn’t spoil and medication that I could safely use on your own. I placed cans of green beans, boxes of Mac and Cheese, and loose Tylenol, Advil, and antacid pills in a spot that I could reach from the exposed hole in the ceiling in my bedroom. As I got older, I’d find better places throughout my house to hide things that I needed.
Hide your emotions. Apathy is the only safe emotion. Make your face look flat so no one knows what you’re feeling. If you have to cry, hide somewhere and cry quietly. Don’t get too happy or excited, as that only irritates or exhausts people.
My parents rarely expressed emotion and when they did it wasn’t safe. My mother would appear emotionless one moment and then would appear enraged within seconds. My father expressed irritation and disappointment whenever I appeared happy or excited. It was exhausting for him and he’d rather I just stop feeling joy.
My survival methods were successful, as I survived. Yet, they no longer worked for the adult I’d become. The same methods that helped me to survive were now contributing to my anxiety. How could I move past an instinctive focus on survival? How could I change something I’ve always known? How could I change someone I’ve always been?
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My healing consisted of a combination of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) therapy, ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse) support groups, and IMPACT, a women’s self-defense training program. These experiences taught me how to re-parent myself. Re-parenting is exactly what it sounds like: a second chance to be parented. But this time, I’m the parent. Who is the child? I am. I have an inner child who is alive and desperately needs a parent. The first step in this process was connecting with this neglected girl.
My inner child is nine years old, for that was when I was learning to survive and had not yet completely shut down. She’s a tomboy dressed in green corduroy overalls with holes in the knees. She’s witty and not afraid to say something scandalous in order to make you laugh. She learned to climb the treacherous roof of her house by taking off her shoes and using her feet to cling to the roof siding. She’d go up there to smoke cigars and throw eggs at the neighbor’s house with her brother. She’s fearless. She’s also very lonely and lacking in confidence. She needs a good parent.
But I’m not a parent and I don’t plan to become one. What do I know about parenting? It turns out that my therapists, colleagues, and friends knew how to be good parents. I was able to use them as resources and role models in my re-parenting journey. I watched how my friend acted as a mother to her four year old daughter. When she was having a tantrum her mother didn’t ignore her or ask her to stop. She knelt down, touched her, looked her in the eyes and said, “Yes, you’re upset. I know.” She accepted her daughter’s emotions and these interactions are telling her daughter that she is valued. This was the type of parent that I want to be for myself.
As I acted as a new parent for myself, I began to replace past mechanisms and strategies of survival that were no longer working.
Here are my new beliefs:
It’s safe to make mistakes. When a child makes mistakes, healthy parents perceive their mistakes as opportunities for learning. I had to convince my inner child that it’s safe to make mistakes and that my mistakes are unlikely to harm or inconvenience others. To do this, I had to learn to allow myself to make mistakes without judging and criticizing myself. So, when I forgot something, took the wrong train, was late, or missed a deadline, I let it go. I told my inner child, “Yes, you made a mistake and it’s okay to feel sad or frustrated because no one likes making mistakes. But, don’t forget all the things you’ve done right today. Can you name a few? Also, what have we learned that will help us next time?” I took note of lessons learned or apologies that needed to be made, and then tried my best to let it go. Over time, my inner child learned that she could safely make mistakes.
You can meet your needs. I’d spent my childhood and my career taking care of others. When I needed to be cared for, I experienced intense anxiety. The notion that I could take care of myself, and moreover the notion that I was worthy of taking care of myself, were among the hardest, most entrenched assumptions I needed to challenge, as my role as a caretaker for others had been so positively reinforced by many of the adults in my life as well as by society at large. I needed to teach my inner child that she had needs and that these needs deserved to be met. I started by purchasing things that I had denied myself: a pair of shoes that actually fit, a comfortable mattress, and a warm winter coat. I spoke to my inner child as a parent, saying “It’s ok. We can afford it. This is a good investment.” Gradually, I taught her how to establish firm boundaries with people regarding her time and resources. I felt less of a need to take care of others and developed a better ability to prioritize my own needs.
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You have what you need. Once I convinced my inner child that I was able to meet her needs, she was more able to accept that she didn’t need to hoard items in order to protect herself. I re-parented her by saying, “When we need more food I will go out and buy more,” “We have money in a savings account for an emergency, we don’t need to hide money,” and “We have plenty of sweaters for the winter.” Providing this reassurance helped to calm my anxiety and decreased my hoarding tendencies. I can now declutter my belongings and I can wait until I need something rather than stockpile things in anxious anticipation of an imaginary emergency.
You can take up space in the world. Staying invisible is not safe; in fact, it likely puts my inner child at greater risk to those who would harm her. I needed to show her that her existence does not automatically negatively impact others,that she can live and take up emotional and physical space in the world. I started by cutting my hair. I always wanted an unconventional, short haircut but was too afraid of drawing attention. I got that haircut. Then I started wearing clothes that I liked with less of a concern for what people would think. As a parent to my inner child, I would ask her questions such as, “Do you like this?” “What do you think?” whenever she expressed anxiety concerning the perceptions of others. I soon realized that most people aren’t looking at me and it’s only the opinions of a select few that matter.
It’s ok to feel. This is one thing with which I still struggle. How do you convince a child that they can experience and express their emotions without harming others? First, I had to admit to my inner child that I hadn’t done a good job of welcoming safe people into my life as an adult. I attracted people who wanted me to remain emotionless and silent and who wished to exploit me as their caretaker. I committed to my inner child that I would find people who wanted me to feel, to have needs, and to take up space in the world. After all, I didn’t expect this child to express her emotions to just anyone. I was able to find people who were not shocked or disturbed by my anger, sadness, or anxiety. They listened. They understood. They accepted me. Over time, my inner child became comfortable expressing her emotions in the presence of these safe people, and thereby she came to develop a healthier relationship with her own emotional needs and vulnerabilities as well as a better ability to form beneficial, rewarding attachments to others.
My journey of healing from childhood neglect is ongoing and I suspect it will always be a part of me. I’m proud of the parent that I have become and I am overjoyed that this nine year old girl has grown to trust and rely on me. She finally has the mother that she always deserved.