We have all heard about the idea of the ‘inner child’ – but what does it mean, and how does it relate to alcohol use?
Some theories of psychology refer to the inner child as a part of us that exists inside our adult selves. Theories differ, but broadly the idea is that we all have a part of us that is quite vulnerable, playful, emotional and intuitive. A part that emerges in certain situations, often in times of loss or high emotion.
This can be a useful way to view our reactions or responses to things. For example, if we are having an unusually strong emotional reaction to something, or are feeling especially vulnerable, we might consider that our inner child is being triggered and is in need of some comforting.
How does the ‘inner child’ relate to my drinking?
Often, situations that were painful for us as children (being left alone or being bullied) might trigger the inner child within us and remind us of old wounds. Consider a person who experienced the loss of a parent in childhood. This loss would have been painful and confusing for them. As adults, future experiences of loss for those people might also bring up those feelings of loneliness, fear and abandonment.
The Internal Family Systems therapy framework can help us understand our strong emotional responses to things. This can also be helpful understanding a connection with alcohol use.
Here are some ways that these two can relate:
If we find ourselves experiencing things which are frightening or make us feel vulnerable. This could be related to relationship issues, failure, or criticism. When we feel like this we might try to dampen down those vulnerable emotions with alcohol to try and restore a sense of calm. Alcohol can also make the inner child emotions even more intense. We can find ourselves feeling heightened emotions after a few drinks, so we can quickly become overwhelmed.
Our ‘walls’ that normally keep our emotions within manageable ranges can get knocked down with alcohol (and not always in a good way). There are well established links in the literature between difficult experiences in childhood and alcohol use. This is mainly because alcohol is often used as a strategy for managing difficult emotions.
So how can we look after our inner child, without the use of alcohol?
Alcohol, as we know, can often makes things worse. It also doesn’t really give us what we need, so here are a few alternate options:
Consider what you need when you are feeling vulnerable – Is your ‘inner child’ in need of comforting, or in need of some fun? What kinds of things might help to manage the emotional pain or distress you are feeling? Finding healthy, adult ways to care for that vulnerable part of yourself can be a huge step in the right direction. You could catch up with friends for a games night, or snuggle up in bed with a pet. Try to find ways to get what you need in that moment, without necessarily turning to alcohol as the first option.
Self Care – Things like a hot shower, playing with pets or sitting down with a book. These are all ways of putting yourself in a positive and comforted emotional state, so that you are more likely to feel safe and content.
Support – Often the ‘inner child’ is in need of comfort, and that can be provided by a phone call to a friend, visit to a counsellor or a family member. Having someone who is able to offer a listening ear and guidance can be invaluable when we are in a vulnerable state.
Healthy Adult – One way to support the ‘inner child’ is to strengthen your ‘healthy adult’. Consider what the capable, adult part of you might do to manage the situation or problem. For example, if the inner child is distressed at a partner’s coldness or lack of attention, the healthy adult part might understand that it is necessary to have a conversation with this partner. The healthy adult will discuss what is happening in the relationship. Although the inner child part may want to avoid that conversation and hide away, we know that sometimes difficult conversations are necessary and useful.
DBT therapy and how it helps inner child issues
One effective therapeutic technique to support the inner child is called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This approach focuses on emotional regulation and distress tolerance, and can be incredibly helpful in dealing with strong emotions. The idea is that if we have a set of tools that can help to soothe us in times of distress, we will generally be much better off. We will be more able to handle stressful situations like relationship problems, grief or loneliness.
A lot of the DBT techniques seem like common sense, but essentially they work to create a ‘toolbox’ for an individual to use when they are having a difficult time.
DBT is great to use with the ‘inner child’ because it can really help with strong emotions and models healthy adult ways of coping with them. It can help when we recognise situations where we have become overwhelmed with emotion and acted impulsively or harmfully. For example, drinking too much or getting into an argument. We can then look at other ways we could have dealt with the situation (for example, calling a friend or going for a run).
The inner child is a helpful framework for understanding some of the things that might trigger alcohol use. For many people, recognising that we all possess a vulnerable and emotional part that can be triggered at certain times, is a useful way of being able to predict and manage challenging emotional moments.
Remember, strong emotions are part of being human. This is particularly if you have a lot of things that you value in your life. It would be unusual not to have strong emotions about family, friendships and the things you really care about. It is how we manage these strong emotions that really matters. The good news is that there are many different and sustainable ways of doing this and a lot of resources to help you should you need it.