Have you ever had the experience of walking into your childhood home and feeling like a kid again? Or visiting family and feeling suddenly years younger, perhaps more argumentative than usual or less empowered?
It is easy and common to slip into old habitats and patterns when we are around those who raised us or knew us as kids. We relate to each other in old familiar ways, often unconsciously, and see each other as we once were, even if time, circumstance or effort have significantly changed us. It happens on a body level; it’s not something we decide or choose.
This can be particularly jarring and challenging if you are not around your family often. Or if you suffered abuse or neglect as a child. In addition to whatever excitement or expectations are present today, you also bring with you all the younger parts of yourself, the wounded kid who may still feel hurt, angry , scared or misunderstood.
As Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child:*
“In each of us, there is a young, suffering child. We have all had times of difficulty as children and many of us have experienced trauma. To protect and defend ourselves against future suffering, we often try to forget those painful times…But just because we may have ignored the child doesn’t mean she or he isn’t there. The wounded child is always there, trying to get our attention.”
Listening and Understanding
What can we do to care for this younger part of ourselves? How do we heal from the wounds of our past? How do we get through the holidays and family gatherings as we feel like we’re 12 again, or 4 or 16?
This is something I have been consciously navigating for years. Perhaps paradoxically, the more aware I am of the kid in me and what she needs, the easier it is for me to show up as an adult around my family. My inner kid does not have to run the show. She wants attention from me; she needs something. As I grow and understand more about her experience (i.e. my experience as a kid), I am more able to listen to her and truly be with her. Sometimes she shows up as a feeling, generally an intense one. In that moment, I can pause and recognize that my inner kid is here. I can also remember that I am still an adult, even as I feel like a little kid.
Thich Nhat Hanh again:
“When we speak of listening with compassion, we usually think of listening to someone else. But we must also listen to the wounded child inside of us…If you are mindful, you will hear his or her voice calling for help.”
Three tools/practices that have been helpful to me in this process are journaling, imagery and compassionate awareness. You can use these before, during or after being with family. Or, really, any time.
On a recent family visit, I practiced all three. At the end of each night, I spent time writing down what I had felt and seen throughout the day. I imagined the young kid in me sitting by my side or in my lap and I listened. I asked her to tell me what she knew and what she needed. I wrote such phrases as, “I understand,” “I see you,” and “I’m here.”
A simple way to use imagery if you have never done it is to start by picturing yourself as a kid. Then imagine that kid (you) being held in loving, protective arms. See if you can get a sense of what it would feel like to be held in that way. Stay with that feeling and image as long as you like.
When I was with my family, I also made a mental note of my experience throughout the day. I noticed whether I felt present or spaced out. I paid attention to moments when I was agitated or feeling powerless. I asked myself how old I was feeling and if my adult or kid selves were present. I practiced bringing compassion to each experience I had without needing to change it. As I did this, I also gave myself permission to walk away and take breaks. And I reminded myself it was not my job to take care of anyone else. It was my job to take care of the kid in me, to give to her the things that were missing from her childhood.
This is not about blame or judgment. No one is perfect, not our parents or caregivers, grandparents or siblings. Even when parents are doing the best job they possibly can, kids end up disappointed, hurt, and wounded. There is no way to get through childhood untouched by pain. And as kids, there is so little we can do. We depend on those who are caring for us. As adults, we now have resources we never had. We now have the opportunity to heal those old wounds.
Even if you are not visiting family over the holidays or you have already seen them, you can use these same tools. You can reflect back on the last time you were with your family and bring your awareness to what you saw and felt. You can journal about it, perhaps addressing your words to the kid in you and letting them know you are listening. You can revisit old memories and imagine someone there with you, someone to witness your experience and offer kindness. This could be someone real or imagined, an animal, a spiritual being, etc.
If what you feel most is grief or longing around not being with loved ones over the holiday, you can care for yourself here, too. Practice meeting your grief with kindness. Write a letter to or from your grief. Imagine being held by a loving presence.
The holidays can be hard. They can be beautiful and rich. Joyous. Sad. Stressful. Peaceful. Whatever your experience is and whatever your traditions are, I invite you to practice caring for the kid in you. What do the younger parts of you want to tell you? What do they need?
I will end by letting you know that I am offering a reduced rate for new and returning clients in December and January. I recognize how challenging this time of year can be and I want to be more accessible to anyone who needs additional support. Feel free to contact me for details or a free consultation.
*Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2010) Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press
Katherine Grigg, MPC, RSMT has a Master of Pastoral Counseling degree and is a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist. She sees clients in Lenox, Massachusetts and over phone/video chat. Her approach is holistic, compassionate and intuitive. Appropriate for anyone seeking a deeper sense of connection to themselves, their spirituality and/or the world around them. LGBTQ+ Friendly. Contact her to learn more or connect with her on facebook.