By Bethany Winfield, MFT, MA, EMDR I & II, Trauma Therapist at The Ranch Studies…
Inner Child Therapy in Recovery: How Stuffed Animals Help Heal Childhood Trauma
By Rebecca Wilson, MS, Primary Therapist, The Ranch
I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough. I am unlovable.
Women who have survived childhood trauma often have many negative core beliefs. As very young children they may have been abused or neglected and the wounds and low self-esteem follow them into adolescence and adulthood.
Some wounds begin in infancy if parents can’t or won’t provide what an infant needs to feel secure. Others begin as the kind of early childhood trauma that festers as the years go by. Left unresolved, the symptoms of these experiences may lead to a myriad of self-sabotaging behaviors, such as drinking, drugs or self-harm.
These childhood wounds can also lead to unhealthy relationships that mirror the behavior women became accustomed to from parents who were abusive, violent, neglectful or absent. This leads to situations that replicate childhood trauma and reinforce negative core beliefs.
So many women come into adulthood broken and unable to grow beyond what happened to them as children.
As a therapist at The Ranch who is also in recovery, I believe it is important to do experiential work, especially with the inner child. This connection is crucial for women in recovery. Women carry great shame and it’s very often connected with the “little girl” parts of themselves.
Inner child work is a way to nurture and/or re-parent the wounded child within. As an aspect of experiential therapy, it allows people to use symbolic experiences and dialog to go to the time they were hurt and connect with the part of them that never healed or grew up because of an earlier disruption.
What Is the Inner Child?
The inner child is at the core of everyone’s personality. When someone has lived through a traumatic experience, the neglected or wounded inner child can cause destruction in a person’s life by acting out.
Children cannot defend themselves or demand the treatment they deserve. They can get stuck in that stage of life, the place where they were hurt or their needs weren’t met. The pain they felt may be buried deep inside, but at some level, it is gnawing away and hurting, as if it occurred just yesterday.
I like to teach clients how to act with love toward their inner child.
Stuffed Animal Therapy
Stuffed animals have been shown to soothe young children. Studies show that a child who is feeling sad will find benefit from embracing a stuffed animal because the texture offers comfort. Stuffed animals and other objects are also often used with people who have gone through trauma and to offer comfort in loss. For example, large numbers of teddy bears were sent to those impacted by the tragedy in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center attacks. Stuffed animals are also used to express grief and are brought to public shrines and memorials as a way of helping people cope.
At The Ranch, we offer women a stuffed animal that is meant to represent their inner child and that can also be a companion. The experience of treating a sweet stuffed animal in the manner they wished they had been treated as children is a gesture toward self-care and helps them learn how to nurture others. Some of the things we discuss include:
- How do you want to be treated? The first step is for clients to give some thought to the ways they would like to be nurtured. They may have never experienced such tender care as children, so they have to imagine it or think of examples they’ve seen in other families or on TV. Maybe their desire is to not be yelled at or hit and they can learn to change that to the more affirmative — being loved. They will naturally think of more things as they continue onward.
- Care for it daily. Taking the stuffed animal on as something they are responsible for gives a sense of what it is like to be taken care of. They treat it like it’s a part of them and there are opportunities all day long to be nurturing.
- Carry it everywhere. They can carry it around everywhere, never abandoning it or leaving it behind. It is also a chance to learn responsibility.
- Sleep with it. Tucking the animal into bed symbolizes ensuring that it is safe and looked after, but it also brings comfort.
- Give it a positive affirmation. Dialog with the stuffed animal and the inner child are part of the experience. Part of the communication must be a positive mantra like, “Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you,” or “I love you just the way you are.” Telling the stuffed animal it’s not alone reinforces the idea that they are not, either.
Following Up in Therapy Sessions
When the client comes for a session, we discuss what has happened with the animal in their care and how they feel about it. Sometimes we use an experiential therapy approach of an empty chair and the client can converse with the younger self about their feelings and things they are discovering.
Other times we do somatic work with the inner child and set up the dynamic of literally feeling the pain of the inner child and then work on soothing it. The goal is for them to learn how to self-soothe in healthy ways.
I have found that carrying around something to represent the inner child is one of the most effective therapeutic approaches. But it’s important to note that working with the stuffed animal can create heavy activation within a person because it’s such a sensitive topic — especially when clients begin to gain more awareness of their true pain and what caused it.
Clients will often need help grounding at the sessions in between the times they are working with the stuffed animal. In these cases, we use deep breathing and meditation.
The idea is to continually help them get emotionally regulated so they can move forward in the inner child work.