Tending to Your Inner Child

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Tending to Your Inner Child.” To listen to this episode, click here.

A big part of Relational Self-Awareness is understanding how the past travels with us: how, at times, the past shows up in the present, how our early experiences shape our lives today, how our early experiences, when they were confusing or painful, create constrictions on what we are able to experience in our lives today. And how, by connecting the dots between then and now, we can begin to get free. We can begin to access long-denied parts of ourselves. And as we heal ourselves, we create new possibilities for our relationships. Introspection and intimacy go hand in hand. We do this deep and sometimes difficult work of exploring the past not to punish the people who raised us and not as a sort of esoteric activity. We do the work of self-reflection so that we can create new possibilities for our lives today. So we can reimagine love! 

In this blog, I talk to, and about, “Little You”—the younger version of you that lives inside of you today, the younger you that is at risk of getting activated in any of your relationships, but especially your intimate relationship. This is a huge topic, but here I am going to focus on understanding and tending to your inner child, and I will do that by unpacking this idea that when a family system is struggling, members of that family get stuck in roles—roles that limit their growth and self-expression. I am going to:

  1. Talk about your “Original Love Classroom,” which is the family system you grew up in.
  2. Give you a sense of some of the roles that family systems cast family members into so you can identify the role you played.
  3. Explore how to get freed up from a role that you once played.

If you listen to the podcast, you know that when we do one of these solo deep dive episodes, we offer a companion worksheet to newsletter subscribers. If you’re already subscribed, the worksheet for this episode will arrive in your inbox. If you are not a subscriber, head to www.dralexandrasolomon.com/roles to download the worksheet. The worksheet can accompany this blog article as well.

Understanding Your Original Love Classroom

One of the core tenets of Relational Self-Awareness is that the self is relational. We come to know ourselves through our relationships. You are forever shaping, and shaped by, the relationships you are in. This has been true since you took your first breath, and it will be true until you take your last breath. You are not a self-contained unit. You are connected to all that is around you. Einstein called it the “delusion of separateness” when we act as if we do not belong to and participate in the systems around us. The system that we are going to be analyzing today is the family system, specifically the family system that you grew up in, or what I call your “Original Love Classroom.” Your Original Love Classroom is where you first witnessed and experienced love, modeled by the people who raised you. As a child, you consciously and subconsciously took note of the behaviors and emotions of the big people around you. In this way, you received messages growing up (some healthy and helpful, others unhealthy and unhelpful) that impact the way you understand and interact with love, and the people you love, today.

And the experiences you had in your Original Love Classroom form what I call your Love Template. Your Love Template lives inside of you as a particular set of expectations, hopes, fears, longings, beliefs that you bring into your intimate relationship based on your early experiences. Your Love Template develops as a blend of two things: (1) observations you made and (2) experiences you had.

Observations you made might include noticing: how the Big People talked to each other, differences between how girls were treated and how boys were treated, how big emotions were handled, how differences of opinion were handled, how the Big People touched (or didn’t touch) each other, who was allowed to ask for what and in what circumstances, and who was not allowed to ask for things. 

Experiences you had may include: what you were allowed to ask for and not allowed to ask for, which feelings of yours were tolerated, celebrated, shut down, what you were praised for, what you were punished for, how you were touched, in what contexts and how, who you were told you had to be based on your sex and gender, and who you were told you could not be or should not be based on your sex and gender. Examining features of your Original Love Classroom will help you understand the topography of your Love Template—your strengths, your growing edges, your preferences, and your blind spots.

Systems Theory 101

Let’s really take a look at your Original Love Classroom, your family system, including the structure of it, how it functioned, and why it functioned that way. I’m going to do that through the lens of Systems Theory. Yep, I’m hitting you with a little Systems Theory 101. Buckle up! 

A family is a system, which means that it has all the properties that any system has—think ecological system, educational system, digestive system. A family is far more than just a collection of individuals. It is a system of interconnected and interdependent individuals. And, as Aristotle said, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” There are dynamics that emerge in the space between people that shifts and changes both the individuals and the system itself. Change in one part of the system affects the system.

Like all systems, a family system practices homeostasis. Homeostasis is a self-regulating process that helps a system maintain stability while adjusting to changing external conditions. A simple biological example is that when we heat up, we sweat to cool ourselves off. A family maintains homeostasis through rules, roles, and expectations. With the sweat example, the goal is to maintain a consistent internal temperature in the face of changing context (exercising or being in the sun for example). With the family example, the goal, in the largest sense, is to stay together, to create stability. And as will see in a moment, when a family system is struggling, it will create an approximation of stability by any means necessary.

For a family system, the changing context is a dynamic blend of normative and non-normative stressors. Change is inherently stressful! Even normative changes like children starting school, adolescence, or menopause, and even chosen changes like having a baby or starting a new job, are often stressful. And clearly, so-called “non-normative” stressors are hard—unexpected changes like sickness, job loss, addiction, infidelity, and trauma. And for families that occupy one or more marginalized identities, there are added stressors of systemic racism, religious oppression, economic inequality, and more that have a compounding effect on all of this.

A family system needs to adapt, not just to a changing context, but also to the changes that just happen with time. Parents can be clicking along with an infant, and then the infant becomes a toddler. There’s a new set of challenges in parenting a toddler that the parents need to adapt to. Sometimes a parent/child relationship is clicking along just fine and then they start to struggle with each other. When that happens, I ask that parent what their own life was like when they were that age. Sometimes the parent’s inner child is activated. Sometimes a parent is watching their child experience a kind of freedom they could only have dreamt of at that age, so what’s coming up for the parent is some complicated feelings of envy, like a “You don’t know how good you have it” sort of feeling. Sometimes it’s that the child has reached the age the parent was when the parent experienced a trauma, so what’s coming up inside the parent is a lot of fear. If this part lands for you, either as the kid or the parent in these examples, just take a breath here. All of our Relational Self-Awareness work is about illuminating what’s beneath the surface, not to blame but to understand.

A healthy family system is a bit of a Goldilocks situation: Not too rigid, not too chaotic. I want to highlight what Dr. Dan Siegel has identified as the five hallmarks of a healthy family system.

  • Flexible: You can show up all different kinds of ways and you still belong, versus always being labeled “the smart one” or “the pretty one.” You get to “contain multitudes,” as the poet Walt Whitman said.
  • Adaptive: Rules change over time and in different contexts, one person isn’t doing well, others pick up the slack for a bit. vs. “But we’ve always done it this way.”
  • Coherent: What happens makes sense, follows from what was going on before, we can talk about then to now and look ahead. vs. Cannot follow the through line, not shared, discontinuous, we were doing this and now we’re doing that. Domestically violent men nearly universally have chaotic childhoods and their stories of the past lack coherence (not an excuse, but context).
  • Energized: People’s faces light up when others come in the room, people are able to attend to each other versus manic or flat.
  • Stable: You know who will be where. There is what one of the original self-help writers, M. Scott Peck, called, “a relationship of constancy.”

Little People need what Dan Siegel calls “The Four S’s.” Feeling Seen, Safe, Soothed, Secure. Those five qualities help create an environment where Little People can experience that.

When a Family System Struggles

When a family system is struggling, Little People become who the Big People need them to be. Why? Because of homeostasis. You may have subconsciously decided to become easy when your Big People were overwhelmed, or become a shining super star so that your Big People can’t ignore you when they are lost in their own worlds. As Dr. Gabor Mate teaches, the little version of us trades authenticity for belonging. Why? Because the need for safety supersedes everything else! Little People are wholly dependent on their caregivers and need to do what they can do to ensure their safety to survive.

What I know for sure is that Big People care for Little People at the level of their awareness and to the degree of their healing. You were born into a particular family system at a particular moment in time. And, by the way, you were born with a particular temperament and set of inherent qualities too! We’ll never solve the nature-nurture debate, and my field has given up trying, but for sure you came in with some distinct particular You-ness. You were shaped by your environment, but you also had some factory settings, so to speak. That’s why developmental psychologists talk about the goodness-of-fit between a Little Person and their Big People. If you watched your mom have a “better relationship” with your sister than with you, perhaps it is, in part, that your mom and your sister are wired to be more laissez-faire, and you are wired to be more intense. The chemistry between the two of them is different.

As we unpack the lessons you learned in your Original Love Classroom, I want to offer you three dialectics. I call them both/and’s. A dialectic, or a both/and, is a space where two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time. I am going to offer them almost like mantras to guide our investigation of these family patterns.

Both/And #1: The Big People did the best they could do when I was a Little Person, AND I did not get what I needed when I was a Little Person. This both/and space likely evokes a complex set of feelings inside of you. Perhaps you feel sadness about what you endured when you were little. Maybe you feel frustration about the impacts that linger today, or anger that the Big People didn’t “get their acts together” as they were raising you so that you could have been spared. You also might feel compassion and sadness for the ways that the Big People who raised you struggled. As Dr. Mona Fishbane says, our parents are our grandparents’ children. And, if you are also a parent yourself, perhaps you feel some fear that your kids will someday listen to an episode like this one and feel about you the way that you feel about your parents. If that is the case, take a nice deep breath and hold a hand on your heart. And remember that your parents likely did not invest in Relational Self-Awareness the way you are, which means that your kids’ inheritance will not be yours. You are working to transform patterns. So they will have stuff, because we all have stuff, and it’s important that we get to have our stuff. But their stuff won’t be your stuff. It will likely be lighter and you will likely be a more compassionate witness of their stuff than your parents were of yours.

Both/And #2: I can be BOTH loyal AND critical. One of the strategies that family systems sometimes use to maintain homeostasis is placing a high value on loyalty. If, for whatever reason, a family system cannot trust that connection will be maintained based on love and a desire to spend time together, the system will attempt to ensure stability and connection through demands of loyalty. “You must belong” rather than “of course you want to belong.” If your family placed a high value on loyalty, it may feel like loyalty and criticism are opposites. That is not the case. In the best of scenarios, we critique in the service of healing, growth, and the maintenance of connection. You can be loyal to your Original Love Classroom even as you reflect on ways in which the dynamics you saw and experienced hurt you.

Both/And #3:  I can be BOTH connected to my family system AND healing from the impact of my family system. This is not always possible. In some situations, people need to create an emotional cut off from their Family of Origin in order to heal. In some situations, people may need to take space for some time in order to heal. But I just want to remind you that just like loyalty and criticism are not opposites, connection and healing are not opposites either. It is often the case that you can reflect on your past, tend to Little You, and remain in connection with the Big People who raised you. You will very likely feel different to them. You may respond in different ways, redirect conversations in a way you didn’t used to, and ask for things you used not ask for. But it can be so powerful to create new experiences with people who have known you forever. As I said earlier, change in one part of the system affects the system. The changes you are making change your family system. If you stop doing what you’ve always done, they cannot keep doing what they have always done. And when that happens, you get to have a new experience of them.

How roles become relational patterns

I want to move on and talk in greater detail about roles. As I said earlier, even when a family system is struggling, homeostasis remains primary. And a family system may attempt homeostasis by casting family members into roles. Roles limit full expression. Roles simplify. Roles are shortcuts, attempts to make things easier, to reduce complexity, and to create stability. Roles do this at a cost. If you got stuck in a role in your Original Love Classroom, the cost likely included:

  • Not having access to your emotions
  • Not knowing how to express your emotions
  • Not being able to follow your own interests and passions
  • Not being able to relax and let your guard down.
  • Not developing parts of yourself.

One caveat is that your family system may not have cast you into a role. You may have been raised by Big People who had the capacity to see you in all of your complexity and to hold space for you as you evolved. If so, you may not see yourself in any of these roles, or you may see parts of you in all of these roles because you had a different place in your family system at different times.

I am going to talk you through six roles that Little People commonly get cast into. As a reminder, there is a companion worksheet which spells out these six roles and offers some Relational Self-Awareness questions to help you identify your role. You can also use it to spark a conversation with your partner about their role. If you’re already part of our newsletter, you’ll receive the worksheet in your inbox. Otherwise head to www.dralexandraoslomon.com/roles

I am going to share with you:

  • the name of the role.
  • the function that role plays in terms of creating and maintaining homeostasis in a family system.
  • the gifts you may have developed as a result of playing that role.
  • the challenges you may experience today as a result of having been cast in that role.
1The Perfect OneProve that the family is OKPerformance, competenceExpects a lot from others
2The Easy OneReduce stress on Big PeopleFlexibility, adaptability, independenceDifficulty being vulnerable or asking for help
3The Struggling OneOrganize the family around a common goalSelf-Advocacy, resilienceDependent on others, difficulty standing up for oneself
4The PeacemakerCreate family unityCompassion, protection, collaborationSuppressed anger, difficulty identifying own emotions
5The Helper or Confidant (aka the parentified child)Empathize with the challenges facing the Big PeopleEmpathy, patience, gentlenessDifficulty with boundaries, needing to be needed
6The RebelSay what nobody else say, do what nobody else will doCourage, justice, leadershipHypervigilance, difficulty connecting because of the need to be differentI

The recognition piece here is identifying that you became who your family of origin needed you to be. Embodying that role likely created a sense of safety and control for you and it likely helped your family approximate homeostasis. The challenge, of course, is that because you were stuck in that role, other parts of you perhaps didn’t have a chance to develop. The Easy One needs to practice saying, “Hold on! This plan doesn’t work for me!” The Rebel needs practice going with the flow and being OK not standing out. The Perfect One needs practice falling apart, taking their foot off the gas pedal, resting.

Where to go from here

Recognizing that you did play a role, that there was a cost (emotionally and relationally) for that role is of course a huge first step toward disentangling yourself from who you needed to be so that you can claim and embrace who you want to be. 

I love this mantra that I learned from my friend, Dr. Holly Richmond, “That was then, this is now.” Recognize the progress you’ve made, honor and acknowledge the past while also being grateful that now you get to decide how you “do” love and what role you want to inhabit, rather than having it be imposed upon you, that you are free to write your own story going forward. Let yourself feel the grief of having to witness painful relationship dynamics between the Big People who raised you or other adults in the family, if that was the case for you, no matter the size and scope of what you experienced, whether it was angry outbursts, shut-downs, or abuse or abandonment. The only person who can give you permission and invite you to heal your inner-child is you. You don’t have to involve other family members or wait for apologies, you can do it for yourself, and in the service of your current or future partners, current or future children/family

Remember to feel really proud of the introspection you’re doing. The downside of not addressing intergenerational patterns in your family system is that they will continue. So even though it may feel difficult, by addressing these patterns, you shift the entire arc of your lineage and benefit the future generations in your family. This work takes courage and it matters!

How do you know if Little You is struggling

As you identify the role that Little You had to play, this helps you understand and predict the situations in which Little You is at risk of getting activated. For me, because I grew up in the role of The Perfect One, my Little Me gets activated in situations where I’m afraid of screwing up or being blamed for something going wrong. Here are four signs that Little You has been kicked into action mode, and you’re responding, at least in part, from that younger part of you:

  1. Your physiology shifts: flush in cheeks, tightness in chest, racing heart, a twist in your gut
  2. Your reaction feels out of proportion to what’s happening in the moment. As therapists love to say, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”
  3. You feel so misunderstood that you have a hard time taking someone else’s perspective.
  4. You experience urgency to DO something (overeat, drink, hit, rock, sleep)

What to do when Little You is struggling

  1. Pause
  2. Water on hands—cool, warm, notice the difference
  3. Scan your body—what part wants to move and how
  4. Tense and release your muscles
  5. Name items in categories—foods that start with letter R, cities that start with an A
  6. Create a safe place in your mind
  7. Hug yourself.
  8. Tap all over your body from your feet up to your head
  9. Imagine Little You (look at a photo even). What does she need to hear? What does she need to know?
  10. Savor that you did one of these!

 Turning outward

I recommend that you bring this conversation into your current relationship. As I said earlier, talk to your partner about the role you were cast in as a child. Explore together why that may determine your pain points and triggers now. Remember to talk about this as context with your partner, not as an excuse, when things are challenging between the two of you or Little You gets activated. 

Get curious about your partner’s inner child as well. Ask them questions about who they were in their Family of Origin and what they saw growing up. Work together to figure out the role your partner was cast in and how it affects them today. Some couples find it helpful to post a photo of each of them as kids on the fridge or on the bathroom mirror as a reminder to tread gently with this partner of theirs. After all, as Ram Dass said, ‘We are all just walking each other home.” 


We did it! We got to explore how your experiences in your Original Love Classroom become your Love Template, and how the roles you play in that Original Love Classroom shape what you hope for and expect in your intimate relationships. Yes, the past travels with us, but it does not need to become our destiny. As we understand the impact of the past and develop practices to respond in more thoughtful, less reflexive ways, we change ourselves and the people around us. We reimagine love!

As a final reminder, there is a companion worksheet on this topic that I think you’re going to find valuable. If you’re already part of our newsletter, you’ll receive the worksheet in your inbox. Otherwise head to www.dralexandraoslomon.com/roles to get your copy of the worksheet.

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