Article written by Brooke Boland
Published in Mindful Parenting, March 2021
Playfulness is the key to reconnecting with your inner child
When I was a small child, I collected seashells. Each one was preciously guarded, held in a towering vase that, once full, overflowed into jars and containers scattered throughout our small holiday house on the South Coast of NSW. Mum patiently put up with these lingering traces of our early expeditions. Even now, my mother still keeps the overflowing vase of collected seashells by the door, a totem to remind us of endless summers spent by the beach.
Over 20 years later, I can't remember the last time I looked for seashells. It's a beautiful memory from childhood, but not an experience I return regularly to as an adult. Now, I'm living by the sea again and my son's ramblings remind me of those innocent explorations - the freedom of being a child - and how joyful these experiences are. At what point do we push these explorations aside and get on with other 'more important' things?
The pressure and busyness that accompanies adulthood means we often overlook one of the fundamental parts of enjoying a full and happy life: having fun. Instead we prioritise our sense of joy and creativity and replace it with never-ending to-do lists. As psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson explains, this prioritising in adulthood can have a detrimental effect on our mental health and leave us feeling unbalanced. A reason why reconnecting with your inner child can be important.
"The inner child is your spontaneous, creative parts. Your playful parts, your joyful parts. If you have a good connection with them, then you're much healthier and more balanced. People sometimes disconnect from that part of themselves. Like hyper stressed and busy parents who mostly stick with being adults," says Dr Ferguson.
This "happiness imbalance", as Dr Ferguson calls it, is a sign you may be disconnected from those parts of yourself represented by the inner child. "If you're a workaholic, or have any kind of addiction, that shows you you've lost it most likely, or you're not looking after that," she continues. Other signs you are missing this connection can be that you're unable to play, or find yourself (or your partner), missing out on your old sense of humour.
PLAYTIME ISN'T ONLY FOR YOUR CHILDREN
The serious side of adulthood is important - we all need to work, after all. But we also need to invite play into our lives. "Just like children need to play, adults need playtime as well, to be in touch with that spontaneous part," says Dr Ferguson.
The benefits of spontaneous play and creativity are numerous. It can strengthen our relationships with others, including our partners and children, and can also be an avenue for breakthroughs when we feel stuck on a problem that can't be solved easily. Sometimes, walking away from the issue and having fun is just what the doctor ordered.
"The inner child is your spontaneous, creative parts. Your playful parts, your joyful parts. If you have a good connection with them, then you're much healthier and more balanced" - Dr Amanda Ferguson
Today, many therapists and psychologists adopt the inner child metaphor in their work with clients who come to them to resolve childhood trauma. "As with all therapies, inner child work is only effective if we are actually processing. That is, resolving our issues and problems. This can only be done with a qualified therapist," explains Dr Ferguson.
Melbourne-based art therapist Jessie Brooks-Dowsett believes we each participate in the creation of our own experiences in life, and reflecting on the inner child as a metaphor for openness, curiosity, and playful exploration can help us pursue these qualities as adults. To this, she also adds a child's ability to create without judgement and try new things. Watch any young child painting and you'll see their total absorption and joy in the process.
"I'd also consider the resilience in young child's perspective as they learn and try new things without judging themselves, holding the capacity to engage in unknown experiences with pure curiosity. This is a quality that could support growth and self-fulfilment in our adult lives and is the antithesis of perfectionism, which often halts people from trying new experiences," explains Brooks-Dowsett.
WHAT DID YOU ENJOY AS A CHILD?
Reconnection with the playful side of yourself as an adult can be achieved through the simple act of joy. What did you enjoy as a child? For some of us, you may remember feeling a deep sense of exploration while walking in nature or riding your bike. For others it was drawing or painting. Revisiting these activities will bring you closer to the spontaneity of childhood that you may be missing.
"I think the arts can engage a playful side to people, which in turn encourages curiosity; there is also no 'right' or 'one way' to engage with or express yourself through the arts, but instead find focus on the process of making, and connecting to the nuance of your experience," says Brooks-Dowsett.
In her new podcast on psychology and life, Dr Ferguson shares how inner child healing can become an avenue to recovery and reconnecting with the creative parts of us that desire self-expression. But even away from the psychiatrist's lounge, the metaphor can still be a gentle reminder to relax and enjoy the small details of life that children are so aware of, but that we seem to overlook as adults. In doing so, we can begin to understand how looking through the eyes of a child - even if just for a moment - opens up our experience of the world.