Tug-of-war with your inner child

After high school, many students move on to college because it is touted as the traditional transition from childhood to full-fledged adulthood.

The raw, unrefined potential that was a high school senior is expected to metamorphose into a beautiful butterfly, perfectly equipped with all the necessary skills and tools needed to ensure success in the real world. But for many, it doesn’t happen that easily or in the expected time span of four years. Some people need more time, extra assistance and a period of intense self-examination to reach the adult stage of their development.

They may have anger management issues or be frightfully shy and never realize the underlying cause or causes of their behavior. This may be due to a denial or repression of their inner child. But who is this elusive and mysterious entity?

When asked what she thought of when the phrase “inner child” was mentioned, USF student Dericka Chisolm said, “Although on the outside I’m a woman, sometimes I regress and become or act like a child.”

And that’s typical, said Dr. Leonard E. Kirklen, a clinical psychologist at USF’s Counseling Center for Human Development.

“I think of the inner child as the general experiences we’ve had as a child whether positive or negative, especially experiences we remember.” According to Kirklen, these experiences are normal and innocuous until a particularly traumatic event occurs which the person has difficulty accepting. He calls this a “stuck point,” when a person is stuck in a stage of emotional development.

“For example, I was seeing someone whose first traumatic experience occurred at age six and yet another when his/her parents began having problems at age 10, and yet again at age 12 when his/her parents ultimately divorced. So this person was ‘stuck’ at age six, age 10 and age 12.”

When asked about the possible effects of ignoring one’s inner child, Kirklen pointed out that the consequences could be embarrassing or even dangerous. For example, a woman who grew up without a strong male or fatherly role model may flounder in her relationships with the opposite sex. Her behavior is being dictated by her unconscious emotional needs for approval from a male authority figure.

This also holds true for a man who has trouble controlling his temper. Although he may blame events and people around him for making him lose his cool, the truth is he is most likely reacting to triggers he alone perceives. These triggers remind him of events or things said in the past — usually in childhood — that he was unable to surmount and result in stuck points in his emotional growth.

After a few horrible break-ups and perhaps a few arrests or near-arrests, being unaware of one’s emotional age and baggage becomes more of a serious hindrance than a nuisance, Kirklen said. The only help for it is to undergo a period of intense introspection and self-examination.

Since it is sometimes quite difficult to do this alone, it may be a good idea to seek professional help. The idea is to engage one’s inner child. This is done in two main steps, Kirklen said.

First, one must identify what the stuck points are. Next, one must be taught what hasn’t been learned. If, for instance, a 22-year-old is stuck at 10, there is a 12-year gap in emotional maturity. Since this person is still reacting and responding the way a pre-adolescent would, he or she may do things like throwing temper tantrums or attempting to manipulate others just like real 10-year-olds.

College is a time when emotional maturity, or immaturity, becomes most apparent. Suddenly, one is faced with more independence and freedom of choice than ever before. It can seem overwhelming, or one may find others’ slow progress frustrating

But before passing judgment or being overly self-dedgradating, Kirklen said, “Everyone matures at a different rate. I see three general groups. Some students adjust quickly. They seem to know what they want in lifestyle, career choice, etc. And then there’s another more experimental group that doesn’t do as well. They may take a year or two to adjust. And another group isn’t ready at all. Not everyone is ready for college when they finish high school.”

According to Kirklen, it is particularly important for college students to explore and deal with unresolved emotional experiences from childhood because “they are in transition from dependence on their parents to independence. It’s better to learn now… because their adult patterns haven’t been set.”