A Child’s Sense of Self

By Sobonfu Somé
A version of this article was originally published in InnerSelf.com .

Often, we tend to look at other people without actually seeing them — we notice only what serves us or affects us in some way. When it comes to children, our ability to notice and see must be magnified. The smallest detail matters.

We have all heard, in recent years, that we have within us what many refer to as our inner child. A lot of us suffer a great deal in our lives because our inner child has old wounds that have never been healed. It is important to know how to overcome our old wounds, because all too often they stand in the way of our ability to fully love ourselves, other people, and the children in our lives.

Old Wounds of the Inner Child

Our old wounds often become our children’s burden. Many adults lack patience when children are present, and this impatience can be magnified when the children are receiving attention from others. We must begin to take steps toward our own healing. I can share a ritual that enables us to begin our healing process.

One way to heal the wounded child within is to practice giving the love and attention that you may not have received as a child to your own child or other children. Giving a child attention does not mean inflating a child’s ego with a false sense of self. By giving love to children and by nurturing the spirit in children in a true and unselfish way, we actually heal our own wounds. It sounds so simple, but it does work. It happens almost miraculously, because what you put out comes back to you.

Mother and Child Emotional Healing

For example, I know a young girl who had been raised by her father and stepmother for the first part of her life and has just recently moved into her mother’s home. Her mother is a friend of mine, and she confided to me that at times she becomes very cold to her daughter and pushes her away, especially if she feels lied to or betrayed by her in any way. They are in family therapy together, and both the girl and mother are focusing on the inner child.

Recently the mother experienced a revelation as the two were quarreling. Instead of closing down and pushing away, she consciously chose to open herself and listen to her daughter, and to remember how she felt when she was 12 years old, to remember the powerful emotions running through her. She remembered what it was like to be pushed away by her own mother and treated as if she didn’t matter. When she felt this, she made the conscious choice to stop — she made the choice at that moment not to pass the hurt on to her daughter.

As she did this, she found that she was able to resist her usual coldness and standoffishness with her daughter and to reach out to her. And the daughter felt the openness of her mother and shared more in those few moments than she had in the previous eight months. It was a very healing process for both of them. The mother actually felt her inner child being taken care of while she was opening up to take care of her daughter.

That evening the mother made the decision to stay open to her daughter, and not shut down again. In so doing she stopped passing on the hurt from her generation to the next and began to feel forgiveness toward her mother, for this hurt had been passed through her.

This kind of situation provides great opportunity for parents who are having difficulties being present with their children to get into a ritual space, for there is an urgent need to stop this ongoing wounding. Involving our children in rituals allows them to open up so they can speak their truth without putting on a mask.

I’m not suggesting that one healing ritual will solve all problems. It takes commitment from all involved. But it is a beginning.

Rituals and Sacred Space for Relationship

Many people would say this process can be done without a ritual or a community. The difficulty with problems settled outside of a sacred space is that our human tendency wants us to always be the one who is right. Our courtroom-style mentality forces us to pick one person to be the scapegoat for all that goes wrong, and healing never takes place under these circumstances. A ritual space allows us to be honest and less defensive. It lets us look at the crisis not as an occasion to beat one another up, but as a message from spirit to renew our relationship, or take our relationship to its next step. Although a ritual is not like a pill you can swallow once and for all, its continual use keeps us on a steady, healing path.

Simplicity is the key to making things happen. Keep your rituals simple and clear. It helps to open invisible doors we may not know are there. It takes the opening of such doors for children to come from the heart and speak heart to heart with their peers and people around them. Again, the key to this is for the parent not to jump to quick conclusions or judgments that will shut down the child, but to remain open to receiving the emerging identity of the child.

It is natural for children to not always be eager to listen to their parents, because of the many layers of emotion and feeling between them. But the same thing a parent may say can be said by friends or aunts and is well taken because of their openness and lack of judgment. In the village there are other members of the community who can provide this help.

An open-minded conversation and a nonjudgmental attitude gives children the freedom to express themselves without feeling that the world is going to come after them. It gives solid layers of foundation to children so they know they can walk on this foundation without falling. Having their feet in two worlds — the home and the community, family relationships and friend relationships, the earth and spirit — helps with the process of children discovering their true sense of self.