The Meadows Blog

Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2005 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.

Inner-Child Work: Some Evolutionary and Neuroscientific Reflections

By John Bradshaw, MA

For the last 27 years, I've reflected on the power and efficacy of inner-child work. Recently I found two areas of knowledge quite interesting and enlightening: the evolutionary theory of neoteny and the neuroscientific study of the brain.


In 1988, I was presenting my inner-child workshop to a group of holistically oriented dentists. I arrived the day before I was to begin and discovered that one of my most revered mentors, Dr. Ashley Montagu, an anthropologist at Princeton, was giving the keynote address.

When I began my workshop the next day, Dr. Montagu, 84 years young, was in the audience. He participated in the entire two-day workshop, doing all the experiential exercises. At the end of the workshop, he gave me a manuscript copy of a book he had written that was to be published later that year. The book was called Growing Young. It presented an extremely complex argument for the theory of neoteny, an evolutionary theory that many biologists, ethnologists and anthropologists believe is a necessary complement to Darwin's theory of evolution. Montagu told me that what he had experienced in the workshop mirrored what his book outlined as a major focus for psychotherapy.

Neoteny is defined in biology as "the retention of fetal or juvenile traits by the retardation of developmental processes." The prolonged childhood of humans is unique among all life forms. Since humans are the apex of evolution, there must be some evolutionary reason for our prolonged childhood.

Montagu cites a number of renowned scientists who believe that Darwin's theory of natural selection is not fully sufficient to account for human evolution. There is, they believe, another mechanism at work in evolution, first noted by Edwin Drinker Cope in 1870. Cope discovered what he called the law of acceleration and retardation.

While I'm not qualified to present the scientific argument for the theory of neoteny, I'll tell you what excites me about it in terms of inner-child work.

Retardation of development allows us humans to avoid limiting our brain development to the specialized focus of survival.

The juvenile chimpanzee is quite humanlike compared to the adult chimpanzee. The adult's head and jaws are elongated and no longer round. The elongation is due to the fact that chimps must focus all their attention on survival. The early need for specialization forces the ape's brain into an elongated pattern. The vast number of neurons in the chimp's brain are pruned to a relative few concerned only with survival.

For us humans, our prolonged childhood (from birth to 14 years) opens the door to many experiences that allow our brains to expand. This non-specialized use of our brain offers us enormous possibilities for creativity and freedom.

Montagu quotes from the Journal of Auroville, which recounts communication from a flying saucer. The alien says, "The trouble with earthlings is their early adulthood. As long as they are young, they are loveable, openhearted, tolerant, eager to learn and eager to cooperate with others. By the time of adulthood, most human adults are mortal enemies." I'm not prone to believe this statement came from an alien. However, the human race says it wants peace more than anything, yet we keep having wars.

For Montagu and his biological colleagues, the goal of human maturity is not adulthood as we now conceive it, but adulthood as actualizing our childlike traits, such as openness, tolerance, docility, spontaneity, love for others and willingness to cooperate.

To sum up neoteny, Montagu asserts that "we are designed to grow in ways that emphasize rather than minimize childhood traits." Montague asserts that the understanding of neoteny is urgent in terms of human survival. History teaches us "that only the races with the longest childhood were able to stay in the cultural mainstream."

A century of clinical psychology and psychotherapy has helped us understand that we are by nature open, curious, tolerant, loving, playful and joyful. Life is not an ongoing warfare, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes and others have believed. All humans have a deep and persistent desire for wholeness and, when we are emotionally dis-eased, we deeply desire recovery. We intuitively know that being violent to ourselves and/or others and hating ourselves and/or others are not what our nature intended and will not bring us happiness.

Psychotherapy helps us clearly see that violence and hatred of ourselves and others are primarily reactions to childhood, trauma, abandonment, neglect and chronic abuse of one kind or another.

The inner child is a symbolic metaphor for the natural child's preciousness, as well as the natural child's adaptation to trauma, abuse, abandonment, neglect and enmeshment (the wounded child).

Inner-child work aims at helping us re-own the natural child within us (the precious child). In order to reconnect with the primal energy of our natural child, we need to grieve the wounds resulting from our abandonment, neglect and abuse. Once we've grieved our early losses, we can learn the things we needed to learn at each of our developmental dependency stages. These learnings create the self-esteem and the safe boundaries that we need in order to be open, tolerant, non-judgmental, spontaneous (rather than forever on guard), loving and cooperative. It seems clear that our neotenous nature demands that we do "inner-child" work when we have been traumatically abused, abandoned, neglected or enmeshed.

When I was actively addicted, I used my addiction to feel my childlike aliveness. Without my addiction, I felt dead. Addictions are abortive ways we choose in order to be restored to the natural childlike traits of our beginnings. Ultimately, addictions result in irresponsible childish behaviors. Healing the wounded inner child is necessitated by the theory of neoteny.

Recent Development in Neuroscience

Recently, Thomas Hedlund, the supervising clinician in more than 35 of my recent inner-child workshops, excitedly told me that he had just finished a workshop with Dr. Allan N. Schore, a clinical faculty member of the U.C.L.A. David Geften School of Medicine and an internationally recognized expert in the neuroscience of the brain. In the workshop, Dr. Schore had presented a complete neuroscientific explanation for the effectiveness of inner-child work in general and my inner-child workshops in particular.

Dr. Schore is one of the major pioneers of a paradigm shift in understanding psychopathogensis and therapeutic change. This paradigm shift that directly affects clinical practice focuses on the centrality of emotional processes and the role of the self in human function and dysfunction.

What Dr. Schore has made clear is that childhood abuse, abandonment, neglect and enmeshment damage a child's need for healthy attachment, i.e. secure bonding. Attachment disorders damage the functionality of the right (or non-dominant hemisphere) of the brain.

With a "good enough" early attachment, a person can learn to handle stress without overreacting. Because they have been loved, touched and given appropriate space, they feel loveable and can be loveable to others. The empathic mutuality of "good enough" bonding is the foundation of a unified sense of self.

Dysfunctional Attachment and the Non-dominant Hemisphere

Dysfunctional attachment impacts the nondominant hemisphere in any or all of the following ways:

Loss of ability to cope with stress

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), which reflects a severe dysfunction of the right hemisphere system

Since early trauma is usually cumulative and chronic, there is evidence that longterm autonomic reactivity can lead to "neuronal" structural changes, involving atrophy, shrinkage and permanent damage

Since the right hemisphere has an adaptive capacity to regulate affect - the most significant consequence of the stressor of early relational trauma is the loss of the ability to regulate the intensity and duration of affect - (REACTIVITY)

Loss of the capacity to assimilate new experiences - the personality cannot enlarge

Tendency to disengage socially

Dissociation and defensive projective identification.

I invite the reader to explore Dr. Schore's work in his two volumes, Affect, Dysregulation and the Disorders of the Self and Affect, Regulation and the Repair of the Self. In my "inner-child" workshop, I work on the first three childhood developmental stages. I place great emphasis on the attachment bond and our early developmental dependency needs (the needs that can be met only by depending on another person). Codependency is the major outcome of attachment disorder because its primary symptomology is the result of a failure to get our developmental dependency needs met.

Most inner-child work is aimed at the nondominant hemisphere of the brain. I use a lot of imagery meditations and age regressive techniques (so that a person can grieve his wounds at the age-appropriate stage at which his attachment rupture took place). I use music to stimulate the "felt thought" intelligence of the right brain. I divide participants into groups of six or eight, and let the group members become non-shaming "benevolent witness." They serve as mirroring faces who offer validating feedback, which legitimizes the pain of the person sharing a story or scene of shameful abuse. The group work helps the sharing person reduce his dissociation and own his prospective identifications. Being reconnected with his own feelings, a person can begin his grief process.

"Inner-child" work is thus conceived as grieving and redoing each developmental stage of early and middle childhood.

The new relationship that emerges is the relationship with one's functional adult and inner child (the reconnection of the self with the self). The inner child is understood as a metaphor for our natural child of the past, whose feelings, needs and wants were bound in toxic shame.

Dr. Allan Schore expresses his conception of the paradigm shift in treating attachment disorder as follows: "The treatment of attachment pathologies is currently conceptualized to be directed toward the mobilization of fundamental modes of development and the completion of interrupted developmental processes."

Happily, many of us have been using this model for quite some time.

I could write a lot more about the neuroscientific basis of inner-child work as a paradigm shift in understanding psychopatho-gensis and therapeutic change, but the limits of this short article do not allow it.
I hope this modest presentation has been stimulating for the reader. I invite those interested to read the work of Joseph Le Deux, Diane Foshe and Antonio Damasio, along with the work of Ashley Montague and Dr. Allan S. Schore.

About the Author

John Bradshaw, Fellow of The Meadows, has combined his exceptional skills as counselor, author, theologian and public speaker for the past four decades to become a world renowned figure in the fields of addictions, recovery, family systems and the concept of toxic shame. John has written three New York Times best-selling books: Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child; Creating Love; and Healing the Shame That Binds You.

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