What does it mean to self-parent?
Self-parenting is filling in the gaps of care one did not receive during childhood, which often results in lingering feelings like those of an unloved or unvalidated child well into adulthood—i.e., feeling unworthy, ashamed, criticized, etc. These feelings may result from having emotionally absent, neglectful, or abusive caregivers while growing up. While you can never have a re-do at childhood, you can, as an adult, help your inner childlike aspect feel the love that it yearns for through self-parenting.
After lacking strong supportive relationships with caring adults as a child, people may grow up to have low self-esteem, self-doubt, a tendency to self-sabotage, and many other painful experiences. A healing experience with your parent may not happen if your parent isn't ready or able to participate. Even if they try to heal things now, there may be grief from your childhood. Self-parenting (also called self-reparenting) is a way to honor your childhood experience by building a healthy relationship within yourself to feel safe, heard, and loved through your inner child. Through your inner parent, you can feel competent and capable.
Self-parenting and trauma:
The trauma that creates a need for self-parenting is typically complex, developmental, relational trauma. These terms are important because each factor has a considerable impact on a person, affecting the kind of healing needed.
Instead of a single, shocking, traumatic incident, complex trauma is made up of many little or big things over time. I say it's like the grains of sand on a beach--maybe someone could ignore a few grains of sand, but who could miss the whole beach? Because the individual incidents might be overlooked, complex trauma can easily be invalidated or gaslit, which can be internalized. This can be quite painful because a part of you knows something is wrong, and without validation about the hurtful events, it may be your conclusion that you were the source of the problem. Self-parenting allows for the validation of hurtful experiences. Instead of believing you are bad, you can recognize that something bad happened to you.
Developmental trauma is trauma that happened during childhood and thus affects the development of the child's brain. This can cause stress reactions to occur more readily and intensely down the road. It can be helpful to acknowledge this when your feelings get big. Not only is your inner child recovering from trauma, but so is your inner parent. Looking into parenting support for "cycle breakers" can help people develop strategies for positive self-parenting when they have trauma histories and a lack of positive role models.
Relational trauma refers to an injury of trust and relational safety. People may assume it's less traumatic than other life-threatening events. Still, when you consider the survival necessity of the parent-child relationship from the child’s perspective, it really is a threat. Further, the parent-child relationship provides a template for relationships throughout life, and this relational trauma can have a major impact on a child. Self-parenting allows people to try out new templates intellectually and experientially—a more powerful form of learning. This can provide internal relief and can support positive experiences in other relationships in life.
How self-parenting can help us develop self-compassion:
Self-compassion can develop through a practice of noticing your needs and offering care and acceptance to vulnerable parts of yourself, specifically the inner child. Just like an actual child may be emotionally driven and vulnerable, the inner child represents a part of you that is emotional and sensitive. We can learn to see these qualities as gifts instead of weaknesses! As we learn to validate and care for the needs our inner child is expressing, we can make more room to experience those gifts that are also still within us—like skillfully soothing an upset toddler allows them to return to joyfully playing and experiencing the world again.
Examples of self-parenting:
When you have vulnerable feelings, instead of pushing them away and rejecting them, think of them as the genuine expressions of a child trying to share some need. Your inner child is communicating with you. As a self-parent, you can learn to bring gentle curiosity to your inner child's feelings. You can put your hand on your heart and say to yourself, "Little one, I see you're having big feelings, and I'm here for you." It's important to follow up on that statement by making some space now or later to feel and reflect on those feelings so you can learn what they are about. Our feelings guide us to understand and meet our needs.
After lacking strong supportive relationships with caring adults as a child, people may grow up to have low self-esteem, self-doubt, a tendency to self-sabotage, and many other painful experiences. A healing experience with your parent may not happen if your parent isn't ready or able to participate. Even if they try to heal things now, there may be grief from your childhood. Self-parenting (also called self-reparenting) is a way to honor your childhood experience by building a healthy relationship within yourself t feel safe, heard, and loved through your inner child. Through your inner parent, you can feel competent and capable.
Self-parenting can also involve learning about and reflecting on your life history. Just like children benefit from having an adult tell stories about the child—they feel special and learn to create a coherent narrative of their life—your inner child can benefit from you reviewing their story in a caring way. You can do this by creating a lifeline of important events and noticing how your inner child feels about them. Maybe make it extra child-like with some drawings or magazine cutouts; then, you can also journal about what you notice from that experience. Another technique that can be powerful is to create a graphic representation, like a comic or short graphic novel, of one or more key life experiences. (No art skills needed. It’s about the experience, not the product.) Drawing out your story allows you to process things in a new way that is more connected with your inner child, who may be more emotional and image-based and less verbal/intellectual.
If any of these experiences feel tricky and you get stuck, it may be helpful to consult with someone you trust. Some of the experiences that might come up could bring up strong feelings for your inner child and inner parent, so it might be helpful to check in with a therapist or plan to do this work while in therapy to process it safely while you are learning to self-parent.