We've probably all heard someone refer to his or her "inner child." It's another one of those psychology terms that somehow made its way into popular culture. Carl Jung, a disciple of Freud and one of psychiatry's founding fathers, called it the "wonder child." According to Jung, the "wonder child" is the part of the psyche with the capacity for awe and a sense of natural wonder; it is curious, creative, and loves to explore.
The website desert-alchemy.com gives the best definition of inner child I have found so far. It defines "inner child" as that part of the psyche that retains feelings the way they were experienced in childhood. When it is healthy, the inner child is naturally innocent, playful, and uninhibited; it has an approach to life that is simple and straightforward.
Today, you might hear clinicians talk about the "wounded inner child." John Bradshaw (http://www.johnbradshaw.com/) is one of the best known proponents of "inner child work." He has authored several books on the subject and apparently appeared on several nationally televised PBS series. Among other things, he now travels the country conducting "inner child workshops." According to Bradshaw, an inner child becomes wounded when normal childhood dependency needs are not met during childhood. Normal development is arrested and dysfunctional childish behavior persists into adulthood.
While some of Bradshaw's work is a little too "touchy feely" for my taste, he does get a lot of things right.
From birth to adulthood, a child's parents are responsible for meeting all of his or her needs. This includes physical needs like food and shelter as well as psychological needs like security, intimacy, structure, and - later on - autonomy. Even the very best parents don't do this perfectly. Parents are human - they make mistakes. To further complicate things, very young children cannot speak. This makes it hard for them to communicate their wants and needs. Even after they start speaking they may be unable to communicate their wants and needs because children often do not know what they want or need. So for parents, there is a lot of guesswork. Sometimes parents guess correctly; sometimes they don't. Fortunately, a child doesn't need perfect parents to turn out okay. For healthy development, a child simply needs parents to be "good enough." (I am not making this up. If you don't believe me, see Winnicott's ideas on the "good enough mother").
Sadly, there are parents who are absolutely nowhere near "good enough." There are lots of reasons for this. Some parents fall short due to circumstances beyond their control. Some parents are neglectful or abusive. Whatever the reason, if a parent doesn't meet a child's needs during childhood then that child enters adulthood with significant emotional and psychological deficits.
So in normal psychological development, other people (i.e., parents) fulfill one's psychological and emotional needs. It is natural, then, for those whose needs have not been met by the time they reach adulthood to look for other people to fulfill them. To this end, they enter into relationships expecting others to fill the emptiness inside them. They are uncertain of themselves and look to others for validation and affirmation. They do not know how to love and appreciate themselves so they rely on others to give them love and appreciatiation. Inevitably there comes a time when they feel empty, unloved, unworthy, or unappreciated. They blame those people they'd expected to complete them and are left feeling disappointed or even betrayed.
They may continue their search for someone to meet their emotional needs. They will never find such a person; no such person exists. During childhood, our emotional and psychological needs are met by other people (i.e., parents); once adulthood arrives, the time for others to meet these needs has passed. The window of opportunity closes. A person must learn to provide for himself whatever needs have not been met by adulthood.
It's definitely harder this way. It is so much easier to get what we need while we're children. As adults, it is difficult to give ourselves what we did not get from our parents. It is difficult, but it's not impossible. In fact, this is often the work of therapy: learning to meet your own needs, to be your own person, and to love and accept yourself.