• If we didn't have our emotional and physical needs met in childhood, we might need to reparent ourselves as adults

  • Therapist Abby Rawlinson looks at the roles of nurture, self-protection and play in healing childhood wounds

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with childhood trauma – find them here

In an ideal world, our childhood home was a place where we received all of the physical and emotional nourishment we needed to develop into healthy, well-rounded people. However, many of us were raised in homes where our parents couldn’t meet our needs, perhaps due to their own unresolved emotional wounds, financial stress, addiction, or mental illness. 

It’s easy to get stuck feeling angry or sad about what was lacking in our childhood but, as adults, we have the wonderful opportunity to heal our wounds and reclaim our wholeness by giving ourselves the things we didn’t receive when we were children. 

It is true that our childhood is over and we can’t go back and change it. We can, however, have corrective emotional experiences that allow us to heal our inner child and live more fully as an autonomous adult. Some people have corrective experiences in therapy, and, through a secure relationship with their therapist, experience some of what they may have missed in childhood. But we can also become a kind parent to ourselves and relearn to care, love and protect ourselves through small, daily practices. This is called reparenting. It simply means recognising the unmet needs of your childhood and giving those things to yourself now.

Reparenting looks different for everyone, but it generally involves noticing and honouring our needs, rather than habitually ignoring them. Reparenting doesn’t involve following any linear steps and it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, the best way to reparent yourself is through small daily actions. 

These actions fall into three categories: 

1. Nurturing: Taking care of your emotional and physical needs, and restoring your sense that you are lovable and deserving of care.

2. Self-protection: Standing up for yourself and setting boundaries, and restoring your sense that the world is a safe and protective place.

3. Play: Reclaiming your playfulness and spontaneity, and restoring your sense that it’s OK to express your creativity and joy.

Nurturing: Attending to your emotional and physical needs

Embarking on the reparenting journey demands a deliberate departure from the tendency to overlook our emotional and physical needs. Many of us get so caught up in busyness and hyper-activity that we ignore our hunger, tiredness or thirst. For example, maybe you don’t use the toilet for hours because you’re tied to your desk, or you finish some chores only to realise you’re incredibly thirsty. Or we might be so focused on supporting other people that we fail to recognise when we need someone to listen to us, or when we need some time alone. Self-nurturing means identifying our feelings and needs, and then honouring those things through self-regulation and self-care.

Self-regulation – the ability to monitor and manage our nervous system states, emotions and thoughts – plays a crucial first step. One powerful way to self-regulate is through validating our feelings. When we self-validate, we reassure ourselves that our feelings matter and accept them without judgment: ‘It’s OK to feel angry’, ‘It’s natural to feel anxious sometimes’, ‘I’m allowed to want time alone’, ‘It’s understandable that I’m sad right now.’

Self-care, another vital aspect, involves doing things that promote wellbeing, allowing us to be fully present and engaged in our lives. It goes beyond pleasurable activities; it involves regularly checking in with ourselves and asking, ‘How am I doing today?’, ‘What do I need today to take care of myself?’ 

Reparenting yourself with self-care might look like making yourself a nourishing meal, decluttering your space, making a dentist appointment, putting on sun cream, taking your vitamins, having an early night or wearing comfortable clothes.

Self-protection: Establishing healthy boundaries

Another way we can reparent ourselves is through protecting ourselves from harm. Some of us grew up in environments that were chaotic, abusive or dysfunctional and, as adults, we struggle to protect ourselves from people, situations and activities that are damaging to our wellbeing. We might find ourselves in a toxic relationships and struggle to stand-up for ourselves when we are being manipulated or controlled. We might drink too much alcohol, eat too much sugar or consume too much caffeine. Or we might allow ourselves to be repeatedly triggered by the news, or by certain people on social media. 

We are often completely unaware that we are frequently exposing ourselves to things that trigger stress responses in our bodies, let alone able to take the steps to protect ourselves from them. Reparenting through self-protection means tuning into our mind-body system and being honest about what serves us, then setting boundaries and saying no to things that are unhealthy. 

The more we act like a responsible parent to ourselves, the more we see ourselves as worthy of love and protection.

Play: Rediscovering joy and spontaneity

Play, often neglected due to societal pressures, is a powerful way to reparent ourselves. Adult play is a purposeless activity that brings about joy and pleasure, and might involve dancing, painting, games, jigsaws, making music, pottery, rock climbing, or colouring.

Play is an important part of wellbeing and can have a significant impact on the health of our nervous system, yet many of us avoid play because we tell ourselves that it is silly, unproductive or a waste of time. Some of this comes from societal pressure, and our culture’s obsession with being productive, but for many of us, our reluctance to play stems from messages we received in childhood.

Our parents may have ignored some of our hobbies in favour of more academic pursuits, or we may have been told that we weren’t ‘naturally creative’. Or, if our parents never played with us, we may have internalised the idea that playfulness is childish, or that games are only about ‘winning’. Alternatively, if we had parents who prioritised play and pleasure over their adult responsibilities, we may associate play with fear and recklessness. People often feel self-conscious when they first start being more playful, but it’s a powerful way to heal lingering wounds and bring us closer to our authentic self. 

Reparenting is not about blaming our parents but about personal growth. While it may not be a familiar term to many, it's gaining popularity as a holistic approach to self-healing. Reparenting offers us a chance to break free from the shackles of unmet childhood needs, providing the love and care we deserve. It's a journey of self-compassion, growth, and, most importantly, reclaiming the power to meet our own needs.

Abby Rawlinson is an integrative therapist and author of Reclaiming You

Further reading

Recovering people pleaser? 10 steps to help you say no

The mental health toll of silence in families

Schema therapy: How damaging beliefs are established in childhood

Why is Internal Family Systems therapy so effective?