We all have core beliefs, but what are they, exactly? Core beliefs are the lens through which we experience the world around us. They are our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. Since core beliefs are learned in childhood, this offers us an excellent opportunity to set our children up for success by teaching them about core beliefs early on and helping them to shift their negative stories into more positive, adaptive ones.
Core Beliefs in Action
Have you ever wondered why two people can experience the same thing but have very different reactions? What is “really” happening in any given situation gets filtered through our core-beliefs lens and then we create a story that we tell ourselves about what happened. If we have different core beliefs than someone else, this means our experience and our story about what happened will be different.
For example, a family in the neighborhood is having a birthday party and two children haven’t been invited. Child A has a core belief I will never belong. When they hear about the party, they may think: “Of course they didn’t invite me. I knew they didn’t really like me anyway. When it comes time for my birthday party, I’m not going to invite them!” Child B, who was also not invited, may have a different interpretation of the situation. If they have the core beliefs I am loveable and I belong, they may think: “ I wish I’d been invited. Maybe if I invite them to my birthday party, we can get to know each other better. I’ll invite a good friend over today because I always feel better after we play.” Both children may feel similar emotions like sadness or loneliness in this situation, but their core beliefs create very different stories. Adaptive core beliefs don’t necessarily shift our feelings, which are always okay just as they are, but they do shift how we interpret events and even what actions we take afterward.
While we can’t always change what is happening around us, we can tune into our core beliefs and shift the story we tell ourselves about what is happening, which not only feels better but also increases our inherent kindness, confidence, and resiliency. And the really good news is that we can help our kids tune into and name their core beliefs and also shift any negative ones into more adaptive ones.
Core Beliefs Stages:
Core beliefs are important at any age but are often being formed up in childhood. Different developmental stages can lead to different beliefs formed at different times, and various environmental triggers can impact core beliefs as well. Here is a brief snapshot of core beliefs across age groups:
Babies learn about themselves and the world around them through experiences and through attachment with caregivers. If I cry will someone check on me? If I’m hungry will someone feed me? Do my needs matter? Am I safe? Am I loved? Babies learn quickly what to expect from the people and world around them and form neuropathways in this brain to solidify this learning. The brain is developing such foundational knowledge at this point that these beliefs and felt experiences can stay with people for a long time (we can also heal later on though!).
Young children continue to learn through experiences as well as the messages they receive from caregivers and people in their community. They are exploring different aspects of their personalities and testing out the types of responses they get. They are in a very egocentric state of development so they often fall into traps of attributions situations to themselves (ie. parent’s divorce, conflict in the family, etc.) this can lead to core beliefs that they are “bad” or things are “their fault.” Due to their often strong emotional reactions to things, little kids can sometimes elicit strong reactions from adults in turn which can lead to feelings of shame or worry about not being loved or parts of them not being welcome.
Older children are often working to “master” skills. They want to run fast, climb high, read, write, learn math, draw-you name it, they are working at it. Sometimes this can lead to associating their abilities or skills with their worth (some of us adults do this too). Big kids can get discouraged sometimes if they don’t win or if they cannot meet the goal. Remembering that they are enough even when they make mistakes and they are lovable just the way they are is important through this developmental time.
As kids get older they also experience more peer conflict. Peer relationships can begin to impact feelings of belonging and worth in social settings too. Having a strong family foundation to navigate the rough waters of adolescence has been found to be a protective factor for children.
Practices to Support Positive Core Beliefs
Planting the seeds for children to believe positive stories about themselves is a powerful proactive strategy that many parents enjoy.
Our Own Core Beliefs:
Adults hold core beliefs too. Sometimes core beliefs are so deeply held and even passed down from one generation to another, that we aren’t even aware of them. Try identifying some beliefs that you hold, and ones that you would like to let go of. If you feel discouraged at first when identifying any negative core beliefs, please know that it’s really normal and common to have them. In fact, most, if not all, people and families have negative core beliefs. Even though negative core beliefs may not be true, they can feel true. But what’s also true is that they can be changed. Journaling, exploring the source of our negative beliefs, and therapy can all be helpful places to process through and heal negative core beliefs that have a negative impact. Identifying our own negative core beliefs can keep us from continuing the cycle and passing them on to future generations. What beliefs do you want to pass on to your family?