Why psychologists want to know and the implications for healthy child development
As the amazing human brain develops, it moves from a pretty primitive state of jumbled up nerve networks, through to a very complex series of coordinated networks over the years. The first networks that come on board start to link our senses to our brains – we can start to see and hear. As we age, our biology and our growing experiences connect pathways and we are able to do things that are more complex – so complex that some of our brains can even master algebra, fly fishing or a baking a sponge cake.
Our brains also start to become more efficient. We start to prune back the pathways we don’t need so that we can become more efficient at what we do. At about age 25, the pathways in our brain are covered in an insulating substance called myelin, which essentially stops messages leaking out on their journey along the pathways and we get even more efficient at the things we practice. Some things even become automatic.
So, as we journey through life, we are taking information into our brain and trying to work out where it should fit. In essence we make a set of rules, core beliefs or schemas upon which we build up our bank of ideas about how the world works and what is going to work best for us. The rules that govern our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are buried deep within our brain. Each of us has a unique bank of rules because we all started with varying biology and then from the very get go, we all began to experience the world differently.
The things we experience in childhood, and while our brain is still developing, may be pivotal to the ways we choose to cope when a problem comes along.
As we develop through life, we take in new information and either decide to keep the rules we have, alter them, or get rid of the rule completely. If I see a man and make a friendly comment to him one day and he turns away, the way I make sense of his behaviour is likely linked to what I have experienced before. If I have experienced a lot of rejection, then I may not think much of his reaction. If I have had lots of acceptance before, then I might find his reaction odd. If the man is wearing a hearing aide, I might decide that he may not have understood me and I might try again. The ways I interpret the other person’s reaction will depend on my past experiences of other people in similar situations. What I do, think and feel next will also be determined by how I have automatically interpreted his behaviour in my brain.
This is just one little scenario – imagine a lifetime of scenarios built up in our brains!
If we face a problem and we do, think or feel something that takes that problem away or makes it more bearable, then we will remember what works and keep it for next time. If a rule is never tested, then it’s likely that it never gets adjusted to fit our new circumstances. If I was frightened by a dog once and then avoid dogs for many, many years then it’s likely that my rule that “dogs are frightening” will stay because it has never been tested.
The other problem we might face is that we come across a situation where we have become quite set in our ways. Sometimes, we get a problem and none of our past rules seem to work, but we might still keep on using them anyway. It could be that we are lonely and we have a rule that tells us not to approach new friends because we worry that they will be mean to us. Making change takes effort and insight. If we keep doing something that doesn’t work, then there’s usually a reason behind that, too – it may not be obvious but it might be buried in our pile of rules way down deep.
So, when a psychologist wants to know a little bit about your past, the psychologist is looking for some of the most important events that occurred in your life as these are the ones that will likely have left you with your strongest core beliefs. If your core beliefs and the automatic thoughts they lead you to generate are working for you, then life should be sweet. Some of the rules we laid down very early in our childhood may not have been tested for some time. If you have some core beliefs that are built on some faulty or out-dated logic, then it might be time to run a system’s upgrade.
Problems can be great opportunities to consider our core rules, think about an update for our beliefs, readjust our networks, and learn.
As parents, carers, teachers and therapists, it’s important that when a child has problems, we encourage them to problem solve, to think about the advantages and disadvantages of what has worked or not worked before. Some children will do this automatically and some, for various reasons of biology and experience, may need more help. There are very few absolutes in life, so we need to be sure that we promote flexible thinking in children. What we model and say, the things we celebrate, and the kinds of achievements we praise can all assist a more flexible and adaptive system of responding to the inevitable ups and downs life brings us.
Parents and Carers – Listen to your own thoughts and see what beliefs you keep telling yourself. Be especially vigilant when you feel a strong emotion rise in your belly – this is usually a sure sign that a core belief has been activated deep inside your brain. Some of the core thoughts might relate to your parenting and why you come down so hard on your children for some things, but turn a blind eye to others. You might find this worksheet by CCI a handy reference for identifying and working on your more troublesome thoughts.
Teachers – Keep an ear out for the core beliefs that children may have with respect to their learning. You might hear them out loud when you suggest a new task or give them feedback on a test. Some students may be stuck in a faulty belief system that tells them that they are not a good learner – “I suck at maths” or “I’m no good at sport”. Encourage children to gently test their beliefs with safe and well-thought-through challenges to their automatic thinking.
Psychologists and Helpers – Some of you may have some core beliefs that stop you from being as helpful as you might be. If you think you have some thoughts interrupting your process of therapy with a client, be sure to speak about them the next time you have supervision or a peer consultation. You may need to work on a plan to make sure that any faulty thoughts that you have about yourself as a clinician or helper are highlighted for some gentle work.
Kids – When you get a strong feeling in your body, check in with what your brain is saying. You might want to write it down, draw it or share it with someone. Don’t worry if you can’t do it at first – it’s a little bit like trying to chase a butterfly. Sometimes thoughts just flit in and out really quickly, but the important ones tend to hang around for awhile.