Q: My son had a terrible early childhood history and constantly tells me he is a bad boy and that nobody loves him. Yet, no matter how much we tell him what a good boy he is or how much we love him, nothing seems to help. How can he continually reject these positive messages?
A: From the moment a child is born, he is dependent on others to care for him, nurture him, and teach him about the world. This child has no other option but to trust that the information being given to him is the truth. He has no filters...he accepts everything as fact.
For a child who goes through early childhood trauma, he lives in a world of false messages that are absorbed as truth. Everything that is said to him becomes his reality. Everything that is done to him becomes a reflection of who he is.
For example, if a child is emotionally abused and told he is worthless, that he won't amount to anything, or that the parent wishes he was never born, this child's internal belief system develops from these messages. This child believes he is worthless and unworthy. His belief is that he is not lovable and that he should not be on the planet earth. Neurologically, we know that neurons that fire together wire together. So this belief system becomes ingrained and accepted at a deep subconscious and neurological level. These beliefs lay down the neural circuitry that governs how this child behaves and responds to life events.
We then place this child in a different, more loving family. He is told that he is wonderful, that he is good, and that he is loved. The external messages are now in conflict with the internal messages. Which one do you think is stronger and louder? The internal voice of negativity was an earlier and deeper imprint, thus it will be the dominate one.
This creates a profound gap between what others are saying and what the child's internal framework is saying, preventing this child from easily accepting any new messages beyond that which he already knows. The human brain is programmed to reject any belief that is not congruent (not the same) as one’s own view.
Think about this from your own perspective. When someone comes up with a different belief than you have, what is your first reaction? You reject it. You dismiss this person as being on the fringe and you move on, maintaining your own reality in your mind. You might even argue with this person, defending your position in order to "save face" and to protect your own belief system.
Back to the child in this example, the parent then tries to lovingly parent this child and to give this child positive messages of self-esteem and self-worth. Yet, what the parent doesn't realize is that the parent is up against the power of belief--up against the child's neurological mapping. No matter how many times this parent tells his new son, "I love you" or "You are a wonderful child" or similar positive messages, the old belief system of not being worthy and not being good enough continues to prevail. It is as if these messages are impervious to this child. These positive messages simply slide off the child as if there is a Teflon coating.
The reason is that these new messages are being given to the child at a cognitive level and are simply cognitive experiences. Yet, emotions play a powerful role in neural processing, much greater than language and cognition. In order to break through the old negative beliefs of this child, the parent has to dig deep within himself to interact with this child at a deeply profound emotional level. Love has the power to do this.
While the emotion of fear keeps this child locked in this negative belief system, it is also true that the emotion of love will release this child from this negative belief system. It takes parenting this child in a loving, safe, and emotionally available manner. And it won't be just one experience, but several experiences, over and over again, with this child being met at an emotional level, in order for new neural pathways to be created.
A new belief system is possible. It takes time, patience, understanding, tolerance, perseverance, and most importantly, emotional impact. For more "what to do in the moment" and more explanation on how to do this in the classroom setting, my newest book, "Help for Billy" will give you more application into the principles discussed in this eNewsletter.
Love never fails...it simply takes learning how to love our children from their perspective and going beyond routine cognitive experiences.
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.