Early experiences with caregivers shape a child’s core beliefs about self, others, and life in general. It is necessary to understand how memory works to appreciate the way core beliefs form and affect a child’s life. Memory links our past, present and future. Images stored in the brain become expectations about future events.
There are two types of memory that develop in the early years:
- Implicit memory is present at birth. An infant’s brain is capable of creating mental models that involve images and emotions based on experiences with caregivers. Implicit memory does not involve conscious processing but affects the baby’s behavior and reactions. For example, babies with secure attachments have positive images encoded in their minds. They sense unconsciously that parents are safe, nurturing, and dependable and anticipate more loving care in the future. Insecurely attached babies encode negative images. They may sense parents as being threatening, unloving, and unavailable and learn to expect continued harsh or neglectful treatment.
- Explicit memory develops by the age of 2. A child is now learning language, has conscious awareness, and can remember himself in a specific past event. By now, the toddler can bring up a sensory image of her parent or caregiver, including pictures, body sensations and emotions. The secure child feels calm and relaxed. The insecure child feels anxious and tense.
Early childhood experiences are encoded in the brain. Emotional experiences of nurturance and protection are encoded in the brain’s limbic area, the emotional center. Over time, repeated encoded experiences become internal working models (or core beliefs) about self, self in relation to others, and the world in general. These core beliefs become the lens through which children (and later adults) view themselves and others, especially authority and attachment figures. Core beliefs serve to interpret the present and anticipate the future. You get what you expect, and your expectations are based on past experiences. The brain is an anticipation machine.
Children’s core beliefs become deeply ingrained and operate outside of conscious awareness, affecting how they perceive themselves and interpret events and social situations. Children who lack secure and loving attachments commonly blame themselves and develop a self-image as helpless, bad and unlovable. These children see danger even when it is not there. They misinterpret social cues, assume the worst and overreact emotionally and behaviorally. The result is ongoing conflict with parents and peers, aggressive and controlling behavior and further damage to self-esteem.
The core beliefs of children who have experienced secure and compromised attachments in the early years are as follows:
• Self. “I am good, wanted, worthwhile, competent and lovable.”
• Caregivers. “They are appropriately responsive to my needs, sensitive,
dependable, caring and trustworthy.”
• Life. “My world feels safe; life is worth living.”
• Self. “I am bad, unwanted, worthless, helpless and unlovable.”
• Caregivers. “They are unresponsive to my needs, insensitive, hurtful
• Life. “My world feels unsafe; life is painful and burdensome.”
A therapeutic goal with traumatized children is helping them develop more positive core beliefs, mindsets and attitudes. Healing experiences are most effective. Therapy employs change-producing mental, emotional and social experiences in a safe, supportive and caring environment.
Therapeutic and “healing parents” realize that a positive, safe and secure parent-child relationship is the primary pathway to change.
Photo Credit: George Rudy, Getty Images Pro