As we grow, we all form beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world. Our experiences help to shape our beliefs. Young people who struggle with anxiety or depression often report similar beliefs: “I am alone”, “this won’t get better”, and “I am not good enough”.
We all have rules that we live by. These rules serve as guidelines or principles that we believe will help us to be the person we want to be or to live the life we want to live. Every person develops their own rules for living. The rules we live by are derived from the beliefs that we have about ourselves. If we believe we are not good enough, this can transform into rules like, “I must be thin, so that I become good enough” or “I must hide my personality, so that people won’t see that I am not good enough”. Such rules can drive our behaviours. For example, “I must be thin, so that I become good enough” can lead to extreme worry about not being thin enough and an obsessive need to restrict diet. The thing is, this type of behaviour may not only be harmful, but it does not actually change the belief, “I am not good enough”; that belief is still sitting deep down inside of the young person likely to continue driving anxiety about acceptance and belonging.
How do we know if young people have harmful beliefs?
Core beliefs in young people are often hidden beneath the surface of their thoughts and behaviours. However, as thoughts and behaviours can often reflect or stem from underlying beliefs, thoughts and behaviours may provide insight into the beliefs that a young person has.
Actively listening to the things young people say may provide you with a glimpse into core beliefs. For example, if the young person says, “I’m so stupid” when they make a mistake, then an underlying core belief may be, “I am not good enough”.
Observing a young person’s behaviour may also provide you with information about core beliefs. If a young person is afraid to speak aloud in class, then the young person may believe that they are not competent enough or that others will reject them.
Exploring a young person’s thoughts by asking questions may also help you to understand core beliefs. If a young person tells you that they often think no one understands them, then an underlying core belief may be “I am alone”. Some core beliefs are difficult to uncover. A therapist can often help the young person to identify or better understand core beliefs.
How do we help young people to change harmful beliefs?
It is hard to be a parent. There is no manual on how to make a young person feel happy. In fact, our experiences in life suggest that hard or painful experiences are a normal part of it, even with a parent’s love and protection. We cannot stop young people from forming their own beliefs about themselves and the world around them. Instead, we can be there to help shape beliefs.
Build Awareness. The first step to transforming unhelpful beliefs is to become aware of those beliefs. What underlying beliefs are keeping a young person from doing a helpful behaviour or driving a young person to do a harmful behaviour? What does the young person believe they will gain or lose by doing or not doing the behaviour?
Reinforce alternative beliefs. It is important to strengthen alternative beliefs. For example, if a young person believes “I am not good enough”, alternative beliefs to reinforce can range from beliefs about the self like, “I am a kind person” or “I am learning and growing” to beliefs about the world like, “everyone makes mistakes sometimes”. How can you reinforce the belief, “I am learning and growing”? When the child makes mistakes, say “everyone makes mistakes sometimes and mistakes are opportunities to learn”, praise their efforts, and while you provide them with practical support to grow, show them that you love them. How we respond to our own mistakes can also help reinforce the belief for our child. Try to be mindful of how you talk about and to yourself when you make a mistake. It is very easy to say things like, “that was so stupid, why did I do that?”. Try and catch yourself before you say things like this. Instead, you can say, “oops, I dropped the ball on that one, I wonder what I can do differently next time?”.
Change Behaviour. Doing something differently can lead to changes in beliefs. Changing a behaviour creates an opportunity to test out beliefs and to find evidence in support of alternative behaviours. For example, connecting more closely with a friend or caregiver can help to generate evidence that a young person is not alone and, thus, help a young person to see that they are wanted and loved.
Face fears. Beliefs can be transformed by creating a supportive space for young people to feel and work through difficult emotional experiences. Have you ever tried to avoid rejection? We all have; but by feeling and working through fear of rejection, you can then build courage to approach, rather than avoid, social situations that make you feel afraid of being rejected.
Restructure thoughts. Beliefs can also be transformed by helping young people to think about themselves and the world around them in new ways. For example, a young person can be helped to see that they are good enough by adopting a more flexible, less rigid approach to what it means “to be good enough”.
Explore their origins. A part of transforming beliefs may involve exploring past events that helped shape these beliefs. Identifying our beliefs and understanding where these beliefs come from can help us to spot when these beliefs are present and impacting negatively on our thoughts or behaviours.
Seek support. Sometimes, beliefs are difficult to transform. If a young person is struggling with unhelpful beliefs and behaviours, consider seeking the help of a school counsellor or therapist.
Shaping beliefs is a gradual process that will be met with challenges along the way as young people learn to handle the enormous pressures of academic life, social media, sports teams and extracurriculars, friendships, and general growth. Be there to help shape beliefs along the way, knowing that as young people grow, their capacity to be their own agents for change are also growing. With the belief that they are not alone, that they are good enough, and that life can still change when things go wrong, they may be better equipped with the courage to manage the pressures they face.
Written by: Dr Wafa Saoud