Abuse and neglect affects a child’s belief system. But it is possible to reverse the effects through new words and experiences.
Our belief system, how we think about ourselves, our relationships and the world around us, becomes the very powerful core of who we are. What we think fuels our emotions and usually dictates our behavior.
How are belief systems formed? They are formed by the words we hear and the experiences we have. Our belief system sets the trajectory of our lives.
Origin of Belief Systems
Belief systems begin to form in the womb.1 Even before we are born, we begin to experience life as we may encounter it after we’re born. While in the womb, we hear and implicitly experience our mother’s world.2
For many developing babies, that world is safe and peaceful. For others, even the womb is unsafe. The developing brains of these babies may be flooded with stress hormones as a result of domestic violence or their mother’s chronic depression or anxiety. Other children have already experienced starvation due to malnutrition in the womb. Still other children, because of the words their mothers have spoken over them while still in the womb, are born implicitly believing they are not wanted.
The Challenges of Changing a Child’s Belief System
Even if one does not know the history of the child they are fostering or have adopted, one thing for certain is true. Something profoundly harmful has happened to them or they would not be in our homes.
The children coming to us who have experienced physical abuse not only have conscious or buried memories of the abuse but most likely have developed a belief system that says they are not loved. “If we were loved, my parents wouldn’t hurt us.”
On many levels, children who have survived severe neglect have most likely developed a damaging belief system that says they do not exist. “If we existed, my parents would see us and meet our needs.” Meeting the need to be seen is foundational for healthy development.3
Changing a child’s belief system requires giving them new words and new experiences.
What have our children heard to create beliefs about themselves that say “no one loves me?” Words such as “you are stupid,” “you are ugly,” “we never wanted you,” “you are just like your failure of a father,” or even far worse than these, have sunk deeply into their heart. Research indicates that the deep emotional damage done by verbal abuse is just as severe as physical abuse.
What have our children experienced that also creates the wounded belief system? Painful physical abuse such as hitting, slapping, pinching, beating, even burning leaves both emotional and physical scars. Sexual abuse, which steals the innocence of a child, is another form of abuse that feeds a child’s belief about himself/herself.
Steps for Changing a Child’s Belief System
So, if children have formed belief systems about themselves due to negative words and experiences, how do we help them renew their minds and form new belief systems that reach into the core of their being? By giving them new words and new experiences.
Picture this. A child has moved into a new foster home from a toxic abusive environment. The first night at the dinner table, this little one spills his milk accidentally. Immediately, he dives under the table cowering in fear.
Words of “you are stupid,” flood his mind. Memories of being grabbed from under the table and slapped fill his mind. His body and brain go into fear mode.
However, this time that doesn’t happen. He hears new words and experiences something new.
He hears his name called in a calming voice. “Johnny, honey. It’s okay. We all spill our milk accidently. When you are ready to come out from underneath the table, there will be a new glass of milk waiting for you. We all will finish our dinner together.”
Instead of harmful words, in this new home, overtime he will hear
- You are loved
- You are precious to us
- You are important
- You are special
- God loves you
Instead of painful, abusive occurrences, he will experience
- Fun and Laughter
- Love like never before
- Feel the love of God
As it has been said, what one believes fuels his emotions and then sets the trajectory for behavior. The Apostle Paul also knew the power of the mind when he wrote, “…be changed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
As foster and adoptive parents, we can be used by God to renew the heart and mind of a wounded child.
Key Take-Aways for Changing a Child’s Belief System
- What one believes sets the course of his life
- The words we hear and the experiences we have create our belief system.
Consider adding two items to your prayer list:
- Lord, bring new families to become foster parents, that know you, to open their hearts and homes to vulnerable children.
- Lord, equip families to become the type of foster parents that the children need and the government will work with.
1Anne Murphy Paul, What We Learn Before We’re Born. Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stngBN4hp14 2Siegel, D and Bryson, T. (2020) The Power of Presence: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. New York, NY: Ballentine Books, p. 60. 3Ibid. p. 10. 4Remschmidt H. The emotional and neurological consequences of abuse. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011;108(17):285-6. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2011.0285
Copyright © 2020, Jayne Schooler. Used with permission. Updated July 28, 2022.