Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

by Guy Shahar

Published: 10th December, 2020

As profoundly sensitive beings in an increasingly material and pressure-driven culture, it is easy for our autistic children to feel that they are somehow inadequate.

At home, at school and elsewhere, they can easily be given messages that they are slow or clumsy or generally just not up to the standards expected by others; and for them to acutely feel others’ impatience with them.

As a result, the child loses confidence in themself, and believes that they have these negative attributes and that there’s nothing they can do about them.

This can seriously undermine the child’s whole future life trajectory by imposing upon them totally unnecessary preconceptions about themselves which they then automatically live up to.

How Do I Know What My Child’s Limiting Beliefs Are?

It’s not possible to definitively know what’s in the unconscious mind of another person (or of ourselves for that matter), and it’s especially hard when we don’t always know what they’re repeatedly hearing from others, for example at school.  Even when the beliefs come from us, we’re not knowingly imposing them on our children and are likely not to be aware that we are doing so.

We can get clues through a combination of watching their behaviour and our intuitive knowledge of our children that we have simply through our relationship with them, we can start to easily see broad areas where our children may be struggling.

For example, if a child is always grabbing and snatching things, this might point us to an underlying insecurity that they can get what they need without fighting for it; that their needs won’t otherwise be fulfilled.

In the example at the start, if a child is slow, it may be because they’ve been given the belief that they are slow by things that have been repeatedly said to them, and are simply living up to that belief. 

But for both of these issues, there may be other reasons too.  For example, they may be easily distracted, which is making them appear slow or clumsy and finding it difficult to focus for some reason.  So, it’s important to closely observe and tune into our children to try to get the best sense of what’s going on for them.  If we see them focused but doing things slowly or clumsily, that’s one thing, but if we see them slow or clumsy because they’re distracted, that might signal that there’s a different issue that is might not be so easy to get to the root of.

Other issues are even broader, for example, if a child is always checking to make sure that everything is “right” before doing something (e.g. making sure all the pencils are on the table and lined up in the right way before starting to write or draw, or insisting on taking vitamins in a particular order, etc. etc.), this strongly suggests some sort of anxiety that is being expressed through the pencils or vitamins but that may not necessarily have its origins there.  It’s much harder to help a child with “anxiety” in general, even though it’s actually at the root of most issues.

Fortunately, it’s not so important to know exactly what the beliefs are in order to be able to address them.  Whatever the issue, as we have always said, creating a general environment of containment is the best and most crucial place to start.  At the end of the day, giving them that backdrop of understanding, acceptance, safety and love is far more important and effective than trying to analyse what exactly is gong on.  The rest flows from that starting point.

The Importance Of Our Attitude

If a child has an underlying belief that they are slow or clumsy and is told that they should try to be faster or less clumsy, they will feel that they are being asked to do something that they are simply not able to do because (they are believing) it goes against their nature.  We can’t simply ask them to try to change something that they believe is inherent to them, as this would only reinforce their negative beliefs, inviting  them to feel guilty for not being able to live up to what they are being told they “should” be.  It will also most likely increate their sense of not being understood, which is an extremely common and potent experience that autistic people repeatedly have.

The only way we can avoid propagating that and instead cultivate a sense of self-acceptance in a child is to start with an unconditional acceptance of them as they are – including with whatever tendencies or underlying beliefs they have.  It is natural for parents to have anxiety about the aspects of their children’s behaviour that they fear may cause them problems and not be accepted by others.  But not accepting these aspects ourselves only compounds our children’s difficulties.  If we can bring ourselves to feel deeply within that how they are is how they are and that doesn’t affect their value or our love for them and they don’t have any obligation to be different, then a number of important things happen.

One is that they will automatically imbibe this new attitude.  They will feel a palpable change in the environment around them when our own anxieties for them are removed and replaced with a loving acceptance.  This is a necessary foundation for anybody’s peace and happiness.

Another thing is that by removing our own sense of urgency to “change them”, we are less likely to pressure them to change or to put pressure on ourselves to be successful in changing them.  This sort of pressure can turn our attempt to help into something that is itself experienced as another threat or another burden to carry. 

Then, from that foundation of acceptance, we are able to offer support and ways of helping them (not requiring them) to change in the spirit of self-development that we might encourage for any person.  Offering means that we are not attached to whether it works or not.  We offer in the hope that it will help them to be happier, more fulfilled and to have rewarding development opportunities; but we also accept that this might not be right for them at this time.  It might be something that we either adapt or save to another time when they might be ready (and we can work on generally creating a safer, more contained environment in the meantime so that this moment may come sooner), or simply accept as it is.  This removes the intensity that could otherwise be present in our attempt to help, making that help threatening and impossible for them to safely make use of.

Ironically, it is by being prepared to accept that something won’t work that we can sometimes give it the best chance of working, if that is the right thing for the child.

Once we are in that frame of mind, these are some things we might be able to offer to help:

Experiences

Perhaps the most powerful way we can help our children to challenge their limiting beliefs is to try to give them, as far as we can, a sense of safety – removing their anxiety about their needs not being met.  Our recent article on Subtle Messages gives examples of how we can change our tone and focus to give our children empowering experiences rather than disempowering ones in their activities and obligations, and there are further thoughts later in this article about how we can steer them towards a better way of doing things without intimidating them through over-correction – simply by sharing in activities with them and sharing with them our own learning experiences.  This enables them to feel safe from the shadow of being given the (unintentional) impression that they’re not good enough, and leaves them free to enjoy the activity with us as a genuine partner.

Symbolic play

This is where we can play with, for example, soft toys to create a situation that is not identical to the one the child has, but has the same themes and enables them to draw the same lessons.  Through a game or simulated situation, we can help the child process their anxieties, and show them that the situation works out for the best despite their initial fears and apprehensions. 

We still sometimes do this with our now 11-year old son.  Now that he is older, he has worked out why we are doing it, and still welcomes it as a way of better understanding things that might be holding him back, and of being entertained, as we try to make the situations as fun as possible, which he also enjoys.

For example, if he is insisting on only doing his study work under a particular (very difficult to achieve) set of conditions, we might get 2 of his favourite soft toys and make a situation where one of them may be similarly insistent on doing things a certain way, which ends up being detrimental to themselves and the other.  However, it’s important not to be judgemental in this – it is not about  lecturing or imposing a perspective unwillingly on them.  It is about bringing to light in a truly supportive way a fuller picture of the situation.  It’s crucial to show some sympathy and real understanding for the character who is insisting, and to appreciate how crucial their way of wanting to do things is to them.  Where possible, we try to get him to help the 2 characters find a solution together.  He is genuinely passionate about bringing people together and finding solutions that make everyone happy, which inclines him to really engage with this.  Other children may have different strengths, which could also be brought in.  If he achieves this, he has a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction for having patched things up between them, and the lessons that he has taught them by himself are then more naturally and effortlessly applied to his own life.  They have become his own learned understanding, rather than something presented to and imposed on him by someone else.

It may be too scary for the child to deal with a situation that is exactly the same as theirs, as they can intuitively understand that something they believe is keeping them safe is being called into question, and they may then cling onto it even harder.  This is true even if they know deep down what it’s all about.  That’s why we make the situation just a little different, and we don’t need at any point to relate it back to their own situation.  It is enough that they will have absorbed the new understanding in general terms, which they can then apply in their own way to their own life.   Sometimes, we have seen sudden changes in our son after enabling him to process things in this way.

Containment

As previously suggested, this is at the heart of enabling the true growth of our children.  It involves creating a home environment where they feel safe, understood, respected and valued, not over-stimulated.  This gives them the possibility to learn for themselves how to build really build loving connections with those they trust most, who they now feel truly understand them.  Please see our separate article on Containment for more information.

What About When Their Limiting Beliefs Come From Us?

But one of the most potent ways in which limiting beliefs can compromise our children is when they come from us, as many of them are likely to.  You may have heard the following story.

A school wasn’t performing very well in terms of its academic results, so it brought in some educational consultants to help find out what they could do to improve things.  The consultants spent a day with the children and then reported back to the staff that they’d been grouping them together wrongly.  They proposed splitting the children into 3 alternative classes, one with pupils who had tremendous potential, another with those who could perhaps hope to achieve some more limited goals, and a third class which would likely have difficulty with pretty much anything they were given.  The teachers were surprised by the proposed placements of some of the children, but they followed the recommendations anyway, and after a few weeks, it seemed to be working.  The upper class was really excelling, the middle class was doing quite well, and the bottom class, as predicted, was struggling and not achieving much.  When the consultants returned at the end of term, the teachers asked them how, after just a day’s observation, they had so accurately predicted which children had how much potential.  The lead consultant replied, “We didn’t.  This was part of an experiment to try to ascertain how much teachers’ expectations of pupils affected their outcome.  We actually proposed random lists of pupils for each class.”

I have no idea how much truth there is to this story (such an experiment would clearly be ethically dubious), but it graphically illustrates the power of our beliefs and expectations not only on ourselves but on others, for which there is increasing evidence.  Children live up (or down) to what we expect of them.

If we expect our children to struggle, they will struggle.  It works on numerous levels.  On one level they read and absorb what we believe about them.  They trust us more than anyone and they look to us to complete their understanding of the world.  They perceive far more than we imagine they do, and if they see that we believe that something will be difficult for them, they will firmly believe that it is difficult and will approach it will more trepidation and anxiety, which will undermine their success and in turn reinforce their limiting beliefs.  On another level, it affects our behaviour towards them – we may “protect” them from learning experiences that we believe they won’t cope with and therefore deny them the opportunity to grow as they would like to, and perhaps give them tasks that bore rather than challenge and stimulate, and then mistake their half-hearted participation for difficulty.

If, on the other hand, we were able to trust them and their resilience and show them that we do, and remain calm and steady for them as we allow them the time and space and (gentle) encouragement, then we may be amazed at what they can achieve.  It may be as simple as giving them little responsibilities like organising small chunks of their own time or making their own breakfast – preparing them for this in a really positive way and guiding them through the first couple of times, and in doing so, showing them that this is a perfectly safe thing that will result in positive growth for them.  It is critical to create a relaxed, positive empowering atmosphere for this, where they can feel completely safe.  Allow them to make mistakes without correcting all of them, or address them through warmly sharing examples of how we learnt rather than drawing attention to anything they may have done wrong.  Trust that they will eventually work out the best ways of doing things for themselves.  Often their lack of confidence and self-belief in themselves comes directly from our lack of confidence and belief in them.  There’s more on this particular suggestion in our recent article on Subtle Messages.

But children are not stupid.  If we simply tell them we believe in them when we’re not quite believing that, they will undoubtedly pick up the discrepancy between what we say and what we feel, even if they may show no evidence of this that we can understand (which is why there is such a pervading misconception about autistic children not being tuned in to what’s going on around them).  The only way we can make this work is to truly believe in their abilities and potential ourselves.  It might be a big leap of faith, depending on the current situation in any family, but it is a critical one to aim towards for our children’s benefit – at least to be genuinely hopeful of the possibility that there’s more to them that we can see.

After all, why do we call these beliefs limiting beliefs?  How do they limit?  In one simple way:  if a someone believes that they can’t do something, they feel that there’s little point in trying because failure is inevitable.  However sincerely they steel themselves up to really try, the slightest setback will bring them back to the pointlessness of the pursuit and they will be very inclined to give up.  On the other hand, if someone believes there’s a good chance they can achieve something, there’s everything to play for and they’re likely to put in far more effort.  They will see a setback as just one of the inevitable obstacles along the way, nothing to worry about.  They will feel that it’s worth putting the effort in, as they’re likely to be able to make good use of it.

So when we’re looking at our son, we’re always trying to find evidence of his ability and to notice what he is actually doing and achieving towards a goal he wants to reach.  We try to see whatever elements of potential he displays so that we can truly believe in him.  If we do, then he will very naturally absorb our belief about him and start to believe in himself.  This will empower him to be far more successful and happy with himself than could otherwise be possible, and will give him the courage to dare to come up with his own goals and plans and work confidently towards them.

These are not step-by-step techniques about what we can do, which are relatively easy to follow.  Those may have their place, but what we are talking about here is the real work of a parent of an autistic child (or any parent): to change how we think and what we believe about our children in order to best serve them.

So, there is a lot we can do to support our children’s confidence and growth, and it needs to start with our own perceptions of them.  We can think of it as an opportunity to understand our children in a new way and to celebrate new possibilities that we had previously assumed weren’t there.  That way, we’ve got a much better chance of discovering and enabling the best in their potential.

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