Core cognitive schemas

Core cognitive schemas are strongly held and highly stable beliefs that exert a powerful influence over thoughts and feelings. They influence the way in which incoming information is perceived, attended to and interpreted.

Core cognitive schemas begin to develop in early life, are elaborated in adolescence, reinforced through repetitive experiences, and perpetuated into adulthood primarily through relational patterns. They are deeply entrenched, central to self, self-perpetuating and difficult to change (Ball, 2007; Riso & McBride, 2007).

Schemas are self-perpetuating because they strongly affect selective attention and memory. The person is more likely to detect, interpret or recall information that is consistent with the schema. Contradictory information is generally ignored or not perceived at all (Leahy, 2003).

Cognitive schemas involve beliefs about the self (internal), other people or the world (external). They are an asset to a young person when they are positive and realistic. Positive self-schemas involve a person’s beliefs or assumptions regarding their own worthiness, competence, ability to be loved, and the skills and abilities  that they possess.

Positive world-schemas involve beliefs that the world is reasonably safe, equitable, will provide for our needs, and that people around us will generally be kind, honest and fair-minded. Realism is important for positive schemas to be an asset. Overly optimistic schemas may inflate self-efficacy, trust in others, and expectations of the world to a point where a young person is vulnerable to severe disappointment and exploitation.

More often it is negative (maladaptive or dysfunctional) schemas that are problematic for young people with AOD problems. Maladaptive or dysfunctional schemas are enduring, unconditional, negative beliefs about oneself, others, and the world that organise one’s experiences and subsequent behaviours.

These schemas are broad, pervasive themes that develop early in life. Leahy (2003) talks about Negative schemas in terms of ‘underlying maladaptive assumptions’, or rules that are highly rigid, over-inclusive or impossible to live by.

Cognitive therapists often formulate schemas in terms of ‘I am’, ‘If / then’ and ‘I must’ statements. Examples of schemas commonly problematic for young people with emotional and behavioural problems include: ‘I am unlovable’, ‘I am a troublemaker’, ‘I am never going to succeed at anything’, ‘If I don’t show  aggression first, then they will walk all over me’, ‘If I had been well behaved, then my mother would not have had a breakdown’, ‘If I don’t go along with whatever my friends do then they will abandon me and I’ll be lonely’, ‘I’m never going to get any help from anyone, I must do it all by myself’.

Cognitive schemas clearly have a direct influence upon the degree of optimism or pessimism that a person has about the future, and hence upon their motivation to address difficulties and to work towards goals. Cognitive schemas about the self and the world, come together to form the ‘world view’ that a person develops to make sense of their place and their future prospects.

‘World view’ has an historical dimension, but most often it is concentrated on present circumstances and the immediate future. White and Wyn (2008) explain that “[e]xpectations of the future and reflections on the past also have a bearing on how people conceive of their present – and how people feel about their present affects how they read their past and future” (p10).

A young person’s world view or outlook can affect their motivation to participate in constructive activity and form developmentally helpful connections with others. Health-promoting options that enable young people to meet their needs are worthless if the young person doesn’t believe they are available and worthwhile. For example, a young person might see the benefit of further education but be reluctant to pursue this option if they believe that teachers and other young people will ridicule them, or think that they are ‘dumb’ and incapable of learning.

Aronowitz (2005) draws from the work of Luthar (1999) to make the point that young people often don’t see opportunities in their environments, and therefore they can benefit from guidance. Where young people hold the view that constructive and pro-social participation is not possible or worth pursuing, there is a tendency to focus on the immediate rewards provided by substance use or illegal activities (Aronowitz, 2005).