What Do Children Remember?
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
What do children remember? How do our childhood memories, or lack of them, affect who we become as grow older? Do our childhood memories affect us as adults? Does it matter what we experience when we're babies, if we can't even remember?
There can be alot of confusion about childhood memories. I often hear people say things like "I don't take my kids on vacations, they won't even remember them anyway". And in the therapy office, people will say things like "My parents divorced when I was 5. But I don't even remember anything, so it doesn't affect me". And it might be true that we can't remember the facts of the experience, but it's also true that we still remember.
Different Kinds of Memory
We actually have two different kinds of long term memory. And each work in different ways, for different purposes.
Explicit Memory: Our Explicit Memory allows us to remember facts. What happened. The name of our 4th grade teacher. Where we went to school. The names and faces of our best friends. The words of the child that bullied us. Explicit memory is what we usually think of when we think of memory. And, this kind of memory doesn't usually develop until about the age of 7. So this is where the belief that kids won't remember vacations, divorces, and other experiences that occur in early childhood.
Implicit Memory: Our Implicit memory allows us to remember the how. Often called "procedural memory", this kind of memory helps us to remember how to ride a bike, drive a car, speak a language once we are fluent. This way, we don't have to go back in our memory to do the things that we need to do on a daily basis. They become ingrained in our memory, so that we don't really need to actively remember and we don't forget.
Implicit memory is very active in early childhood. We are learning--and remembering--lots of "hows". How to sit, how to stand, how to walk, how to eat, how to run...and how to relate to others. Our experiences as young children become imprinted in our brains, in our central nervous system and we remember them throughout adulthood. So we may not remember our preschool teacher's name, but we will remember the way we felt about her and how we felt about ourselves when we were with her. We may not even be able to put it into words, but we will feel it. We may not remember our parent's divorce, but our brains and bodies will remember how we felt about what was happening.
How Early Memories Affect Us Through Life
When our earliest memories teach us that we are safe, our needs will be met, and that we are lovable and worthy, we grow up with a sense of confidence, security and open-ness to mutual relationships. But when we have multiple interactions in which we aren't safe, our physical and emotional needs aren't met, and that we feel unlovable or unworthy, we will often grow into adults who feel insecure and have troubled relationships with ourselves and others. Even though we may not have words for these experiences, even though we might not remember all the facts, we can recognize the feelings and the patterns in our lives that help us to make sense of our story.
Can Therapy Help?
If we understand how memory-and human development in general-works, the best way to proceed is to ensure that children can be safe and that their basic physical and emotional needs will be met.
But sometimes that's not possible, or out of our control. So when children do face multiple interactions that leave them at risk, yes, therapy can help. Therapy for young kids can help families to understand what's happening, respond more effectively to their young children and to escape negative feedback loops to reduce the risk of continued patterns of negative interactions--which might build into systems of implicit memory. Psychotherapy for adults can help to put early experiences into words, which can help by bringing more understanding, more compassion and empathy for oneself and allow for a more flexible response to negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Perhaps most importantly, therapy helps by offering a safe space in which one's emotional needs can be met, building an alternative system of implicit memory--our brain and body learning a new way of "how" to be in a relationship.
Give yourself or your child the gift of emotional wellness! Call Creating Space Counseling and Wellness to make an appointment today! 856-281-1664