Exploring the impact of abuse related trauma on memory functioning of children

We need to seriously consider what we are exposing our children to through our news, divorce, disrepair of our schools, lack of mental health supports, the gender imbalance of our elected officials, the exorbitant costs to play on a sports teams, and the lack of affordable housing to name a few. Trauma never really goes away and experts state”When the child hears a similar tone and the implicit memory state is triggered, then the child will re-experience the feelings almost as if they are occurring again.” We have to change what we value in the best interests of our future, our children. Click here to learn more or read an excerpt below.


Memories help to resource children’s abilities. They provide platforms for knowledge. They provide frameworks for children to learn how to respond to their own needs and those of others. Trauma dramatically affects children’s memory capacity. It serves to degrade children’s memories. Children’s working memory is extensively reduced. They find it difficult to learn. They are not able to remember events and the sequence in which they occurred. They are unable to build a narrative about their lives which draws out meaning and understanding. In many ways, trauma reduces children’s ability to remember who they are.

The above table outlines some of the ways that memory is affected by the experience of trauma. These outcomes stem from the chronic arousal state that underpins the brain’s response to trauma. Trauma causes memory systems to degrade and fail. The more complex formed systems of memory are dissolved first. The most complex form of memory is narrative memory.

Implicit memories are most easily triggered by what are called cues. The brain tags the original sensory experience of violence, such as the tone of voice of the abuser, with the emotional intensity of that experience. When the child hears a similar tone and the implicit memory state is triggered, then the child will re-experience the feelings almost as if they are occurring again. The child’s brain is unable to distinguish between the original trauma and the re-triggering experience. The behavioural response to the retriggered memory is very similar to the way the child responded to the original experiences of abuse and violence. It is often said that chronically traumatized children are held hostage to their past. This can be confronting and overwhelming for the child.

Children often manage the retriggering of traumatic memories by disconnecting from those around them, engaging in behaviour that draws attention away from their feelings of confusion or shame (distracts) or being overwhelmed by their emotional reactions (distraught). The following table outlines a scenario and some of the behavioural responses that might sit within each of these categories.



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