Linking together Implicit & Explicit Information
In my recent post “Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time” we explored how our children’s traumatic memories can get literally stuck. Traumatic memories may be encoded implicitly without being connected to explicit data (for an explanation on implicit versus explicit memories, click here). This disconnect impairs the implicit memory’s ability to be altered over time, leaving our children left with memories that tell them “I am not safe!” “I can’t trust moms” “When people leave, I’ll never see them again” or “I’ll never get enough food to eat.” If we can link up our children’s implicit and explicit memories, we’ll reduce reactivity and maladaptive behaviors. Think of these memories as randomly floating puzzle pieces. We’ve got to bring them together in order for the picture to make sense.
So, how do we link up those implicit and explicit memories?
We provide language, narration, and a time line (all explicit data) to the implicit memory. We tell stories. We give children their history- age appropriately- the good and the bad. When experiences are only encoded implicitly, whether because the experience happened prior to 18 months or because the neurochemicals involved with trauma prevented the experience from being encoded explicity, children are left with the body memories of the trauma without really understanding why they feel the way they do. Without the language to make sense of those implicit memories, those experiences will remain stored as implicit data only.
Stories that Heal
Whether your child has experienced a recent hard moment or you are adding language to one of their earliest experiences, the formula is approximately the same. Together with your child, develop their narrative. Help your child- in age appropriate words- understand their life story.
The facts of the experience.
When I start working with a child on their story, I’m frequently surprised to hear them recount their version of the story. Oftentimes they are confused or do not understand what actually happened. When creating your child’s narrative, it’s important to correct this misinformation and provide the facts.
The negative or mixed up thought
If you open your heart to hear your child’s inner most worries, you might be surprised at what you find out. When I construct narratives with children who were adopted as infants, they often tell me that they were placed for adoption because they were a bad baby or too much work for their birthmother. Children believe tragedies are their fault. With attunement and openness, your child will bring you into their biggest fears and may tell you that no one answered their cries because they were a bad baby or not loveable.
What was that baby (or toddler or child) feeling at that time? If this is a preverbal memory, we just have to guess. Body feelings are stored implicitly, so typically a child can identify a feeling and I’ll assume they are correct. Common feelings are sad, mad, or guilty.
Correct the negative or mixed up thought
Take that negative thought and turn it into the true, positive thought. “It is never the baby’s fault.” And provide accurate, true information about what really did happen in age appropriate language.
This is a very complex topic that I really can’t even begin to address in one short article. The way to construct a narrative for your child will vary based on your child’s current age, as well as many other factors. The popularity of “Trauma Doesn’t Tell Time” has let me know that you want to know how to help your child make sense of their earliest memories! I realize that the information provided in this article is vague and doesn’t give you a lot of guidance on how to construct a narrative with your child. Over the summer, I’ll work on creating a series of articles that will walk you through this process step by step.
Sometimes, stories aren’t enough
EMDR trauma therapy links up implicit and explicit data. If your child already knows their life story and continues to struggle with reactivity that suggests that implicit memories are still being triggered, consider bringing in the assistance of an EMDR therapist who is trained in working with children with complex preverbal and attachment trauma.
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