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Linking together Implicit & Explicit Information

June 18, 2013

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.

The feeling

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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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2013 9:32 am

    I can’t wait to hear more on this. I’m a student therapist, training to be a Marriage and Family Therapist, and I’m in the field because I have a passion for working with the adoptive population. Though you described this article as “vague”, I can guarantee it is helpful to parents of adoptive kids who are struggling, because it’s helps me as a beginning student therapist to see that there’s help and hope for these children.

    You’re a great writer and I hope you’re able to keep sharing on this topic – I’ll keep reading, for sure. =)

  2. June 19, 2013 10:51 pm

    Thanks Adrian! I appreciate your feedback! Good luck on your studies! I think I have the best job on the planet, and I hope you will feel the same way!

  3. July 3, 2013 9:09 am

    Thanks so much for these articles, I have been sharing them with other “trauma mama’s ” that do not have internet…the info is so important.

  4. M J Swanson (please don't post my name) permalink
    July 4, 2013 1:52 pm

    I am a new subscriber to this newsletter and an adoptive mother for 36 years. I agree completely with what you write about trauma, but I feel it is too late to help our family. My son has struggled with various addictions, broken relationships, and inappropriate emotional reactions since childhood. We did take him to various therapists when he was a child and adolescent, and during his first marriage his wife insisted he see a therapist who tried the rapid eye movement therapy. After that session, his wife found him curled up in a fetal position and he told her he couldn’t go back; she was making him remember things he didn’t want to remember. Now, 12 years and 2 divorces later, he is still struggling. Because of some of his activities, I was ready to believe his is a sociopath…but I really think trauma is at the root of his disfunction. Our second child is a foreign-born adoptee who also has asperger’s syndrome. She is willing to seek help, but is frustrated that no one seems able to help her! She is 29, so direct involvement in her care is not possible. We have struggled so with our children and their pain. I have hope that more recent adoptive parents have better guidance than we did from our agencies, who told us “just take them home and love them.”

  5. Kimberly permalink
    July 8, 2013 2:19 pm

    I’m so happy that I stumbled upon your blog today. I’d never heard of trauma mama before, but boy I have been living the life of a trauma mama ever since adopting my, now 10 year old son, from Russia when he was 18 months old. It’s hard. Reading your article and the previous one has brought me to tears today, because even though I know I’m not the only one out there struggling with parenting it’s easy to get in a trap where you feel like such a failure because nothing you try to do works. As much as I try to heal his hurts with my love it just doesn’t seem to be changing anything. Thank you for normalizing what I’m trying to cope with and for giving me some direction.

  6. Ashlee permalink
    July 10, 2013 2:59 pm

    Robyn, I don’t know what all the experts would say (you included) as to how to construct narration – or a cohesive story for our little people – but after reading Dr Siegel’s Mindsight, I realized one avenue might be for me and my husband to lead by example. Tell MY story. We do this sometimes over dinner. I tell a story (which strategically has a corresponding emotion) and let everyone offer ideas of how I might have felt. In one story I told everyone (5 of them) came up with 5 different emotions, but none reflected the emotion I had as a child in the story. So it is GREAT to use the stories to share about my childhood (and that of my husband), but it served the purpose of identifying emotions that correspond with events in our lives as well. We’ve told stories about feeling safe, happy, joyous, shame. It’s good stuff. I think we might do it again tonight 🙂

  7. Amber permalink
    December 29, 2013 7:05 am

    So happy to be reading this. I would love to hear more about this topic… I looked for more posts but didn’t see any. Also- found the link on another post to Implicit/Explicit and EMDR but the link didn’t work. Thoughts on this? Thanks so much for your great articles!

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