For better or for worse, we revisit our childhoods until the carpeting of our memories is worn thin by our ceaseless pacing. The stories we tell about ourselves — and the narratives we buy into — are rooted in childhood experience. Memories come out of experience and so experiences shape the person we will become. This is the assumption underlying the concerns about the memories today’s children will be left with in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic and the COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines that have followed.
What will kids remember about this strange time in their lives? Should we want them to remember all the details or to gloss over this time? Will these experiences, coupled with our second-hand stress leave them somehow emotionally hobbled?
In truth, because of the way that children’s memories are created, coded, and re-coded, it’s distinctly possible that none of the anxiety-producing questions plaguing parents in this moment are, in fact, relevant at all. When it comes to children’s memories, our present problems have both present and future solutions.
To understand how to inoculate children against or cure bad memories, it’s helpful to understand when and how memory is developed. Though there is no scientific consensus on when children become capable of remembering experiences, studies have found that some children seem to have memories from when they were infants but most tend to forget those memories by the time they’re around six. Memories made around the age of three or four seem to stick a bit longer.
“We’re learning concepts, but we may not have any conscious access to experiences we had maybe up to age three,” says Noa Ofen, Ph.D., memory researcher and associate professor of psychology at Wayne State University. “Very young children tend to remember a lot, but those memories tend to not be available readily when they’re older. There’s a very real phenomenon called childhood amnesia that’s well documented.”
Children’s brains don’t work like adult brains, complicating our understanding of memory mechanisms. It appears that the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe, is the basic machinery of memory function in the brain. In children, the hippocampus also provides a “scaffold” for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memories, according to a Stanford University study published in 2014. That study found that while both adults and children could solve math problems, adults didn’t use the hippocampus scaffold like children do because facts are likely stored in the neocortex in adults. In children, brain activity tends to be less consistent and stable.
In general, research supports the idea that adults are more reliant than children on their prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in complex cognitive function) to control the basic mechanisms of memory executed by the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus. This is why children and adults recall studied materials to a similar extent and with similar brain function. But there are big differences between children and adults in terms of memories that depend on recollection of contextual details.
“It’s not like a recorder or a video camera,” Ofen says. “It’s not like an experience is stored as something we can play back as is. Memory is selective; we pay attention to some things and not others. When we encode information, many elements determine what we’ll end up storing about that event.”
A blend of factors affect that coding, says Bill Chopik, PhD, a researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. First, there’s a sensation part; you literally have to experience something a little bit to form a memory about it, he says.
“Then there’s reflection on whether it’s a good or bad thing,” Chopik continues. “It also has to do with your personality. Some of it has to do with your biases and how you reflect on things. This is stuff that slightly warps memories.”
In a study Chopik published in 2018, he and his co-author found that subjects who said they had close and affectionate relationships with their parents when they were children said they were healthier and had less depressive symptoms than participants who didn’t have similarly positive memories.
“That’s the controversial thing about this kind of research: Regardless of what actually happened, how you remember it determines your positive reflections on it,” Chopik says. “It’s more of a question of how to change things like optimism and how people reflect on things rather than, for example, taking them on a great vacation.”
If you can help kids remember things more positively, it sets them up for other successes in life as well, he says.
Re-Engineering the Code
Whether the stress related to coronavirus will leave sensitive children with bad memories will be, at least in part, a function of how parents manage the crisis. According to Gene Beresin, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and executive director of The Clay Center for Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, children’s memories are profoundly affected by their perception of parent wellbeing. As such, future memories can be colored by present behavior. Calm unpleasantness doesn’t mastacisize into unpleasant recollections — at least not necessarily.
A study of Gulf War kids displaced by Scud missile attacks, Beresin notes, demonstrated that even severe trauma was blunted by family cohesion and maternal cognitive control — the ability of mothers to control and redirect their children’s thinking. “Support among family, friends and the community are very important when kids are isolated,” says Beresin.
What does cognitive control look like in practice? Being honest, mostly. Though it might seem like a good idea to shield children from coronavirus news, which is frightening, this further isolates children. Kids who aren’t being supplied with a narrative are likely to invent their own. And it may well be more threatening — something they’ll carry with them going forward.
“When you’re isolated and free to let your imagination fly, it can lay down memories as traumatic and prevents kids from processing events in real time. Discussing things in the moment helps prevent that,” Beresin says, suggesting a bit of scripting: “Of course I’m worried, but we’ll get through this.“
In addition, directing children’s attention can help “revise” their memories or put a more positive spin on them, Chopik says. “Say you took your family on a trip to Niagara Falls and it was closed, but you went to a fun amusement park or on a hike instead. If you explicitly point to that stuff, like, ‘Hey, remember that fun hike?’ it’s probably better in terms of creating a positive memory than an expensive vacation.”
Part of the reason this works for kids but not adults is that their memories can be more emotional than episodic. “We’re forming attachments at age three, which might not be a formed memory you can recall, but you might recall a sense of closeness,” explains Beresin.
This is perhaps one of the reasons so many psychologists suggest journaling for kids. It’s an emotional release, not a firming up of unpleasant memories.
“People sometimes think that talking about trauma might amplify anxiety, but it’s actually a relief,” Beresin says. “Journaling or keeping a diary helps kids process feelings, register an experience in memory and capture emotions. Writing things down helps them see the complexities of an issue in a deeper way.” Some of the advice for “practicing gratitude” is similar to how to instill positive memories in children, Chopik notes. Helping kids reflect on the positive things they’re grateful for can be useful.
“The idea behind gratitude manipulations is that you basically attend to the positive experiences of the day,” he says. “It induces positive emotions and helps reframe your day in a more positive light.”
The Ethical Implications of Planting Memories
Chopik expresses some wariness when discussing how parents can manipulate their children’s memories.
“Obviously, you don’t want to gaslight children,” he says. “It’s misleading to tell them bad things are good and you don’t want parents to be manipulative. But I think parents can take baby steps, attending to positive features and helping kids expect more good things in the future. That’s what optimism is.”
Molding memories can be used in a negative way, Ofen agrees and is less concerned about the moral ramifications. She argues that this process is organic and inevitable. Active remembering (think: looking at photos) affects memories. To retrieve a memory is to alter it.
“Memories are tainted by the specific context in which you retrieve them,” Ofen says. “If people are aware of the process that strengthens the positive aspects of memories, it can help make resilience part of the narrative of what we’re going through in these strange times.”
Will kids have negative memories of a difficult moment in human history? That may be the wrong question. The right question might be whether or not the memories they do have will retain their negativity over time. Neither negativity nor the persistence of that negativity during future recollections is inevitable. The present looks different from the future and parents are uniquely capable of offering children rose-colored glasses. Consistency, communication, and positive messaging will leave many children unburdened by this dark chapter in their young lives.