You're playing at Smale Park with your kid having a grand time crossing the rope bridge and sliding down the slide when he suddenly shuts down, covers his ears, and begins rocking. This only happens when there's a reminder of that bad thing that happened, but you think, "How could this happen now? We're having fun and NOTHING bad has happened? And that [insert negative event] happened 3 years ago!"
For those of you who raise or work with children who have experienced adverse events and you don't understand why they still are triggered after all this time (or maybe you don't understand why you still are triggered after all this time), you need to know about implicit memory. Implicit memory is unconscious memory that is automatically recalled without our awareness. Implicit memory is formed by repeated or extraordinary experiences and allows us to engage in tasks without putting much, if any, thought into them (you're using implicit memory now to read this article).
Repeated experiences condition us (See Pavlov's Dogs). Bell rings, food comes, dog eats. Bell rings, food comes, dog eats, Bell rings, food comes, dog eats. Bell rings, no food comes, yet dog is salivating because it has been conditioned to expect food when it hears the sound of a bell. This reaction in the dog will continue every time the bell rings now because it has formed an implicit memory tied to the ringing of a bell.
People can be conditioned like this, too. Front door slams, dad yells, mom or kids get hurt. Front door slams, dad yells, mom or kids get hurt. Front door slams, dad yells, mom or kids get hurt. Eventually, mom and kids are going to be conditioned to fear the sound of a door slamming because they know that means dad is on a rampage. And because of implicit memory, even after dad is removed from the equation, the sound of a door slamming will send these victims into a tailspin. You may be saying to yourself, "Well, just stop thinking about it," but implicit memory is harder to stop than that. (Imagine trying to forget how to read these words.)
A few months ago, I was reminded just how cemented implicit memory can be. My husband and I have been going to the same dental practice for over 10 years. We leave with clean teeth and a new toothbrush. After separately choosing the same color toothbrush that first visit 10+ years ago, we decided to each choose one color and stick with that color to avoid any further mishaps. So, for years, I brushed my teeth with a yellow toothbrush.
About 3 years ago, my husband stopped going to the dentist, which meant I was free to choose any color toothbrush -- and I did! Six months ago my husband finally went back to the dentist, and, lo and behold, came back with a yellow toothbrush. Well, apparently, the yellow toothbrush was like an old friend, and we picked up right where we left off. Yes, that means I stuck that thing in my mouth when I went to brush my teeth the next day. Ew! What? How in the world could that happen? I mean, I've been using my own perfect, pink toothbrush at least twice a day for the past 5 months. Why would I grab the yellow toothbrush that wasn't even mine and use it? Implicit memory and the power of the senses.
You see, I was triggered by the sight of the yellow toothbrush I had used every day, multiple times a day for several years. Implicit memory kicked in, and I was tricked into thinking the yellow toothbrush was mine. But, just as quickly as the sense of sight tricked me into a past reality, the sense of touch jolted me into the present reality, and I yanked the toothbrush out of my mouth as soon as I felt it on my teeth and tongue because, implicitly, I knew it didn't feel like my toothbrush.
And you know what? That happened over and over again for months. I saw that darn yellow toothbrush, automatically grabbed it, lathered it up with toothpaste, popped it in my mouth, then disgustedly pulled it out after I felt it. Fortunately, putting my husband's toothbrush in my mouth really isn't a serious problem for me, and I was able to buy him a different toothbrush rather than work on changing my body's automatic response to the sight of the toothbrush.
Implicit memory is why your child still is triggered. That's why working on changing takes more than a few counseling sessions or even a few years sometimes. So be patient and know that effects of experiences can be difficult to erase.
- Erica L. Daniels, LPCC-S
Pediatric Mental Health Counselor
Child Counseling Place, partner of Symatree Counseling
In the Cincinnati/Greater Cincinnati area and wanting to schedule a counseling appointment for your child or teen? Call 513-399-8870 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.