Why Can’t I Remember My Childhood? The Confusing Legacy of Emotional Neglect

Why Can’t I Remember My Childhood? The Confusing Legacy of Emotional Neglect

There you are again–sitting with colleagues or friends, feeling weird and alone, as they talk in great detail about events that happened forty years ago. Why can’t you remember your childhood? For some, childhood memories are vibrant and fun to talk about, evoking images of joy, warmth, and innocence. If that’s not you, please know that you’re not alone. Many people grapple with how to feel about fuzzy childhood memories. Often there is a sense of how it felt, but little recall of specific events. This creates a poignant challenge when an adult is trying to put together the pieces of what happened to them in a childhood that involved trauma and emotional neglect. People can wonder why they feel bad if they can’t remember bad things happening. The feelings don’t seem real, which sadly, often mirrors what happened to them as children when caregivers struggled to adequately mirror and validate their emotions. In this blog post, we will explore the profound effects of childhood trauma and neglect on memory recall, shedding light on the relationship between adverse experiences and forgotten pasts.

The Link Between Trauma and Memory

Understanding the impact of trauma on memory requires an exploration of the intricate workings of the brain under stress. Traumatic experiences can activate the body’s stress response, flooding the brain with stress hormones that may influence memory formation and consolidation. Studies have shown that exposure to stress changes the size and function of the hippocampus. Hippo-what? Why should we care about the hippocampus? It’s the part of the brain that helps us remember and tell a verbal story of what happened in our past.

The Role of Dissociation

Childhood trauma, including chronic emotional misattunement and neglect, can lead to a psychological defense mechanism known as dissociation. Dissociation involves a disconnection from one’s thoughts, feelings, or surroundings as a coping strategy to endure overwhelming experiences. Children enduring the stress of emotional neglect and/or abuse often adapt by living the bulk of their lives disconnected from their inner world, which contributes to childhood memories being sparse and fuzzy.

Robin’s Story: The Weight of Parental Happiness

Consider the story of Robin, a young girl growing up in a household marked by her parent’s emotional volatility. Robin, a sensitive, earnest, child, learned that maintaining a semblance of peace at home hinged on her ability to keep her mother happy. Her days were dedicated to tiptoeing around emotional tripwires, suppressing her own needs, and studying the shape and science of her mother’s mood swings. Rather than paying attention to how her food tasted, what she liked and didn’t like, Robin learned to track the smallest microexpressions on her mother’s face so that she could try to mold herself into what she thought her mother needed her to be. As Robin devoted herself to maintaining a fragile harmony, the emotional toll was significant. In her efforts to shield her parent from distress, she inadvertently neglected her own emotional needs and desires. This intense focus on caretaking left little room for Robin to encode memories of her own experiences. Her childhood became a blur of moments dedicated to pleasing others, leaving behind a fragmented narrative when attempting to recall her early years.

Kevin's Story: Fragmented Memories and Emotional Flashbacks

Integrated memories consist of emotional pieces, sensory pieces, and story pieces. For those who have endured childhood trauma and neglect, these pieces get disconnected, and some get lost. When a memory is integrated, it tends to feel safer when triggered, even if it’s unpleasant. Maybe eating french dip sandwiches always reminds you of a bad date–annoying but not overwhelming. Fragmented memories, on the other hand, often show up as emotional or somatic flashbacks–the feelings and/or sensations are there, but the story of what happened is not. This can be crazymaking, confusing, and overwhelming. Kevin–an adult child of an alcoholic–learned to take care of himself early on, and is known to his friends as self-reliant and successful. He comes to therapy confused and angry with himself for sometimes being “so damn needy.” He looks at the floor, his jaw tight, as he shares his experience of panic when a woman he is dating “ghosts” him. “I really lose it, man. My mind is racing. My chest literally hurts and I can’t think about anything else. Sometimes I see red and end up texting something stupid to someone I really like. I just flip out over nothing. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me.” Kevin’s body remembers the repeated abandonments of his childhood, but because these feelings aren’t connected to the events, Kevin feels shame, overwhelm, and confusion when they grip his body in the present.

Who Am I? The Impact of Childhood Emotional Neglect on Sense of Self

The gaps in memory that come with childhood emotional neglect can leave a person with the uncomfortable feeling that they don’t really know who they are. People will often describe their feelings as a problem (e.g. “I’m too anxious”), and say, “I don’t really know how I feel or what my feelings are.” As Heinz Kohut asserted, children need the prizing “gleam in the mother’s eye” to begin to form an experience of themselves as a person with valid feelings, thoughts, preferences, and needs. When a child lacks early, reliable mirroring by an emotionally attuned parent, they often grow into adults who perpetually search for themselves outside, rather than listening to what their internal experiences tell them about who they are.

How to Heal What You Can’t Remember

The curiosity that brought you to this post, is the first step in healing. You don’t need to remember what happened to help your body heal. Trauma-informed psychotherapy can help you understand the ways your body is getting triggered in the present and is responding to the past. From there, your therapist can help you learn what your body needs to feel better when you get triggered. As you begin to know how to respond when you’re triggered, you begin to feel safer listening to your body–and that’s the royal road to becoming more you. You can begin to listen to how you feel when you listen to your favorite music or eat your favorite foods or snuggle a beloved pet. You can find the ease and joy everyone deserves to feel in their life. Whether you remember it’s beginning or not, you can reclaim the story of your life.

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Expert Resources:

1. American Psychological Association (APA) – Trauma and Memory

2. National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) – Childhood Trauma

3. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) – Understanding Traumatic Events

4. Child Welfare Information Gateway – Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect