Do they Still Remember?

There’s one question bothering an adoptive mum….


I’ve read the posts and nodded in agreement, the ones with a list of ridiculous statements or questions, that none adopters sometimes utter. On the whole however, none adopter’s unawareness can be forgiven, I mean I wouldn’t be that interested in learning about early life trauma if I wasn’t living with it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fascinating how the brain of a child is damaged through neglect and abuse, but with all the other things that family life can bring, would I really go out of my way to understand it if it didn’t overly affect me?

However recently one of these questions has been bothering me and I think deserves a little space for consideration. That question is “do you really think they still remember?”

This question alerts us to one of the fundamental problems that adopted children can face when coming into contact with individuals that are not trained in, or understanding of, early life trauma.

The concept that our children suffer from nightmare style memories of their previous life, and that in time these memories fade and disappear and the child is then cured of their past. I myself may have had this naive belief at one time or another, way back in the early days of dipping our toe into adoption.

I’ve now however come to believe that this idea is one of the main points to understand with children within, and from the care system. Just to clarify, the point is that, challenging behaviour is not always to do with or just about, conscious memories of a past life; it’s actually much more to do with damage to the brain. This damage is caused by a lack of relevant stimulation, or detrimental interaction, during formative years of brain development. It’s not that it has nothing to do with memory, many of the difficult behaviours our children display are triggered by something that stirs memories from their subconscious be it noises, smells or certain images.

However, a child’s lack of understanding of certain situations or an inability to perform certain tasks is unlikely to be as a result of a memory from their past, but is instead more likely a result of their brains not being wired in a way which allows them to do so.

My understanding is this. The part of the brain that they often operate from is The Reptilian Brain, where primary needs for safety are contemplated and the actions of fight, flight or freeze are instigated.  Whilst this part of the brain functions, the other part of the brain that allows logical consideration and thoughts cannot operate.  Whilst children living in a abusive and neglectful environments spend extended amount of time operating from the reptilian brain, other areas of the brain which enable a child to think logically and problem solve, remain under developed, and necessary hard wiring of the brain does not occur. If this wiring of the brain does not occur in the brain during the relevant period of infancy, then some development may never occur or at least take an extended amount of time to stimulate and fix.

As an adoptive parent and someone who has immersed herself in many a book by Dan Hughes et al, I take for granted sometimes, that because I get this, that others do too. And lots of people do get it or make the effort to try to understand, in an aim to support children in their family, of friends or that they work with. All efforts to understand are much appreciated. However it very much saddens me that some people, who work supporting children and their families, do not get this, at all.

Of late I had a lady, who had been referred to us by post adoption support say to me, “they’ve been with you seven years, they’re yours now”. To me this person very much saw early life trauma as vanishing memories as opposed to brain damage.

It frightens me that some of those supporting our children have the naive belief that their past lives will fade into insignificance and the love of their new family will make them forget.

As I said parents of none adopted children can be forgiven for not understanding the concept of early life trauma, but is it really acceptable that those working to support those living with it don’t?

So in answer to that question, do they still remember?

Each child’s experience will be different. I know my children have very few conscious memories of living with their birth mum. This has created its own problems ,as my oldest struggles to understand that such life changing decisions have been made for him, based on things he can’t remember. So I will pose the question now.

Do you think you really think it matters if he can remember or not?

5 thoughts on “Do they Still Remember?

  1. Suddenly Mummy

    I don’t like dogs. As a child I was terrified of them, jumping away if one came near to me, screaming hysterically if they barked near me. It was completely out of my control. As I became a teenager, I remember the embarrassment I suffered when my body would just do its own thing in the presence of any dog. Once, while walking home from school, I fell down some banking into a dirty, muddy ditch because a dog barked at me. I was beyond humiliated and yet I couldn’t have controlled myself.

    I have no memory of any trauma concerning dogs. My Dad always believed that my terror was due to an incident that happened before I was 18 months old when the dog of a family member jumped up onto my shoulders, knocked me down, and barked in my face. Nobody in my family had any problem believing that this unremembered experience caused my ongoing fear. In fact, when I’ve told others the story in later life, they’ve all nodded along, ready to agree that this was the cause.

    So I find it amazing that, so often, the unremembered traumas experienced by our adopted children are dismissed so easily. If early, unremembered experiences are so easily put aside, then why so much emphasis on singing songs, reading stories, playing games with infants who will not remember? In many ways we take it for granted that early experiences shape lives, even if the child does not consciously remember them. Perhaps when it comes to early life trauma, the longing for a happy ending overwhelms common sense?!

  2. June Jellies

    You are absolutely right – I don’t expect non adoptive parents/friends to get it but I absolutely do expect it from professionals. SO very sad that it is evident that some don’t.
    When other parents or friends have shown an interest in my children’s early trauma – I have always started the conversation by asking them what their earliest memory of their childhood is. Invariably they will tell you about a single traumatic experience (hoping that they have not been the victim of early developmental trauma themselves ) . I then explain that if you experienced that sort of trauma every minute of every day since the day you were born until you went to your forever family, do you think it may affect you for a long time or even forever at some level ? Do you know what – they then get it .

  3. bizzy

    Yes, you’re right. My son was adopted as an older child, so he knew everyone in his story and knew what had happened. I think that helped enormously in his processing of the facts.

    While we were going through the approval process I asked my uncle about his older brother, who had died at 5 years old. My uncle had been about 18 months. He said he could remember a presence that had been there and wasn’t any more. And the recriminations between my grandparents. I just wanted to know what a toddler might remember. Interesting, isn’t it?

  4. Threebecomefour

    Sadly we still live in a world where many people think that loving a child will help them overcome everything. We shouldn’t have to explain it to professionals though and it’s worrying how little training in adoption and trauma there is for professionals. I know this as a professional who was specialising I. Working with teens with multiple issues yet no-one offered training on issues for adopted teens. I wish they had because there are several young people that I would now support very differently in that role.

    I think psychologists and psychiatrists are only just beginning to realise the impact of early trauma on brain and personality development and develop parenting and therapeutic strategies to support healing and many of our children will be the guinea pigs of the research and new approaches until more clarity is standardised across professionals. As parents our role is to educate and raise awareness so others can also learn and further knowledge and understanding. What a task!

  5. plumstickle

    They should know better!

    My current beef is with primary school professionals, with whom we are still battling over a forthcoming trip. Until this year they had seemed so supportive and I really thought they understood our situation. Sadly I’ve now come to accept that they haven’t got him or us at all. They did try, but all the contradictions inherent in developmental trauma made no ‘professional’ sense, especially once a dreaded disclosure had been thrown into the mix. In the end it was easier to blend and confuse all sorts of half learnt theories, advice from people who sit in higher office but have never met my child, where-there’s-a-blame news stories, safeguarding referrals, deep-seated fears and playground rumours and mesh them, higgledy-piggledy, without our support or input, into pseudo-professional strategies which will and do further label our boy. I am horrified by how it has happened, especially as a primary school worker myself. I really thought I was prepared and yet, despite all the warnings, we just seemed to have blundered innocently into a nightmare world of professional misjudgment.

    So – back to your point(ish)! – no, it doesn’t matter if they remember or not because, I am sorry to say, the professionals just make of our children’s past what they will to suit their own agenda. And however many books we have read or qualifications we have gained, or experience we have of our own child’s difficulties or knowledge we have of their past, it is the very nature of a professional to think they know better, even when they don’t.


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