I ran across an outstanding article that describes how children can form actual, real memories of things that they never witnessed. In this article, the memories were benign and positive (activities with a deceased grandfather), but the dynamic can be the same when our children are describing past trauma. As parents, we need to be aware of the dynamic so that we can react appropriately when we hear stories that sound not quite true.
Our children may not be lying; they just confuse what they were told with what they experienced. As a neurologist quoted in the article, Dr. Ira Chang, explained, "If [children] don't have a clear picture of a person or experience, they may fill the gaps with input from other people and then store it as a new memory."
Researchers have labelled the problem "source monitoring," i.e., children cannot keep straight the sources of their information. An event they have only heard about can be just as real to them as an event that they actually experienced. Studies have shown, for example, that younger children can become confused about information from different, but similar, sources. Other research indicates that preschool children are more susceptible than older children, and that children become less suggestible as they mature. As the article noted:
"Through early adolescence, children's ability to remember exact details is poor relative to adults, which makes them especially prone to false memories arising from suggestion," says Charles Brainerd, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Cornell University. Dr. Brainerd adds that children’s memories become reliable much later than you might guess, at around 9 or 10 years old. And because our brains are still developing through our mid-20s, suggestibility doesn’t reach its low point until young adulthood.
This source monitoring problem means that we have to be careful in how we respond to a child’s story about what they experienced. We know, for example, that how an adult phrases a question can change a child's answer, and that repeated questions may elicit different responses. We have to be careful that our well-intended but flawed questions don’t corrupt a child’s memory. We also have to be careful that we don’t inadvertently introduce new, and inaccurate, information that becomes part of their memory.
More important, we need to be careful that we don’t simply assume our children are lying to us. Their memories, no matter how inaccurate, are real. They usually are telling the truth as they remember it. It is not their fault that their brains are still developing and store inaccurate facts as true memories. It may or may not be our job to correct them. If our children remember happy Christmases with their biological family, for example, we don’t need to point out that they never spent Christmas with their family.
Real memories, even if they are not accurate, also have real effects. If a child remembers trauma, even if it never happened, he or she likely will suffer some effects from that memory. Whether and how to help them disentangle facts from memory is a job for therapists, and we should work closely with them in helping our children. As parents, though, our job will be to help our children work through the very real effects of the trauma that they remember, no matter how incorrect their memories may be.