A recently-published neuroscience study indicates that our brains interpret current events by accessing memories of prior happenings. Previous research had shown the replay effect in spatial navigation, but this study indicates that replay also underlies our ability to make sense of narratives.

Parents of children who have suffered from trauma have long known that our children can re-experience the emotions of trauma when they are triggered by seemingly benign events. Helping our kids learn how to manage trauma triggers is one of our most important (and often most frustrating) jobs.  Learning how to manage those negative memories is a key component of developing resilience and moving past trauma. This current study adds scientific support to this belief that children interpret events through the prism of past trauma. It also may be a first step in understanding the neurological mechanics that accompany the phenomenon.

The researchers also found that the brain goes through this process on the fly. In other words, our children have little time for logical analysis of their emotions and trauma triggers.  They default to their “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and we have to recognize it when it happens.  That response happens at a level that we can’t reach by logic, and if we respond with lectures or criticism, we will only make the crisis worse.

We have to remember that many behavioral problems are actually symptoms of trauma, that past trauma can cause our children to feel unsafe, and that chronic stress has trained them to be on constant alert for danger. It’s not a conscious reflex that we can deal with logically.  The response is buried deep in the back of a child’s brain, and our words can only reach different brain pathways. So, despite our best efforts, a child whose brain is shouting “danger” has a lot of difficulty focusing on higher-process things such as manners or respect.

The analogy I use is a computer. Trauma is like a program that is working in the background, taking up all sorts of resources. What we see in the program at the front of the screen is slow, glitchy, and highly annoying. Trauma makes children’s brains work sort of the same way. Their subconscious is trying to solve a problem in the background. What we see on the surface is a child who is slow, distracted, and sometimes highly annoying. Until therapy and love and stability can help their subconscious process the trauma, they just don’t have a lot of resources to devote to our house rules or social skills.  In the meantime, we have to find ways to use the mental and emotional resources that they can access.

Our first goal in helping kids who are recycling old memories is to help them feel safe.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for them to feel in danger, at least emotionally.  Irritation from us can trigger memories of angry parents and family violence.  The emotional distress that accompanies that trigger will derail a child’s attention and make it impossible for him or her to pay attention to everything else that we want to teach them.  Thus, the first and most essential element of our parenting has to be a supportive environment.  

Of course, we have to enforce healthy boundaries with our kids.  Supportive environments don’t require us to ignore bad behavior or ignore consequences.  But we always have to address the lapses with compassion and conveying the message that, no matter how badly our kids act, we love and care about them.  Only then can we help them develop positive memories that they can access and replay when confronting new situations.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.