Understanding Our Children’s Traumatic Memories

I’ve been thinking about memories and trauma – my own, and those of our children from “hard places.” Experiencing a very traumatic event has given me insight into my children’s brains that I never expected to have.

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Will there ever be a day when I don’t think about our accident and losing Kalkidan? It hasn’t happened yet in the 22 months that have gone by.

Nearly every time I get quiet and still, memories begin to surface.

Last night I woke at 2:30; one of the kids had left the light on in the hallway outside our door and the light seeping in illuminated our room.

I must have stirred just enough to wake Russ who got up and turned off the light – which turned out to be three lights upstairs and several downstairs as well.

Once back in bed, I reached for his hand and his fingers closed around mine – safety wrapping around me.

Moments from the accident began to surface, as they so often do. Memories of Kalkidan, both happy and sad, flowed through my mind, and I thought of her birthday coming at the end of the week.

Think about this.

If every time I get quiet, memories of the most tragic moment of my life begin to surface, what might that mean for some of our kids who have experienced trauma?

If I just keep moving, then I won’t remember.

If I just keep talking, then I won’t feel.

If I don’t relax for even a moment, I can keep the memories from coming and I’ll be okay.

If I just keep myself from going to sleep….

Interesting, isn’t it?

Our children come to us with memories, some they can share with us, and others buried so deep they can’t. Some are implicit memories, memories that can’t be consciously recalled. Before children are verbal and when they are very young, memories are encoded implicitly.

I was talking with one of my children recently, and my child shared that the death of his/her mother had recently become very painful and is feeling like a significant loss. My child didn’t understand this since he/she couldn’t remember losing his/her mother. (I apologize for the awkward language – it’s essential that I protect my child’s privacy.)

I said, “Oh, sweets, you do remember losing your mom. You may not be able to remember it right here (and I tapped my forehead) but you remember it here (I touched my heart) and in your body. The memory is stored in your brain, it’s just not one that you can easily recall. When your mom died, it was very sad and frightening.”

Memories are a gift when they bring forth moments that remind us of warmth and happiness, but when they remind us of our loneliest, or most frightening experience, or when they are confusing and we can’t make sense of what happened,Ā they may hinder us and impact our lives in negative ways.

We can work through our memories with someone we love and trust or with a professional who can help us process them in a therapeutic environment. My faith in Jesus is also part of the healing process for me.

My brain is trying to make sense of a traumatic experience. My children are trying to make sense of their traumas. Kalkidan worked very hard to process her past trauma and heal enough to be loved and part of our family.

Thank God – truly, we thank God, that with many people helping along the way, that healing happened, and was continuing to happen.

She was loved by God, by us, by friends – she had joy.

We are forever thankful.

Lisa

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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRIĀ® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.

14 Comments

  1. Tammy
    October 24, 2016

    Thanks for sharing…. it has me thinking for sure.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 24, 2016

      I’m glad the post is prompting some thought – I love when we learn from one another.

      Reply
  2. Tieceykaye
    October 24, 2016

    Oh my dear long-distant mentor! Every time I think the tears have ended for a season, you write another post. I was just working through some horrific childhood memories I share with my sister, the kind you never talk about aloud. Today I determined not to think of them, but to stay busy with foster care stuff… And then you remind me that underneath my foster/adopt kiddos’ hyper-busy behaviors are their memories of trauma. Ugh! Some days I can hardly wait until heaven.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 24, 2016

      I’m so sorry, Tieceykaye! I give you permission not to read my blog until you are ready. Or maybe I’ll put little smiley faces on the happy posts. Trigger warning, Kalkidan’s birthday is this Saturday, it might be a rough week.

      Reply
      1. TieceyKaye
        October 24, 2016

        No worries! This season is difficult for many of us. In midst of my own struggles, please know I think of you and pray for you often.

        Reply
      2. Chandra
        October 24, 2016

        I haven’t read your blog in a while. I decided to tonight because I just recently talked with my daughter about her memories. She is a beautiful girl from Ethiopia, so full of love for Jesus and people. Her birthday is also this Saturday. She will be 11. I will share with her about your daughter and together we will pray for you and your family, especially that day.

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          October 25, 2016

          Thank you for your prayers, Chandra, and for coming back and reading my blog. I appreciate that. A very happy birthday to your precious Ethiopian daughter.

          Reply
  3. Teresa Flick
    October 24, 2016

    I can relate to your statement that “Experiencing a very traumatic event has given me insight into my childrenā€™s brains”. I have found this particularly true with regard to things suddenly triggering my memories and then along with that the emotions. Sometimes it is the craziest, silliest, unexpected thing that will trigger memories. As an adult it is easier to process what/why I’m being triggered, but often children don’t even realize that a memory is being triggered and all we see is the emotion that follows.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 24, 2016

      So true, Teresa – I can usually figure out my trigger, it doesn’t take much, but the kids often don’t know.

      Reply
  4. Melissa
    October 24, 2016

    Thank you for writing this. In the past I was a preschool teacher, and now I volunteer with very young children… in each case I’ve had toddlers from some very tough and broken homes. I know many of these children will suffer from the trauma and poverty they are enduring, and that’s so hard. I know they won’t remember me, but I pray that through me God is implanting some feelings of love, safety, and care into their souls too.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 25, 2016

      Melissa, your heart for those little children is very beautiful. They may not remember you consciously, but they will remember you – you are doing good, healing work sharing the love of God with them.

      Reply
  5. Beth
    October 25, 2016

    Thanks for the reminder to extend grace to my always moving, always talking, always humming, non-sleeping little ones from so much trauma. Years past their painful experiences, their young brains still remember and I need to remember that healing is still a long time coming but there is hope.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      October 26, 2016

      You’re welcome, Beth. I wish I had understood this better years earlier.

      Reply
      1. Beth
        October 26, 2016

        So do I! I’d have done things a lot differently for sure.

        Reply

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