Teach Your Kids About Making Their Implicit Memories Explicit - Woodmam

We’ve given you several examples of how to talk to your kids about implicit and explicit memories. If you notice that your child is struggling as a result of a past experience, one of the best things you can do is to talk to him and help him retell the story of that experience. But it can also be helpful to explain what’s happening in the brain when a past experience begins to control present behaviors and feelings. You might explain it like this:

Integrating Ourselves: Moving Our Own Memories from Implicit to Explicit

Kids aren’t the only ones whose memories can intrude on their lives when they don’t even know it. It happens, of course, to parents as well. Implicit memories influence our behaviors, emotions, perceptions, and even physical sensations, and we can remain completely ignorant of the past’s influence on us in the present moment. Dan experienced this firsthand as a new parent:

When my son was first born I would come unglued when he cried inconsolably. I know a baby’s cry is hard for anyone to hear, but I just couldn’t take it. Panic would set in, and I’d become filled with dread and terror. I explored theory after theory for my intense and seemingly unwarranted reaction, but none of them rang true.

Then one day my son began to cry and an image came to my mind. It was a small boy on an examining table, screaming, with a look of terror on his scrunched-up, reddened face. I was next to him, and my job, as a young pediatric intern at the UCLA Medical Center, was to draw blood from him so we could figure out why he had such a high fever. My pediatric partner and I had to relive this horror with child after child, one of us holding the syringe, the other holding down the screaming child.

I hadn’t thought about my pediatrics internship in years. I remembered it as a good year overall, and I recalled being glad when it was over. But the middle-of-the-night cries of my six-month-old son triggered my flashback to this scene, and over the days that followed, I began to understand the connection. I thought a lot about those memories and talked to a few friends and colleagues about my experience. It began to be clear to me that this trauma from years earlier had remained implicit and was surfacing explicitly only now. I realized that I had completed my yearlong internship and moved on to the next phase of my life, never having consciously reflected on my painful experiences. I never processed them in a way that would make them readily available for later explicit retrieval.

Years later, then, as a young parent, I went through the painful self-reflection that allowed me to see this as an unresolved issue in myself, and I was able to hear my son’s cries for what they were, without all the baggage from the past.

Unexamined (or dis-integrated) memories cause all kinds of problems for any adult trying to live a healthy, relational life. But for parents, these hidden memories are especially dangerous, for two main reasons. First of all, even when they’re very young, our kids can pick up on our feelings of dread or distress or inadequacy, even if we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. And when a parent is upset, it’s very difficult for a child to remain calm and happy. Second, implicit memories can trigger responses from us that cause us to act in ways we don’t want to. Old feelings of being left out, abandoned, or put down, by others or by our own parents, can keep us from being mature, loving, and respectful when we interact with our kids.

So the next time you find yourself reacting a bit too strongly when you’re upset with your kids, ask yourself, “Is my response here making sense?”

The answer may be, “Yes. The baby’s screaming, my three-year-old just painted the oven blue, and all my eight-year-old is doing in response is turning up the TV. It makes perfect sense that I feel like throwing something through the window!”

At other times, though, the answer may be, “No, these feelings don’t make sense. There’s no reason for me to take it personally that my daughter wants Daddy to read to her tonight instead of me. I don’t need to be this upset.” Based on what you now know about implicit memory, an insight like this is an opportunity to look deeper. If you’re reacting in ways you can’t explain or justify, it’s probably time to ask, “What’s going on here? Is this reminding me of something? And where in the world are my feelings and behavior coming from?” (We’ll talk more about this process in the “Integrating Ourselves” section of chapter 6. Also, we recommend Dan’s book Parenting from the Inside Out, written with Mary Hartzell, as a great place to begin this journey of exploration.)

By integrating your implicit and explicit memories and shining the light of awareness on difficult moments from your past, you can gain insight into how your past is impacting your relationship with your children. You can remain watchful for how your issues are affecting your own mood as well as how your kids feel. When you feel incompetent, frustrated, or overly reactive, you can look at what’s behind those feelings and explore whether they are connected to something in your past. Then you can bring your former experiences into the present and weave them into the larger story of your life. When you do that, you can be free to be the kind of parent you want to be. You can make sense of your own life, which will help your kids do the same with theirs.
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