Memory and Amnesia among Traumatized Children

Presenter: Joy Silberg, PhD

When: February 7-28, 2022

Where: Italy

In this presentation, Dr. Silberg will review current developmental research on memory processes in children, and then highlight what is known about memory among traumatized children. The lecture will cover first minor problems in memory and then discuss children who have total amnesia for their own behavior or for traumatic events. These highly dissociative children may engage in actions particularly violent ones, for which they have limited ability to recall. A view of memory as on a continuum will be discussed so that participants understand memory as a fluid and constructive phenomenon. Dr. Silberg will discuss the most serious amnestic issues faced by the most dissociative children and how to address these. The importance of motivating the young person both with outside incentives and internal motivations will be discussed, as well as how to help youth access previously unaccessible memories through various mental exercises. These techniques include "listening in", becoming a detective about one's own life through context clues, destigmatizing feelings of shame, and families working together to support children's memory. The difference between autobiographical memory and traumatic memory will be highlighted. 


1. Participants will be able to describe how memory works on a continuum, and there is always a capacity to access what has been previously inaccessible. 

2. Participants will be able to describe how to avoid power struggles with young people who claim to have no memory for their own aggressive behavior. 

3. Participants will be able to describe how to set up both external motivations and internal motivations to assist with recall of autobiographical memory. 

4. Participants will be able to list four techniques for helping severely traumatized young people to access autobiographical memory. 

Learning points: 

1. There are mixed research findings regarding the association between trauma and memory.  

2. There are a variety of cognitive theories that can explain amnesia, but "motivated forgetting" is a helpful theory. 

2. There is a subsection of severely traumatized, dissociative children with extreme deficits in autobiographical memory. 

3. The restoration of memory requires both extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement and incentives. 

4. There is an important clinical distinction between autobiographical memory and traumatic memory, and restoration of autobiographical memory is essential for functioning. 

5. There are a variety of techniques to help dissociative youth access autobiographical memory. 

6. It is important never to shame or stigmatize to the child for the feelings associated with unremembered actions. 

7. The young person can come to use notebooks, and interviewing strategies to try to reconstruct behavior they cannot access. 

8.  The young person can be taught to "listen in" or "shine a flashlight:" on previously hidden parts of  their memory. 

9. Engaging the family to assist the young person is an essential strategy. 

10. Overly punitive approaches can backfire. Consequences can be logical and no punitive. 

11. Autobiographical memory can be restored in dissociative children. 

12. The accessing of traumatic memory must wait for the child's therapeutic readiness, solidification of attachment, and ability to avoid triggering. 

14. Global forgetfulness may occur among traumatized children as a result of constantly practicing "pushing out" painful information from consciousness.