Most people are under the impression that infants younger than six months old do not remember traumatic events that happen to them or to their loved ones; however, this has recently been disproved.
Judy Siegel-Itzkovich of the Jerusalem Post reports that a professor of infant mental health announced to an audience of 300 at a Jerusalem conference that young children, even babies, “remember traumatic events in their bodies” with increases in stress hormones such as cortisol. She said that the event makes a distinct impression on them.
Professor Alicia Lieberman of the psychiatry department at the University of California at San Francisco said that most professionals and parents have the misconception because infants and young toddlers do not have the verbal ability to describe the trauma, but that it nevertheless is stored in their brains.
The message was very relevant to an Israeli audience, as large numbers of infants have survived terrorist and missile attacks, family violence, and other traumatic events, and most people remain untreated.
Lieberman said that infants who have been exposed to trauma—anything from witnessing or being hurt in an accident, terrorist attacks, and near drownings to seeing his or her mother murdered by his or her father—“always try to find the meaning of their experience and how to fit into the world.”
She also explained that the seat of verbalization in the brain is in the cortex, but that the visceral responses to trauma are based elsewhere. She explained that people are wrong to assume that when traumatized infants grow up and don’t speak about it, they weren’t influenced by it. Therapists often start their relationship with traumatized parents and children with mistaken idea that if the child did not discuss it, they should not bring it up, she added.
“Basic research shows that young babies even five months old can remember that a stranger came into room and scared them three weeks before. Even though the babies were pre-verbal, they can later remember traumatic events that occurred to them,” said Lieberman.
She described the case of a girl named “Rachel,” who was about a year old when her father shot her mother while she was holding Rachel in her arms. Lieberman went on to explain that Rachel’s father was jailed for life and that she was raised by her grandmother, but that Rachel had serious behavior problems. “One day, when she was four years old, the grandmother noted that she reacted badly to the noise of firecrackers,” Lieberman explained, adding that the preschooler said, “Don’t kill me!”
Then, at the age of nine, Rachel asked her grandmother how her mother died. The grandmother replied: “She fell off the roof.” Unsatisfied, the girl demanded to know “how my mother really died.” Lieberman said that was “the last time she discussed” her memory of the traumatic event.
Among the negative behaviors caused by traumatic events in children are temper tantrums, developmental delays, regression, unsociability, and violence. However, the good news is that post-traumatic stress symptoms can be treated by talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other means with help from a trained therapist, said Lieberman, and doing so as early as possible after the child is able to speak is best.