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Why Can’t I Remember Most of My (Relatively Happy) Childhood?

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from the U.S.: My earliest, clear childhood memories began at about age 10-11. From what I’ve read, blocked memories are most often associated with some kind of traumatic event, but what I can recollect of my childhood was, while certainly not perfect, generally happy. (Although I suppose the whole point of this is that if there was trauma and I’ve blocked out the memory, of course I wouldn’t remember it…? It’s all a little frustrating.)

My parents divorced when I was 4, but my father has, from the beginning, been a non-entity in my life and I lived with my mother, who I continue to be very close with, so I don’t think their separation would have been much of a change for me, much less a wrenching trauma. I grew up poor, but well-loved; an only child, but surrounded by similarly aged cousins/extended family who treated me like their own; I consistently did well in school.

It’s not an empty section of missing memory, as if I blocked out a specific time in my life; it’s the entire first decade or so, populated only by a handful of the vaguest impressions of memories. Even with these, I’ve learned that they’re not to be trusted. For example, when I mentioned to my mother my recollection of how we got a family pet we had for many years, she seemed surprised and told me that my version was entirely untrue.

I’ve come to realize, through conversations like that with people who were adults during my childhood, that several of my fuzzy “memories” are self-invented fictions; however, even knowing they’ve been debunked doesn’t change how real they feel to me.

I have not had any further memory problems. I remember a concert I went to when I was 16 with total clarity, while I only have a dim impression of one hallway in the school building I attended K-5th grade.

I’ve tried herbal supplements and memory exercises. The idea of hypnosis makes me a little nervous, since I’ve heard of false memories being accidentally generated, and the fact that I’ve done so on my own makes me worry I’d be susceptible to that. The cost of long-term therapy is prohibitive for me. I’m rather at a loss as to how to get my childhood back.

Why Can’t I Remember Most of My (Relatively Happy) Childhood?

Answered by on -

A.

You are correct to be cautious about hypnosis with this complaint. The mind does hate a vacuum, and it is not at all unusual under hypnosis for an individual to come up with creative “memories” that are not true. Complicating things further is that although the truth of the memories is questionable, the person’s confidence in such “memories” is high. High confidence in false memories has created a great deal of pain in some families.

You are also correct that having so few memories is unusual. Most people’s continuous memory starts around age 4. But unusual doesn’t mean never. There are a number of reasons that people lose their long term memory. Severe abuse is one cause of “blocked memories,” but it is not the only reason. Here are a few more:

  1. Sometimes life changes so markedly for a kid at some point that it’s as if the child starts the memory bank over again. The child comes to believe that the prior memories are irrelevant. History before the change becomes fuzzy at best.
  2. It’s important to be checked for a seizure disorder. Not all seizures are dramatic and visible. Some are very quiet and momentary. Seizure activity can cause confusion and memory loss.
  3. Head injury. Have you ever suffered a blow to the head? Have you ever had a concussion?
  4. You did not mention if you have a sleep disorder. That’s another possible source of memory deficits.
  5. Some medications and some street drugs disturb memory.

I suggest you see your doctor and perhaps a neurologist to get an evaluation. It’s always important to rule out medical causes for difficulties before deciding they are psychological.

Meanwhile, continue to talk to the people in your family you love and trust. Look at old picture albums. Perhaps stories and pictures will trigger memories for you.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

Why Can’t I Remember Most of My (Relatively Happy) Childhood?

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2018). Why Can’t I Remember Most of My (Relatively Happy) Childhood?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2016/12/18/why-cant-i-remember-most-of-my-relatively-happy-childhood/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 May 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 May 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.