When it comes to kids, we can’t always believe what we hear!

Thursday, 02 Feb 2023

I wrote this article last year and still regard it as one of the most important (if not THE most important) articles I have written such is the prevalence of this problem. The teachers may have referenced this previously. So, if you read it last year, here is a refresher and if not, then I hope it is enlightening. 

There are times when our children arrive home and tell parents about an incident that happened during the day. Quite often when they do this, they are crying or in an emotional state, they have had a more challenging day and their recall of an event that took place seems to a parent to be crystal clear. They recall the ‘facts’, names and details seemingly with amazing accuracy. If one incident happened for 5 minutes throughout an otherwise happy day, it is portrayed as a ‘terrible’ day which upsets parents. 

This can be quite stressful for parents so naturally they feel compelled to dig deeper (interrogate?) into what happened. But what if the experience the child recounted is not quite as accurate as it appears or is filtered through young, fallible memories which are shaped by their emotional states and an equally emotional, doting parent? 

The fact is, memories are fallible. Time and again, it has been shown that memories do not always serve us well. Dredging up a memory was thought to be particularly reliable when associated with strong emotion. Called ‘flashbulb memory’, it was assumed that memories associated with traumatic events enhanced emotion. (eg. People ask us, can you remember where you were when Princess Diana died).

In Neuroscience News (Emotion Makes Memory Unreliable), that thesis has been tested. Is our memory always robust when associated with emotional events? “False memory is the most robust effect of emotion,” Bessette-Symons says in her article. 

Many people believe that memories stored are not unlike a computer. It is simply a question of accessing their data in the brain. However, neuroscientists tell us that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Emotionally painful memories or memories that damage our self-esteem are often suppressed. ‘We could also say (memory) is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the new situations we find ourselves facing. Either way, we have to face the fact that it is “flexible.”’ (Psychology Today; Unreliable Memory 2012). 

In more serious cases, and in multiple studies, witness testimonies have put many people behind bars which later have been found to be completely false (although not fabricated you may note). Further studies have shown that we are often guilty of changing facts and adding false details to our memories without realising it. So that child who comes home and tells of his/her traumatic event is not so much lying but has not perhaps got the story as accurate as s/he believes.

Consider ‘Chinese Whispers’ (or the Telephone Line game) where we whisper some words or short story to the person next to us and this is then passed down the line. This slowly becomes misconstrued as one person hears a particular fact which is then built into the person’s own belief system and before we know it, at the end of the whisper line, the original story or sentences have become unrecognisably distorted. Our memories are the same. When we recount what happened to others we often embroider or omit depending on the occasion and / or who is listening (for example, reporting the same event to good friends over a drink or reporting it to police would be reported quite differently). 

Research shows that when we describe our memories differently to different audiences it isn’t only the message that changes, but sometimes it’s also the memory itself. This is known as the ‘audience tuning effect’. A child learns quite quickly that the story s/he tells to his/her parents as s/he is sobbing is going to be different to the story s/he tells to his grandmother and different again to the same story s/he tells to his/her friend.

Sometimes simply the act of rehearsing a memory can be exactly what makes it susceptible to change. This is known as “retrieval-enhanced suggestibility”. (Many interesting studies have been done on this which highlight memory fallibility). In a landmark test where university students were asked to recall where they were and what they were doing two years after the spaceship Challenger explosion, psychologists rated the accuracy of their students’ recollections. The average student scored less than three on a scale of seven. A quarter scored zero. But when the students were asked about their confidence levels, their memories rated high and were (supposedly) vivid, clear ………...  and ……wrong! There was no relationship at all between confidence and accuracy.

Whilst some researchers suggest memory is also like a sieve - you put stuff in and it eventually leaks out over time - others say it is less sieve-like and more a question of what you already know and what you are familiar with as it shapes what gets recalled or forgotten. Things that are similar to what we already know are likely to stick whereas things that are less similar are likely to be forgotten or get modified to fit better with what we already remember.

Memory is not a simple process of opening a file draw and taking things out - it involves a process of reconstruction as we reconstruct a memory from a past event. In this way, memory crystallises. (For anyone who may be really keen to hear more on this, listen to NPR’s Hidden Brain; Did That Really Happen? 17 Dec, 2019). 

We also share our memories with others and on recall, we incorporate what others have told us about their recollections. Children are good at this. They swear they heard what was said, when in fact, they have heard from someone else who told the story of what was said. We often ask a child in the afternoon if they have seen another child during the day. They say they have even though that child (we find out later) has been absent all day! It is important to remember that kids rarely intentionally lie, but they do have memories that are fallible and have been shown time and again to be fallible. My reference here is to the day-to-day events that shape the happiness or sadness of their day. We all need to be a bit more aware of just how memories work before assuming what is said is fact or before launching into the investigation often with an accusatory tone! 

I often find myself asking parents how they know or are so sure an event happened? Parents always state they know because their child told them. I am yet to hear a story reiterated to me from a parent (and hence from their child) that reflects objective reality. Given what we know about memories, it may be a better approach to acknowledge the child’s feeling then enquire from staff as to what may have occurred. The two ‘stories’ generally do not marry up! 

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