Answers about Memories of Childhood Abuse
Following are some questions and answers that reflect
the best current knowledge about reported memories of childhood abuse.
They will help you better understand how repressed, recovered, or
suggested memories may occur and what you can do if you or a family member
is concerned about a childhood memory.
Can a memory be forgotten and then remembered? Can a 'memory' be
suggested and then remembered as true?
These questions lie at the heart of the memory of
childhood abuse issue. Experts in the field of memory and trauma can
provide some answers, but clearly more study and research are needed. What
we do know is that both memory researchers and clinicians who work with
trauma victims agree that both phenomena occur. However, experienced
clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of a recovered memory is
rare (e.g., one experienced practitioner reported having a recovered
memory arise only once in 20 years of practice). Also, although laboratory
studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced
by outside factors, memory research usually takes place either in a
laboratory or some everyday setting. For ethical and humanitarian reasons,
memory researchers do not subject people to a traumatic event in order to
test their memory of it. Because the issue has not been directly studied,
we can not know whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and
stored differently from a memory of a nontraumatic event.
Some clinicians theorize that children understand and
respond to trauma differently from adults. Some furthermore believe that
childhood trauma may lead to problems in memory storage and retrieval.
These clinicians believe that dissociation is a likely explanation for a
memory that was forgotten and later recalled. Dissociation means that a
memory is not actually lost, but is for some time unavailable for
retrieval. That is, it's in memory storage, but cannot for some period of
time actually be recalled. Some clinicians believe that severe forms of
child sexual abuse are especially conducive to negative disturbances of
memory such as dissociation or delayed memory. Many clinicians who work
with trauma victims believe that this dissociation is a person's way of
sheltering himself or herself from the pain of the memory. Many
researchers argue, however, that there is little or no empirical support
for such a theory.
What's the Bottom Line?
First, it's important to state that there is a consensus
among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually
abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them although
they may not fully understand or disclose it. Concerning the issue of a
recovered versus a pseudomemory, like many questions in science, the final
answer is yet to be known. But most leaders in the field agree that
although it is a rare occurrence, a memory of early childhood abuse that
has been forgotten can be remembered later. However, these leaders also
agree that it is possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for
events that never occurred.
The mechanism(s) by which both of these phenomena happen
are not well understood and, at this point it is impossible, without other
corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one.
What Further Research Is Needed?
The controversy over the validity of memories of
childhood abuse has raised many critical issues for the psychological
community. Many questions are at this point unanswered. This controversy
has demonstrated that there are areas of research which should be pursued;
among them are the following:
Research to provide a better understanding of the mechanism by which
accurate or inaccurate recollections of events may be created;
to ascertain which clinical techniques are most likely to lead to the
creation of pseudomemories and which techniques are most effective in
creating the conditions under which actual events of childhood abuse can
be remembered with accuracy;
Research to ascertain how trauma and traumatic response impact the
Research to ascertain if some people are more susceptible than others to
memory suggestion and alteration and if so, why.
Much of this research will profit from collaborative
efforts among psychologists who specialize in memory research and those
clinicians who specialize in working with trauma and abuse victims.
If there is so much controversy about childhood memories of abuse,
should I still seek help from a mental health provider if I believe I have
such a memory?
Yes. The issue of repressed or suggested memories has
been over reported and sensationalized by the news media. Media and
entertainment portrayals of the memory issue have succeeded in presenting
the least likely scenario (that of a total amnesia of a childhood event)
as the most likely occurrence. The reality is that most people who are
victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to
them. Also true is the fact that thousands of people see a psychologist
every day and are helped to deal with such things as issues of personal
adjustment, depression, substance abuse and problems in relationships. The
issues of childhood abuse or questionable memory retrieval techniques
never enter into the equation in the great majority of therapy
What should I know about choosing a psychotherapist to help me deal
with a childhood memory or any other issue?
The American Psychological Association has released to
the public the following advice to consider when seeking psychotherapy
First, know that there is no single set of symptoms
which automatically indicates that a person was a victim of childhood
abuse. There have been media reports of therapists who state that people
(particularly women) with a particular set of problems or symptoms must
have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. There is no scientific
evidence that supports this conclusion.
Second, all questions concerning possible recovered
memories of childhood abuse should be considered from an unbiased
position. A therapist should not approach recovered memories with the
preconceived notion that abuse must have happened or that abuse could not
possibly have happened.
Third, when considering current problems, be wary of
those therapists who offer an instant childhood abuse explanation, and
those who dismiss claims or reports of sexual abuse without any
Fourth, when seeking psychotherapy, you are advised to
see a licensed practitioner with training and experience in the issue for
which you seek treatment. Ask the therapist about the kinds of treatment
techniques he or she uses and how they could help you.
How can I expect a competent psychotherapist to react to a recovered
A competent psychotherapist will
attempt to stick to the facts as you report them. He or she will be
careful to let the information evolve as your memory does and not to
steer you toward a particular conclusion or interpretation.
A competent psychotherapist is
likely to acknowledge that current knowledge does not allow the definite
conclusion that a memory is real or false without other corroborating
What credentials should I look for when selecting a mental health
You should choose a mental health professional as
carefully as you would choose a physical health provider. For example,
licensed psychologists have earned an undergraduate degree and have
completed 5-7 years of graduate study culminating in a doctoral degree and
including a one-year, full-time internship. All psychologists are required
to be licensed or certified by the state in which they practice and many
states require that they keep their training current by completing
continuing education classes every year. Members of the American
Psychological Association are also bound by a strict code of ethical
Once the provider's competency has been established, his
or her experience dealing with the issues you want help with is important.
Also important is your level of comfort with the provider. Psychotherapy
is a cooperative effort between therapist and patient, so a high level of
personal trust and comfort is necessary. However, you should be concerned
if your therapist reports to you that a large number of his or her
patients recover memories of childhood abuse while in treatment.
There are a number of good ways to get a referral to a
mental health professional. Your state psychological association will be
able to provide you with referrals to psychologists in your community.
Many state associations are located in their state capital. Also, because
so many physical ailments have psychological components, most family
physicians have a working relationship with a psychologist. Ask your
doctor about a referral. Your church or synagogue and school guidance
program or university counseling centers also usually maintain lists of
providers in the community.
APA also has published a brochure of advice about the
selection of a mental health provider entitled How to Choose a
Editor's note: This document is being released at the
direction of the APA Board of Directors. It is based on numerous reports
and documents, including, but not limited to, the work of the APA Working
Group on the Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse.
Office of Public Communications
American Psychological Association
Office of Public Affairs
Washington, DC 20002-4242
Published with permission of APA.