Summary: Berliner L, Hyman IE, Thomas A, and Fitzgerald M. "Children's memory for trauma and positive experiences," Journal of Traumatic Stress vol 16(3): 229-236. 2003.

Are memories of traumatic events more vivid and easier to recall than memories for positive events? This article reports the results of a study of the characteristics of traumatic memories, as opposed to positive memories, in a small sample of children who had been traumatized.

Thirty children, aged 8 to 16, participated in the study. Responding to a standard questionnaire, the children described characteristics of memories for the traumatic event they were in treatment for. For example, they were asked about how vivid the memory was, how often they thought about it, and whether it had a big impact on their lives. They did the same for one very positive event of their own choosing. The children's therapists completed a questionnaire about what they knew about each child's memory for the traumatic event, as the child had reported it in therapy sessions.

The researchers found that the children's memories of traumatic events were sketchier than their memories of positive events. They were less detailed and less coherent. There are several possible explanations for this, according to the authors. Traumatic experiences themselves may not be deeply etched in the mind. Or it could be that children focused on something else while the traumatic act was taking place, as a way to distance themselves from a terrible event. Finally, it may be that the children actively tried to push the memories away, resulting in only hazy recollections.