Attachment parenting, Parenting

Emotional Memory – explaining a child’s and a parent’s raw reactions

9 June, 2014

I was recently introduced to the concept of emotional memory by psychologist Robin Grille. It allowed me to look at a recent event in a new light.

A few months ago, one of our last days in UK, the four of us rocked up to a park, eager to get some air after being stuck in a bit of gnarly traffic. It was a crazy windy day, perfect for kite flying. As we unfolded our kite our three year old daughter began to scream. She threw herself on the floor, thrashing about, her face purple, her arms and legs crashing onto the muddy grass. “PUT THE KITE AWAY” she screamed. “PUT IT AWAY AWAY AWAY AWAY” through heaving sobs.

We were astonished! We were at the park, one of her favourite places. And I was really excited about flying the kite. I’d been belting out Mary Poppins’ “Let’s go fly a kite! Up to the highest heights! LALALALALALALAAAAA!” all the way through the London traffic, to my whole family’s obvious delight.

We validated her rage and distress and then we, a bit reluctantly, folded the kite back up and put it away.

She calmed down, crying quietly. Once the kite was back in the van she cheered up and we got back to the important task of chasing each other around trees.

As I ran through the wild winds contemplating Ramona’s meltdown I was struck by the fact that the very last time the kite had been played with Tim had broken his ankle. It had gotten caught in a tree and as Tim leapt from the branch after untangling it, he fractured his bone. One of the kids in the garden had come to get me and as I ran out I just saw Tim flat on his back with pain – a rare, rare sight. Ramona was just standing there, flummoxed by her indestructible dad on the ground.

For Ramona, the kite holds an emotional memory of her dad being hurt, disappearing into A and E for several hours and then hobbling about in a cast for a few weeks. Of course she didn’t want the kite out! Of course her way to communicate the trauma she felt was through an epic meltdown!

It is not often that our children’s big emotions can be so directly traced to a past memory, but over the last week I have become convinced that this possibly explains quite a few of the most random tantrums. Emotional Memory - explaining a parent's and a child's raw emotions
(Photos from before the kitegate!)

Emotional Memory in Children

Robin Grille is an author and psychologist with over 25 years experience and he spoke convincingly last week of the power of emotional memory. Our bodies and minds can hold on to trauma from many years ago and, without us even being able to recall the incident, we can have a huge reaction when something stirs that body memory within us. Cognitive neuroscientists have discovered that we have body memories even from birth, and it is possible that some of the intense emotions children experience could be linked to their entry into the world.

Sometimes it seems as if “tantrums” (that word seems quite disrespectful in light of all of this, eh?) are triggered by the most trivial, insignificant thing (i.e the Reasons my Son Is Crying meme) when there is a good chance the trivial thing has triggered a body memory of something big.

Of course, I also reckon some children are simply pissed off a lot of the time because they have so little say over their lives.Emotional memory can explain a lot of children's tantrums

Emotional Memory for Parents
Traumatic memories of childhood also stay with us and inform our parenting. Do you ever find your self having a quite irrational, emotional response to your child’s behaviour? You find yourself triggered by their meltdowns, or mess, or their lack of appreciation? It is possible that that is because of memories of your own childhood are brought to the surface by your child.

During one seminar last week – “When Parent’s were children” – Robin had us all close our eyes and focus on the behaviour in our child that “triggers” us. We then imagined ourselves at that age and dwelt on what was going on for us at that time. It was incredible how, with a bit of help, we were able to see how much our own childhood impacts our parenting.

If we want to support our children through their own emotions, without our own baggage getting in the way, we need to take a look inside and find some healing for any childhood trauma we are carrying.

As Robin put it, we need to look out with one eye and in with the other.

There is also a possibility that we can’t cope with our child’s emotions because we are unsupported.
If I was unsupported as a parent I could easily have looked at Ramona’s kite-triggered meltdown in the park and taken a picture and sent it into Reasons My Son is Crying with the tag “We got the kite out at the park.”

Fortunately, despite not even being aware of the concept of emotional memory, I had other parenting philosophies that allowed me to validate and support my daughter through her emotions.

We need to try and find a small tribe of parents who understand and can hold our hand through tricky spots. (Perhaps that it what the people involved in that meme are trying to do – but I’d argue it is very much at the expense of their children’s dignity.)Emotional Memory and a child's tantrums

Responding to a possible emotional memory

So, the next time your child goes for the nuclear reaction, welcome it (they are possibly working through past pain) and validate it (“You feel so angry, it is okay to feel angry.”) and give some space for your own feelings (“Is this bringing anything up?”) and find some support (be it a whisper in your friend’s ear “Eeek, this is a bit embarrassing but my child really needs me right now!” or a respectful recount of the incidence in a private Facebook forum – do you have one of these? I think they are very useful.)

I think awareness about the concept of “emotional memory” could be an incredible tool in enabling us to support our children through their emotional explosiveness and in stopping the baton of childhood trauma being passed from one generation to the next.

I’m fairly sure that experience with the kite in the park, as we held Ramona through her trauma, had a sort of healing effect on her. I hope so – we are going to a kite festival in a couple of weeks so we are going to find out! *nervous face*

(Mind you, me being unable to to refrain from skipping around the crowds singing Mary Poppins might set her up with another, altogether more traumatic, Emotional Memory.)

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  • ThaliaKR 9 June, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    This is very helpful, thanks, Lucy.

    All the best with the kite festival(!)

  • em 10 June, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Thanks for this Lucy, this has really made me think. Meltdowns in my house often stem from curly hair issues and the frustration of my four year olds hair being “too big, I want it flat”, and I so vividly recall the emotions of helplessness and frustration from my own childhood morning rush and the fear asnd dread i assoiciated with that time of day when my tears became sorrowful for being ignored, so whilst I am often subject of amusement to my friends I try to validate my little ones feelings, often cuddling and replaiting her hair repeatedly before we can go out. In terms of ‘triggers’ my eldest child aged 8 behavior often sets me into negative meltdown and I often find myself reflecting that the behaviours that I find most irksome are the ones I see in myself which others have scorned. Whilst I am comfortable being my own worst critic I am ashamed of this response to my traits displayed in my daughter, so shall endeavor to celebrate our likenesses and imbue her with the strength to cope with the judgements of others x

    • Judy 15 June, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      It agree with your comment that the behaviors in your loved ones (both children and partners) are the ones in yourself that others have scorned. Having children is such an amazing opportunity to look into yourself, know yourself better and be kinder to yourself, your children and your partner.

  • Tasha Batsford 10 June, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    I love Robin’s Inner Child Process and I am working up the courage to sit down and work through my emotional memories. It’s a big step, and I’m not sure any amount of hand holding is going to make it any less scary and raw :/

  • Lisa Fuller 12 June, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Lucy this is a beautiful post and so important. I can’t help wondering how the world would change for the better if all of us parents could understand this at a deep level, be able to take that step back when our kids are losing it – not be embarrassed – angry, etc. If we could keep our child company through their difficult feeling. Loads of healing with happen on both sides.
    Thanks again. I love it!!

  • Holly 15 June, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Great advice! Deep exhale. I luv you right now.

  • Gauri 15 June, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    This is perfect. I love Robin Grille’s work and I really enjoyed you bringing it to life through this story. Thanks.

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