My two earliest memories are from when I was five years old. My sister and I are sitting underneath a tree, and I am taking my first bite of what will instantly become my favorite candy bar for many years to come. I am in heaven. In my second memory, I am standing next to my mom while she is having an argument with my dad. She is crying, and I am too.
I am not sure if it is everyone's experience that their ‘first' memories are linked to highly charged feeling states or sensations. However, as a therapist I have certainly heard many stories of my client's early memories, and these memories are often associated with important emotional and relational themes in their lives. However, we are all familiar with the experience of ‘infantile amnesia', that is, the inability to access memories from our very early life, up to about age three.
A new study reported on by the Canadian Association for Neuroscience is able to suggest that this is due to rapidly developing cells in the part of our brain known as the hippocampus, the part of our brain responsible for long-term memory. So much rapid growth goes on in the early years that the brain is overloaded and is unable to file all the memories created.
However, some adults have a lot more access to memories of their childhood than others. Research shows us that adults who are able to tell emotionally meaningful stories of their early life, stories that have a narrative that can be followed and that make sense to the listener, are more likely to have better mental health across the life span, and have children who are more secure in their relationship with them. The great news about this is that it means that it doesn't matter how painful or difficult your early childhood was, it's about whether you have been able to reflect on it and develop a narrative about it that makes sense that really makes the difference.
It is never too late to become a little more curious about the experiences of your early childhood, and reflect on how you have made sense of, or made a ‘story' out of your memories. The memories from our early life are inevitably full of experiences of being taken care of by the adults around us, for better and for worse, and of other important relationships in our lives - siblings, grandparents, teachers. Making sense of the painful experiences in your own life will make you more equipped to make sense of the difficult experiences in your child's life, be it the death of a loved one, an experience of divorce, or being teased by schoolmates. Your ability to tell a story about their painful experiences will build their ability to make sense of their experiences. This gift will be carried by them and given to their children, and so on, and so on.