“Really young kids won’t remember abuse” is a dangerous myth during child development

This post is part of a new series addressing child abuse, sexual assault, and child neglect myths. If you suspect a child is being abused, call 1-800-800-5556 in Indiana or 911 anywhere in the United States.

Human memory is deep and complex, even in babies and toddlers

In a study from King’s College London and City University of New York, researchers surveyed 1,196 American adults over a period of 15 years.

  • 665 were selected because court records indicated they had suffered mistreatment — what many of us call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) — before age 12.
  • 492 adults who reported mistreatment and were in court records showed “significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety” than a control group.
  • 252 people who reported abuse but were not in court records also reported higher levels of anxiety, exhaustion, or depression.
  • 173 people who did not report being abused, despite court records saying they had, showed no more distress than the control group.

The study is just one of many about our memory, bodies, mental health, and traumatic events. Most researchers admit we just don’t know a lot about how our minds work. “The findings suggest how people frame and interpret events in their early childhood powerfully shapes their mental health as adults, said Dr. Andrea Danese, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at King’s College London and one of the study’s joint authors.”

Discrepancies are hard to resolve, since court records may be incomplete. And, human memory is a challenging thing to measure.

What we do know is it is a myth to make a blanket claim that “really young children won’t remember abuse.”

Babies and toddlers cope with trauma in different ways, just like adults

There are some universal truths about how human memories work:

  • The meaning we give to memories vary from person to person.
  • Everyone and everyone’s situation is unique. Even among twins or siblings suffering abuse from the same parent or primary carer in the same house may have vastly different experiences and memories.

David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, noted, “Memory has always posed a challenge in the field of child protection because many abuse cases involve children below the age of 3, when lasting memories begin to form.” But like a child’s ability to walk, talk, or read, everyone progresses at their own pace.

Memory is often held in the central nervous system, and can be a deeply physical form of memory — and defense

Adults may turn to therapy, anger, or seem to forget and move on from bad situations. Babies and toddlers cope with traumatic events in different ways, such as developing mental “blocks” to abuse. This can result in a baby or toddler developing memory “gaps” that last into adolescence.

In these “gaps”, some teens and adults may find their memories are fragmented, feel “like a blur”, or are unable to recall significant events in their childhood. 

Sexual abuse, assault, and neglect affects babies and toddlers as they develop, often with biological signs that persist for weeks, months, or years. Some of these physical artifacts can include damage to genitals, broken bones that never quite heal fully, or the lack of a close relationship to a parent or primary carer. Their memories of these abuses, however, may be entirely intact or form a “residue.”

Early childhood mental health and abuse may come from “residues”

The signs of abuse among young children under the age of 3 may emerge later in life in other forms. We’ve long known adolescents who suffer abuse, neglect, or sexual assault may resort to violence, anger, throwing things, biting, or other aggressive behaviors because they lack a vocabulary to effectively say what they’re feeling. Similarly, these events may cause what researchers call memory “residue”, which itself may be fuzzy and incomplete and can cause:

  • Difficulty in modulating emotions
  • Extreme shyness or aggression
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Or inappropriate sexual urges, desires, or fears

Memory “residue” is common for everyone, often from events that you can vaguely remember but believe you’re likely forgetting some parts. For instance, you might remember a wedding or funeral, but not all of the individual people at the event.

How you can help babies and toddlers develop after abuse

There are several things non-offending parents and caregivers can do to help a baby or toddler heal by providing support:

  • Rebuilding a safe, calm, and nurturing home and routine
  • Understanding the common reactions to trauma as they age
  • Offering mental health counseling as they age. In Indiana, local child advocacy centers can help connect you to low or no-cost therapists in your area.
  • Helping adolescents with stress, grief, anxiety, exhaustion, and other emotions by helping them understand they’re okay

If your baby or toddler seems to lose the ability to eat or drink, avoids eye contact, appears numb or uninterested when you touch them, or seems irritable or stressed when you change them, contact a medical health professional immediately. 

Children and newborns that “revert” back to earlier behaviors, such as crawling when they can walk or sucking their thumbs, may be indicating a sign of trauma.

Stress on caregivers is often more apparent than in babies and toddlers

If a caregiver is suffering the consequences of the traumatic events that involved their child, they may cause additional impact on baby or toddler. Research suggests young children may not remember the details of an abuse and, depending on its severity, may never recall it. But the caregivers likely will suffer consequences of the trauma as a result of feeling like they “should have known” or “failed to keep their child safe.”

If you are the mother, father, or main caregiver of a baby or toddler who suffered abuse, remember:

  • The abuse is the fault of the perpetrator, not anyone else.
  • Feeling you “should have known” are normal, but in most cases impossible. Perpetrators don’t want people to know abuse is happening.
  • Your mental health is equally important to your child today and in the future.

Parents and caregivers should not let their lives become unsettled or disrupted when high-quality therapy, mental health counseling, and other services are often readily available nearby

If you’re concerned about your mental health, contact your local community health center, CAC, or medical provider to ask about options. Further, telehealth is an increasingly valuable way to reduce commute times, travel costs, and increase access to trauma-informed, evidence-based therapy and counseling with licensed professionals in Indiana and across the US.

Join the over 2,500 others receiving periodic updates about the Indiana Chapter, CACs, and child abuse prevention.

We send campaigns a handful of times a year.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Skip to content