What New Science Tell Us About Kids' Memory and What That Means for Parents

Your kid’s brain is not able to recall detail and stories of events in the same way that your adult brain is.

Have you ever asked your school-aged child what they did today and got a response “nothing” or “I can’t remember?” Or taken them on an amazing adventure or outing only to find they have little recall of the event just that evening? If you have goals of creating great memories for your children, as many parents do, this is a little frustrating to say the least. If you think it’s just your children, take heart – new research shows you’re not alone and that ongoing development in the brain in the school aged years is most likely responsible.
The study involved 70 children aged six to 14 years old and 33 young adults completing a memory test and MRI scans. The memory test looked at the participants’ ability to remember details or general characteristics. MRI scans compared the brain structures involved in these tasks for differences across age groups. It was previously thought that these structures matured before the teen years.
Rather than finding that performance on recall and memory for details was standard across all age groups, the researchers found that older participants did better. This also correlated with differences found in the brain scans between the age groups. Sections of the hippocampus responsible for memory formation, stabilization, retrieval, and separation of detail were found to continually develop across age. The MRI scans showed these structures did not stop maturing until sometime in adolescence.

What does that mean for parents?

If your child tells you they don’t know or can’t remember, accept it as true. Sometimes parents interpret these messages as “I don’t want to talk about it,” “I’m not ready to talk about it,” or that the child did not enjoy or appreciate an event. Instead, believe them. Your child’s brain is not able to recall detail and stories of events in the same way that your adult brain is. The structures for it to complete this process are just not there yet.
In the case of a pleasant event that you were part of it is helpful to retell the story with your children and look at photos from the event. This may help build your child’s memory of the event over time. Also, children very much enjoy storytelling and will often happily listen to your version of events. Many parenting experts promote the idea of retelling shared family stories. These shared family stories become part of the family culture and help promote a sense of connection and belonging.
When children lose things and are unable to recall their steps, as often happens in my home,  the developing brain is also likely to blame. Rather than interpreting this behavior as lazy or unhelpful, recognize that your child’s brain isn’t remembering the details and sequences like an adult brain. Wherever possible offer easy systems and support to prevent difficulty in finding items.
When children experience a distressing or traumatic event, recall of the detail of the event is often difficult. This is in part due to the impact of trauma but also a developing brain. It might be tempting to push for detail in your attempts to right things or get the correct help. This is problematic as children who want to please will sometimes report things that didn’t happen at all. Rather than pressing for detail, provide a safe, loving, and accepting presence, protect your child as necessary, and seek professional guidance on how to help your child best. Let your child know that you are okay with them not being able to fully explain and that you still love them no matter what happened.
Keep planning those wonderful events for your child. Your child may not recall those events in particular detail but often they will remember how they felt. When I ask adults in therapy about their childhood, I often find an emotional shift occurs as they talk about their family’s vacations or their parents’ support of their sporting activities. Even thought they don’t have a lot of verbal detail attached to the memories, their faces will light up as they discuss with warmth their emotional memory of childhood.
Most importantly, give your child and yourself time to grow with your child’s developing brain. Children generally want to please their parent, so if they don’t it is most often due to a skill deficit. One day they will recount a story in full detail. You may even find yourself wondering whether the story required such a long and detailed retelling.