My son, Ebenezer, has an extreme fear of bees; when he sees a bee, or even a fly outside, he runs into the house and refuses to go back out. It isn’t difficult for me to understand why. When he was 2 1/2, he followed his brother into the pasture to feed the cows, and stepped on a wasps’ nest. The wasps swarmed him, and as we ran to help, we were all stung multiple times. Ebenezer had 35 stings. It was a horrible event for all of us – in fact, just writing about it makes me recall how terrified I was.
I’m currently reading The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson; it has given me so much to think about. Chapter 4: Kill the Butterflies! Integrating Memory for Growth and Healing is packed with fascinating information about the brain and how to help our children process memories. Making sense of their memories helps them better understand their thoughts and feelings in the present.
The authors explain that implicit memory is when “past experiences influence your behavior in the present without any realization that your memory has even been triggered.” In contrast, explicit memory is a conscious recollection of a past experience. They also state that during the first 18 months of life, all memories are encoded implicitly.
They would advise us to help Ebenezer process his experience by telling the story – making the implicit memory explicit – so that he can make sense of what happened. We need to help him take the scattered memories of that experience and put them together in a way that forms a complete picture.
This leads me to think about Dr. Purvis who teaches that in the first months of life, our babies form memories and are “primed” for future experiences. They cry, we comfort them. They cry, we feed them. They cry, we pick them up and change their diaper. They cry, and we come to them. The baby develops an expectation that they have “voice” and their needs will be met.
How is this different from our children who came from “hard places”? I have a child who cried, and nobody came. She was terribly hungry, and not fed. When there was food, it was given to more favored children. She was cold, and there were no blankets. Numerous implicit memories expectations were formed.
1. I cry and nobody comes; I am alone.
2. I’m hungry; I will probably die.
3. People are dangerous; I must not trust them. I will take care of myself.
How do I help her make sense of her overwhelming reactions to hunger, fear of trusting and attaching to parents, and a deep sense of competition with siblings? Being intentional and consistent and seeking help so she can work through these fears and understand her story – together with lots of prayer – is key.
But there is something else I can do on a daily basis – meet her needs over and over again. When she cries, I need to comfort her. When she is hungry, I need to feed her. When she doesn’t trust, I must be trustworthy and safe.
This is very difficult to do with a child who is volatile – but I need to press on, with compassion and the belief that God is for her, He sees her, and He can do great healing in her heart and mind.
Click here for more on The Whole-Brain Child, including discussion guides by chapter as well as links to blog posts (written by Annie McClellan at Tapestry) detailing each of the 12 strategies in the book.