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VIDEO: Dr. James Garbarino on Traumatic Memories

Watch an excerpt from PsychAlive’s exclusive interview with Dr. James Garbarino.

Dr. James Garbarino explores the idea that traumatic memories do not spontaneously decay.

Dr. James Garbarino: I think there are probably many origins on the influence of parents on children.  Some of it is the simple genetic influence that there’s some correlation between parental temperament and child temperament simply on the basis genetic predispositions.  I think a lot of it, though, is that many of the early parent / child experiences are being undertaken by the child in a cognitive state where their capacity to understand them in a mature way is very limited.  And so they sort of have primitive experiences which become lodged and unless they’re uncovered and exposed later on, can sort of continue a life of their own.

It’s not unlike the idea that traumatic memories don’t spontaneously decay — that unless they are processed, they retain their shape and form.  And my mother, for example, was a child in England when World War II began and experienced the bombing of London and all the terror that must have been associated with that.  But partly because of who she is as a person, partly because she’s English, there was never any dealing with this.  But those traumatic memories are very, very fresh and capable of being re-activated.

So for example, the night of the first Gulf War when the bombing of Baghdad began, I called my mother on the phone and she was having a sort of full blown traumatic incident because this bombing, watching it, instigated re-exposing these memories from her childhood, as a child being terrified of the bombing of London.

While traumatic memories don’t decay in that sense, a lot of these childhood emotional memories, whether they’re officially traumatic or not, are experienced in a way that doesn’t naturally give the person access to … processing them in a mature way, either through maturation or therapeutic intervention.  So when they begin to process them as adults, because they originally experienced them as a child with a child’s resources, unless they bring an adult resource to it or the help of another adult resource, they can continue to operate nonstop.

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