A Toddler's Bad Memories— Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My six-year-old daughter stays for after care at the school she’s attended since she was three. The new after care teacher approached me this evening and mentioned that my little girl seems to be afraid of her!

This young lady is very nice and very experienced with children. She found it troubling that my daughter is always as far away from her as she can get. I told her that, as odd as it sounds, when I first saw her she reminded me of a family childcare provider my daughter had been with as a toddler. After a few weeks I took her out of there because I overheard the provider loudly scolding another toddler.

Do you think my daughter remembers this early experience and that might be the reason she keeps her distance? The teacher suggested I talk to my daughter to see what she says about the resemblance.

Wondering

Dear Wondering,

Our understanding of early brain development certainly suggests that memories take hold during moments of strong emotions.

The process involves the amygdalae, a pair of almond-shaped organs of the brain that are activated when emotions are aroused. A neural pathway is created from the external stimulus sending visual, auditory, olfactory (smell), and or tactile impressions from the environment - in this case the screaming childcare provider - to the amygdalae, which registers the situation as safe or dangerous. The amygdalae’s appraisal of “DANGER!” causes the release of stress hormones to raise the heart rate, tighten muscles, and give rise to feelings of panic. Loud noises are one of the inborn fears we humans have. (Others are: falling, being alone, darkness, especially sudden darkness, sudden movement, and distorted faces.) When the fear response is activated, the brain pairs the memory of the experience with the emotion of fear. In this way, the experience becomes a lesson for self-protection. The memory serves to alert the child (or person of any age, for that matter) to similar sights and sounds (also smells or touches), and when these are seen and or heard (or smelled or felt), the stored memories confirm via this pathway that danger is at hand, thereby releasing stress hormones in response.

If indeed your daughter found the family child care provider to be frightening (experienced as a booming giant), her developing brain would record the visual image of the woman and the sound of her raised voice, along with the memory of experiencing elevated stress hormones. As a toddler she perceived that the situation wasn’t safe, even though she herself may not have been the target of any loud scoldings. Babies are like that. They need calm, reliable, appropriately responsive adults. They delight in happy interactions around them. Healthy social-emotional development is supported by the formation of neural pathways that reinforce: “I am safe.” “I am cared for.” “I can trust those around me.”
Good thing for your daughter that you ended that childcare arrangement! Now five years later, and in a different environment, her self-protective brain still tells her to keep her distance from the person who brings out a memory of feeling unsafe. The visual resemblance is enough to put her on guard.

Yes, you should ask your daughter if the new after care teacher reminds her of “Miss X” from long ago. Even if she doesn’t recall the name, she will be relieved to hear you acknowledge that indeed that was a scary experience. And that you recognized that it was scary and removed her from it. And that her after care teacher has a physical resemblance to Miss X but actually is not Miss X. Then talk about all the ways the two women are different.

For the next couple of days, continue to ask your daughter about her new after care teacher until she reports having ample evidence that this new teacher is a totally different, and completely trustable, adult.

Dr. Debbie

 

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