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A Child's Memory
         
                                                                           
 




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The developmental stages at which the child was when the alleged offense occurred and when the child was interviewed and evaluated for sexual abuse are only two factors to be considered when determining the truth of the child's accusations.

Many people picture memory as sort of a camera, but it isn't.  It's a reconstruction of a prior event, on top of a previous reconstruction: like building with blocks one step on top of each other.  So the very young child who does not have any backlog of experience is building a very rudimentary kind of memory system.

One of the earliest memories is called procedural memory.  Procedural memory is how a child learns to hold a spoon, how to take a piece of zweibach and manipulate it into its mouth, and so forth.  Later on, the child learns how to put on its shoes, button its clothes, and still later, learns to ride a bike.

Between birth and around six months, if a parent is absent for over a week, the young child will forget that parent.  When that parent reappears, the child has to relearn the parent's face.  The child has not developed its visual memory: it will not remember a particular face until the child is somewhere over six months old.  Then the parent;she face becomes learned and is constant.

Remembering noises and smells -- auditory and olfactory memories -- must also be developed.

Semastic memory is knowing about such things as who was the first President of the United States.

Episodic memory gives the child the ability to remember unique personal life experiences:  "what I got for my present last Christmas" or "what I did on my birthday" or "what day I graduated from high school," "the day I was married."   It is critical in sex abuse cases.  The episodic memory only begins to develop about age two and a half.  It's the last part of the memory system to develop.  When the child is young, its memory system is very fragile.  As the child gets older, the memory system becomes more developed.

A significant problem arises when we're trying to explore the young child's memory.  A young child doesn't spontaneously bring the memory out.  Because it is so difficult, people turn to leading questions.  (Only a highly skilled interviewer can avoid leading questions.)  Once you ask leading questions, you're beginning to contaminate the memory.

Additional information about a subject, including false information, can distort memory of adults as well as children.  When additional information is given, the original memory can be changed or modified without the person, including adults, realizing that the memory has changed.

Distortion can run from no distortion at all to perfectly accurate memory, or to complete distortion, where the individual, in fact, believes something is true which is not true whatsoever.  So it can run the full gamut.

Reality testing doesn't begin developing until about seven or eight.  Up until seven or eight, the child lives in a world of fantasy.  The Little Mermaid is real.  Mickey Mouse is real.  The Easter Rabbit and Santa Claus are real.  The five-year-old doesn't even raise the question of whether the reindeer can fly through the sky; he simply accepts that they do.