US psychiatrist: Babies remember traumatic events for years

Jun. 29, 2009 | Judy Siegel-Itzkovich , THE JERUSALEM POST

The prevailing view among parents, the general public and mental health professionals that infants as young as six months old “do not remember” traumatic events that happen to them or to their loved ones has recently been disproved, a professor of infant mental health said at a Jerusalem conference on Sunday.

Prof. Alicia Lieberman of the psychiatry department at the University of California at San Francisco told an audience of 300 that young children, even babies, “remember traumatic events in their bodies” with increases in stress hormones such as cortisol and that the event makes a distinct impression on them.

Most professionals and parents have pooh-poohed this idea because infants and young toddlers do not have the verbal ability to describe the trauma, but it nevertheless is stored in their brains, she asserted.

The message was very relevant to an Israeli audience, as large numbers of infants have survived terrorist and missile attacks, family violence and other traumatic events, and most remain untreated.

Lieberman was speaking at the first session of the two-day International Conference on Trauma and Early Childhood, held at Truman Hall on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus and organized by the capital’s Herzog Hospital’s Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma, the HU’s Paul Baerwald School of Social Work, and the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco. It is being chaired by trauma expert and clinical psychologist Dr. Danny Brom, who heads Herzog’s psychotrauma center.

The US psychiatrist said that infants who have been exposed to trauma – anything from witnessing or being hurt by a road accident and terrorist attacks and near drownings to seeing its mother murdered by its father – “always try to find the meaning of their experience and how to fit into the world.”

Lieberman, who was born in Paraguay and spent five years earning a degree at the HU, explained that the seat of verbalization in the brain is in the cortex, but the visceral responses to trauma are based elsewhere.

People are wrong to assume that when traumatized infants grow up and don’t speak about it, they weren’t influenced by it. Therapists often start their relationship with traumatized parents and children with mistaken idea that if the child did not discuss it, they should not bring it up, the California psychiatrist said.

“Basic research shows that young babies even five months old can remember that a stranger came into room and scared them three weeks before. Even though the babies were pre-verbal, they can later remember traumatic events that occurred to them,” said Lieberman.

One case was a girl named “Rachel, who around her first birthday was held by her mother when her angry and abusive father pushed his way through the door in their apartment and shot the mother. He father was jailed for life, and her grandmother raised her, but Rachel had serious behavior problems. One day, when she was four years old, the grandmother noted that she reacted badly to the noise of firecrackers.” The preschooler said: “Don’t kill me!”

Then, at the age of nine, she asked her grandmother how her mother died. The grandmother replied: “She fell off the roof.”

But, unsatisfied, the girl demanded to know “how my mother really died.”

That, said Lieberman, was “the last time she discussed” her memory of the traumatic event.

Among the negative behaviors caused by traumatic events in children are temper tantrums, developmental delays, regression, unsociability and violence. However, the good news is that post-traumatic stress symptoms can be treated by talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and other means with help from a trained therapist, said Lieberman, and doing so as early as possible after the child is able to speak is best.