I can remember very little indeed about my childhood before the age of about eight, even major events that I am told happened to me.
For example, my school, when I was around this age, were concerned I was going deaf as I never answered my name when it was called in class.
Because of this, apparently I had my ears tested but my hearing was normal. In other words, my apparent ‘deafness’ was caused by psychological factors. Indeed, it was particularly pronounced when the subject of parents came up in class. The term psychologists use to describe the condition is dissociation.
However, I have no memory whatsoever of any of the above; that period of my life, as far as my conscious memory is concerned, may as well never have happened.
Research suggests (e.g. Williams, 1995) that, for some their childhood trauma is so distressing that, in order to protect itself, the brain subjugates, or, represses, the memory of it, keeping it out of conscious awareness.
This is what’s known as a defence mechanism. This mechanism works by not allowing distressing memories to encroach upon memory, due to the fact that, if these memories did penetrate consciousness, they would provoke intolerable psychological distress. This process of repressing painful memories operates automatically on an unconscious level as a means of self-protection.
Not everyone who experiences significant childhood trauma will develop traumatic amnesia; whether or not a person develops it depends upon numerous factors which you may read about in another of my articles: Why Some Remember And Some Forget Their Traumatic Experiences.
In those who do develop traumatic amnesia, the condition may last for anything from hours to decades.
Traumatic amnesia does not necessarily mean that the individual who experiences it will forget everything connected to the traumatic experience/s; sometimes, the amnesia is only partial (ie. some of the traumatic experience is retained in memory, whilst elements of it are NOT remembered (in other words they are blocked off from conscious memory).
Further research (Henderson) suggests that if a child’s traumatic experience is due to abuse by a person (normally a parent) who is, in actual fact, supposed to be caring for the child, and whom the child is dependent upon, then that child is especially likely to develop traumatic amnesia (this is an unconscious means of retaining some sort of bond with a parent, thus allowing the relationship with the parent to survive).
Henderson (2018) Understanding the impact of childhood trauma.
Williams LM. Recall of childhood trauma: a prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse [published correction appears in J Consult Clin Psychol 1995 Jun;63(3):343]. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1994;62(6):1167-1176. doi:10.1037//0022-006x.62.6.1167
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).