The Montfort Group

Do Children Remember Their Early Experiences?

Often in passing, I hear parents make the statement, “It’s okay, what’s happening in the house (insert event: divorce, death, job loss) won’t affect my child, they’re way too young to remember this. With time they will forget.” 

It seems we try to brush aside, or don’t address, highly emotional or stressful events that happen early in our children’s lives by believing that they are completely oblivious and unaffected by what is happening around them in their early years. 

Science is showing this is not at all true. Children are affected by the events that happen, it’s possible that they may be more affected than adults. 

The first three years of life are actually the most important years of human development, with around 85% of major brain development happening before the age of three.

Early platforms are being set in the brain at this time, templates for attachment, behavior, the ability to regulate emotions, hormonal setpoints are among many regulation systems that are all created in early life and these setpoints that are the internal systems a child has to work from for the rest of their lives. 

Developmental platforms can be altered and changed through experience, but our early experiences are foundational to how we begin to perceive the world. We acquire these starting points we are without language and traditional memory recall for these implicit experiences eventually the resulting emotional set points become our unconscious motivators. Because these early experiences are deeply rooted beyond conscious explanation, they may become even more important than the experiences we have conscious awareness of. 

To further complicate matters, when a child experiences trauma early in life, these platforms and setpoints are altered so that future experience is also affected (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). When emotions are not addressed, an internal deficit is created and is carried on throughout development, which decreases the quality of what can be absorbed in the next developmental level. 

I’m not just talking big traumas that happen to us all like death, grief, loss, divorce, addiction, physical injury, illness/disease, postpartum attachment issues, pregnancy complications. I’m also talking about everyday things such as how we fight with our spouses that children overhear, the discord between parents about how to discipline the children, how we treat our child after a long day at the office and the hour-long battle with traffic on the way home. 

The aggregate effect of these emotional hurts over time is what brings many adult and teenage clients to therapy. 

If you’re a regular parent like me, you know that some of these things are bound to happen despite our best intentions. We sometimes lose our temper, snap at our children, and have arguments with our partners while the kids are in the room. These things are an unavoidable part of life and you’re not a bad parent if it has happened to you. 

The take away is that children are little people in a gigantic new-to-them world, who will have new feelings and big reactions as a result. They most likely don’t have language for the feeling or strategies for how to manage their feelings.  The intensity of new experiences is often extremely overwhelming and it is our job to help them acquire the skill of competently navigating their emotions and behaviors.

How can you help your child make sense of their emotions? 

My favorite psychiatrist and author Dr. Dan Siegel teaches about the 5 S’s. They are being Seen, Soothed, Safe, Secure and Sense-making. (Siegel, 2019). The fifth one, “SENSE-making” most pertains to helping your child process their emotions. Sense-making describes how a parent can use their interactions with their child to help make sense of the world. This making sense process enables the child to feel a coherence between what we experience ourselves and how we are told the world actually is. With a coherent sense-making experience, we have what some researchers term, “epistemic trust.” Children rely on the adults to help them make sense of their worlds and learn how to manage their emotions so eventually, they can independently do the job on their own. 

Often in an attempt to soothe them when they are hurting, we ask our young ones to deny the intensity of their feelings which contradicts what they are truly feeling.  

One of the ways I see this happen is when a child hurts themselves (could be a physical or emotional hurt) and the parent, in an effort to soothe their child says, “You’re alright, don’t cry. You’re ok.” Logically speaking, when a child is upset or crying, they’re not “alright”, and according to the child, they’re in an experience of pain. 

By contradicting their experience and asking them to lessen or stop their outward expression of pain we are slowly teaching them to ignore their feelings until little by little until eventually, they are unable to trust themselves and begin to deny their emotions.

When you find your child in the middle of a painful experience, as hard as it may be, instead of going toward fixing the problem of giving advice, try to go through the emotions with them without attempting to immediately solve it for them. Sit with them through uncomfortable moments. Acknowledge and name their feelings. Comfort them. This process allows the child a coherent connection between what they are feeling and what they are experiencing. The ability to accurately name an emotional state helps to decrease emotional intensity. 

Sound complicated? This is where I can help. I have the tools to assist you with your parenting needs.


Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief).

Siegel, Daniel (2019). Expanding Your Holiday Hub.

Schedule Online

It's easy to set up an appointment with us - see what's available now!

Our Blog

Therapy thoughts