How To Have A Conversation About Different Memories And Experiences With Your Parent

April 29th, 2024

A 5-year-old and a 40-year-old are going to remember the same situation in very different ways.

Memories and experiences with your parent

When you discuss memories from the past with a parent, you are likely to remember the situation in a completely different way. A child and an adult will have completely different perspectives of the event, and they were likely focused on different experiences while the event was happening. This will result in entirely different memories. Things like age, mental health diagnoses, illness, trauma, etc can also impact recall.

In some situations, the accuracy of the exact memory doesn't matter. For example, if a family member sexually abused you, debating the details is unnecessary, and it doesn’t negate the experience. If you were physically abused, debating how often and when it happened usually doesn’t lead to a fruitful discussion or healing. It happened, and there are consequences for that behavior. There is no way to explain it away by getting caught up in the details, and having some debate about those details with you can be retraumatizing. There is a huge difference between having a conversation about different experiences and someone completely denying an event that you have proof happened to you.

If you are an adult trying to converse with a parent about differences in perspective, here are some ways to improve the outcome of that conversation.

  • Emotional events can be recalled much more naturally. There’s that saying that goes something like, “It was the most traumatic thing that happened to me. For them, it was just another Tuesday.”

In this case, you may need to explain that while this event isn’t memorable to them, it greatly impacted you and how you feel today.

  • Remember that memories are highly subjective. Our mood, level of arousal, expectations, prior experience, developmental stage, knowledge, and resources will impact how we store specific memories. A 5-year-old and a 40-year-old are going to remember the same situation in very different ways. This means that our perception and context highly influence our memories at the time of the event.

Both you and your parent will have to understand that an event can illicit two very different responses in two different people. And, it’s possible for your parent to empathize with you and seek understanding even if they do not remember it the same way.

  • Some memories simply decay over time. Memory traces may fade if they are unused. It has been suggested that metabolic processes in the brain may erode memories over time. So, some memories just naturally fade away.

You have likely spent much more time remembering this incident because it impacted you. If they don’t remember it, it may not have been memorable in the moment. This can be extremely painful if you realize that they forgot one of the most painful things that happened to you.

  • Some memories are there, and we cannot access them. If an incident didn’t seem particularly important or meaningful at the time, we may not convert it to long-term memory, which can be more difficult to retrieve in the future. This is why some incidents might seem fuzzy or completely forgotten.

There is a chance that your parent truly does not remember what happened. But even if they don’t, they can try to meet you in this moment and understand why it is so meaningful and memorable for you.

  • Interference happened at the time of the event, and they do not remember everything that happened. Sometimes, we are distracted by other details or events that are happening at the time of an event. This stops us from committing all of the details to memory. So, the parent might not remember the incident fully because they were preoccupied with something else at the time.

This may be something you want to explore during this conversation. Was there something going on during this time that was distracting or took attention away from your experience?

  • There is psychologically motivated forgetting, a protective mechanism that shields us from discomfort. Sometimes, we don’t remember because we truly do not want to. Shame, guilt, or other difficult feelings accompany the memory, and we’d rather forget. This means that some painful or uncomfortable memories might be suppressed.

It can be difficult to identify when this is happening, and it’s important that you do. If someone deliberately attempts to forget or chooses not to engage with memory because it’s too painful for them, it may be hard to have this conversation.

  • Trauma can impact our memory. It can prevent information from different parts of the brain from combining to make a semantic memory, fragment the sequence of events, and change patterns of procedural memory. So, if the parent experienced trauma, it might affect their memory of the incident.

Is there a way you can approach this conversation from this lens? You may want to express how both of you endured trauma during this time, if applicable, and how you are able to have different memories as a result of that experience.

  • Some people will deny reality even when it is right in front of them. Have you ever sent a screenshot or recorded a conversation, only to be told that’s not what was actually said? Some people will deny reality even when they can literally see or hear the words in front of them. No matter how much proof you have, they will never accept a memory or proof of an incident.

If this happens, you are likely better off not having this conversation.

  • Memories are often in the eye of the beholder. Facts, interpretations, feelings, and a personal narrative are involved in recounting memories. Your parent may truly not remember a situation that had a profound impact on you. They may not remember it the way you remember it or have the same interpretation. There are many reasons for this denial or forgetting, and it’s difficult to know what that forgetting is rooted in or if it is purposeful.

Try to focus on your feelings and the impact the event had on your life.

  • Find a way to discuss and share perspectives. This is what truly matters: finding a way to respectfully discuss and share each of your unique perspectives.

This may also include the parent recognizing their role in a situation and making amends. And facts are facts. If the abuse happened, it happened. There is no explaining away or “seeing both sides” with certain family issues. And sometimes we can find a way to share and validate our memories and perspectives. Only you can decide what is appropriate for your specific situation.