Childrens Memory for Stressful Events

Studies concerning children's memory for stressful events can be heu-ristically divided into two general categories based on the type of event being remembered. One set of studies has focused on children's memory for naturally occurring stressful events (see Chapter 6), and the other has concerned children's memory for mildly arousing laboratory-based experiences. Across both types of studies, however, the central question has been the same: does stress help or hurt children's memory? Unfortunately, findings have not revealed a consistent pattern. Several studies have reported positive associations between stress and memory, both for naturally occurring stressors and arousing laboratory events (e.g., Alexander, Goodman, Schaaf, et al., 2002; Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991; Quas, Carrick, Alkon, Goldstein, & Boyce, 2006), but others have reported either no direct associations (e.g., Vaandermaas, Hess, & BakerWard, 1993) or negative associations (e.g., Bugental, Blue, Cortez, Fleck, & Rodriguez, 1992; Merritt, Ornstein, & Spicker, 1994; Quas, Bauer, & Boyce, 2004). What may be more useful than a simple description of the varying patterns of findings is an overview of the different types of to-be-remembered events that have been studied and a description of the range of possible emotions children may have experienced during these events. Insofar as children's emotional experiences vary, so may the content of their memories.

Naturalistic studies have capitalized on stressful events outside of the experimenters' control to which children have been exposed (e.g., Goodman, Quas, Batterman-Faunce, Riddlesberger, & Kuhn, 1997; Peterson, 1999). For instance, Fivush and colleagues assessed 3- to 4-year-old children's memory for Hurricane Andrew, a devastating hurricane that hit the Florida coast in the early 1990s (Fivush, Hazzard, Sales, Sarfati, & Brown, 2003; Fivush, Sales, Goldberg, Bahrick, & Parker, 2004). Children's proximity to the hurricane was related to the amount of damage to families' homes and to the amount of family displacement and disruption. Therefore, proximity was used as an index of children's stress during the hurricane to define high-, moderate-, and low-stress exposure groups. When children's memory was tested a few months after the hurricane, children in the moderate-stress group reported the most information, whereas children in the high- and low-stress groups reported less. When children's memory was examined 6 years afterward, children in the high-stress group again provided less information than children in the moderate-stress group, but only in free recall. With additional follow-up prompts, the high-stress children provided as much information as did the other children. Thus, even children in the high-stress group remembered the event after the long delay, but they were either unwilling or unable to describe their memories in detail without considerable prompting by the interviewer.

Other researchers have studied children's memory for medical experiences, including emergency room visits (Peterson, 1999; Peterson & Parsons, 2005; Peterson & Whalen, 2001) and prescheduled procedures (Alexander, Goodman, et al., 2002; Chen, Wang, Chen, & Liu, 2002; Merritt et al., 1994; Quas et al., 1999). Many of these events are distressing and painful, and some are highly standardized, providing researchers with objective information about what actually occurred to which children's reports can be compared for accuracy (Goodman, Quas, Batterman-Faunce, Riddlesberger, & Kuhn, 1994; Salmon, Price, & Pereira, 2002). Several teams of researchers, for instance, have studied children's memory for a scheduled radiological procedure involving urethral catheteriza-tion. The procedure, which is designed to identify a potentially serious kidney problem, requires that children be awake while their bladder is filled with a contrast medium. Afterward, children void while X-rays are taken. Children's memory for the procedure has been assessed immediately afterward (Merritt et al., 1994), several weeks later (Goodman et al., 1997; Merritt et al., 1994), and several years later (Quas et al., 1999). Merritt et al. (1994) found that medical staffs' ratings of child distress were negatively related to children's memory. Similarly, Quas et al. (1999) found that being more upset during the procedure, according to parental report, was associated with decreases in the amount of information children provided in free recall. However, Quas et al. (1999) also found that being more upset before the procedure was associated with increases in the number of correct responses to closed-ended, misleading questions. Thus, although the same stressful to-be-remembered event was examined across studies, the associations between child distress and memory varied, precluding clear patterns from being identified regarding the precise relations between stress and memory.

In contrast to the highly charged emotional events studied in naturalistic contexts, to-be-remembered events studied in laboratory contexts are typically mildly distressing events that children have either experienced or witnessed, such as brief fire-alarm incidents or negatively valenced video clips or pictures (Bugental et al., 1992; Quas et al., 2006). Because laboratory events can be controlled, objective records are nearly always available, and children can be randomly assigned to high- and low-stress conditions, allowing researchers to draw causal conclusions about the effects of mild distress or arousal on children's memory— conclusions not possible with naturalistic, correlational studies. Using this approach, Bugental et al. (1992) found that increases in 5-year-olds' heart rate while watching a video clip of a child visiting the doctor were associated with poorer memory (no relations between heart rate and memory were observed in older children, however). Yet, the opposite pattern was reported by Quas and Lench (2007). Arousal while watching a fear-eliciting video clip of four boys on a bridge as a train approaches was positively related to children's later memory. Thus, even in laboratory studies, findings continue to be mixed. Moreover, the extent to which findings from laboratory studies generalize to naturalistic contexts remains unknown.

As this brief review indicates, findings concerning the relations between stress and memory vary considerably. Stress often appears to inhibit children's performance when asked to recall stressful events, but this poor performance may be due to an unwillingness to talk about the events rather than poor memory per se. When direct questions are asked, stress often appears to enhance performance, although only in some studies. Of greater relevance to the present review, and another potentially important source of variation in studies' results, is the range of types of to-be-remembered events that have been investigated. Although all of the events have been labeled as stressful or arousing, children likely experienced one of several different emotions. For instance, during a hurricane, if children and their families are prepared and safe, children may not experience fear or distress. Instead, children may feel sad, but only later, upon returning to find devastation and significant changes to their lives (Fivush et al., 2004; Sales, Fivush, Parker, & Bahrick, 2002). During a medical procedure, some children may feel angry with the medical staff or their parents for inflicting pain. Others may feel frightened because they do not know what is happening or how to protect themselves. Still other children may be confused regarding why something designed to help them is painful. These emotions involve different appraisals and motivations and have different behavioral and physiological correlates. Further, children's ability to cope with these emotions changes over the course of development. Each of these factors has implications for the content, and possibly the accuracy, of children's later memory (Goodman et al., 1991).

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