Conclusion

The topic we introduce in this chapter—how discrete emotions affect children's memory—is ripe for systematic investigation. Based on several lines of research, we laid out a specific hypothesis, namely that children should remember information about a negative emotional experience that is consistent with their appraisals and goals to the relative exclusion of information not directly relevant to their appraisals and goals. Moreover, based on developmental limitations in children's appraisal processes and coping relative to that of adults, the effects of discrete emotions should be more pronounced in children than adults.

Insofar as this hypothesis is to be tested, we see two key issues that must be addressed. First, investigators must strive to create a match between the discrete emotion elicited during a to-be-remembered event and the content of the information for which memory is assessed. Studies of adults have focused on memory for emotional information both in the lab and in real-world situations; however, many of these studies, especially those conducted in the lab, have focused on the effects of inducing emotions on memory for neutral information. Studies of stress and memory in children, in contrast, have involved testing children's memory for the to-be-remembered event that actually had elicited the stress response in children. However, the specific or discrete emotion during the to-be-remembered event was not controlled. It is thus necessary to (a) identify events that target discrete emotional experiences and (b) test children's memory for the specific aspects of those experiences that are theoretically central and peripheral to the discrete emotion the experiences elicited. Once these studies are undertaken in a more direct, rigorous manner, researchers can better identify how the content of children's memory is affected by their specific experience of discrete negative emotions.

To have adequate control over the to-be-remembered events and specific questions asked during the memory interviews, the aforementioned types of issues are best addressed using laboratory events, which at most elicit mild levels of emotional arousal. Therefore, a second key issue in need of direct examination concerns the generalizability of laboratory to-be-remembered discrete emotional events to highly distressing real-world events that children at times encounter. In other words, of interest is how the discrete negative emotions experienced during highly traumatic experiences (like certain invasive medical procedures) affect children's memory. The more traumatic the event, the more likely it is that intense negative emotions will be elicited in children. However, studies focusing on children's distress currently do not assess children's own interpretations and reactions or the specific emotions children report experiencing. Gaining insight into children's own reactions and interpretations may explain, first, how children's general distress responses vary, and, second, when and how children's responses relate to the content and accuracy of their memory.

In closing, for the field often heuristically labeled "children's memory for stressful events" to continue to advance, it will be necessary to look beyond "distress" as a unitary construct and evaluate children's understanding or appraisals of those events that elicit distress, along with children's discrete emotional experiences and emotion regulation techniques. With age, children appraise situations and regulate their emotions in increasingly complex ways and become capable of attending to multiple dimensions of an event. We argue that younger children, with an appraisal process that is similar to but simpler than that of adults, and with limited emotion-regulation strategies, are likely to focus narrowly on the aspect of a situation that is more central and emotionally relevant to them. Such an intense singular attentional focus should in turn lead to enhanced memory for the aspects of an event that have direct relevance to the child's emotional state—memory for information about loss when feeling sad, agents and obstructed goals when feeling angry, and threats when feeling scared—at the expense of other, unrelated information. This possibility may well explain some of the variability in former studies, especially when a wide range of ages and events is included. Of importance, this possibility, if confirmed with continued empirical research, will further our understanding of the complex roles that emotions play across development in children's memory.

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