Do Children Report Different Amounts of Information About Traumatic and Nontraumatic Events

Prior within-subjects examinations of whether children provide more (or less) information about traumatic and nontraumatic events have provided mixed results. In one of the two prior studies that featured a within-subjects comparison, Fivush and her colleagues (2003) did not find a difference in the length of the conversations about the two different event types. In the other—which also featured mother-child interviews—Sales and her colleagues (2003) found that reports of traumatic events were longer than those about nontraumatic events.

In the St. Peter tornado study, at both the first interview (4 months after the storm) and the second interview (10 months after the storm), we observed that conversations about the tornado were twice as long as conversations about the two nontraumatic events, which did not differ from each other. The lengths of the conversations did not differ between Sessions 1 and 2 for any of the events. At both time points, mothers and their children exchanged roughly 40 conversational turns when they were talking about the tornado and took roughly 20 turns for each of the nontraumatic events. As reflected in Figure 6.1, the children themselves contributed almost 2.5 times as many propositions to the tornado relative to the nontraumatic event conversations (Bauer et al., in press).

It is tempting to consider the differences in conversational length and in children's participation in the conversations as evidence of a difference in the memory representations of traumatic and nontraumatic events. However, it is always important to bear in mind that reports of events are only that: they are not a direct window on the representation itself. Moreover, as we have argued elsewhere (Bauer et al., 2005), the participants in this research were selected because they had experienced the event of the tornado. This raises the possibility that conversations about the storm were longer because, either implicitly or explicitly, participants were aware that the traumatic event was the focus of the research. Consistent with this suggestion, in other research in which participants were selected because they had experienced traumatic events (medical emergencies), conversations between mothers and their 3- to 5-year-old children were

Session 1

Session 2

figure 6.1. Children's contributions to conversations about the tornado and the nontraumatic events, as measured by the total number of propositions produced at Sessions 1 and 2.

substantially longer for the traumatic relative to the nontraumatic events (Sales et al., 2003). In contrast, in another within-subjects comparison in which recruitment was not based on experience of a particular type of trauma, narratives about the two different event types did not differ in length (Fivush et al., 2003).

Another possible reason why conversations about the storm might have been longer than conversations about the nontraumatic events is that there was simply more to talk about. The tornado was a particularly consequential event that impacted all aspects of life for residents of the St. Peter community (e.g., work, school, home, friends). As such, it provided a greater number of avenues readily available for discussion than the nontraumatic events the dyads chose to discuss. For all of these reasons, it seems ill advised to conclude that because the children in the sample reported more about the traumatic relative to the nontraumatic events, they remembered more about the traumatic event. Accordingly, all subsequent analyses reported were conducted with the sheer length of the conversations controlled statistically. This permitted us to determine whether the reports differed per unit of conversation.

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