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Why Does My Kid Randomly Forget Things?

As parents, you have certainly run into those moments with your kids where they all of the sudden don’t seem to remember something they should know very well by now. It’s so annoying, am I right? For that matter, you may have the same frustration with yourself. Why do we lose recall of certain facts or events?

The most likely explanation for lost pieces of information is that it never really had the chance to make it to long-term memory in the first place. In order to be able to call upon something that was stored away, it needs to be stored first! With all of the masses of information your kids are presented with daily, their brains are working hard to filter through and hang on to the stuff that seems most important. Maybe they weren’t actually attending to you at the time you were speaking to them, so your voice never made it past the sensory zone, where information is initially received. And even if they were paying attention at the time a direction was given, if there was no follow up processing of the instruction, it’s as if it never left your lips. To process the information going in, kids need to attach what you’re saying to something they already know, or elaborate on the idea in some way (verbally or mentally) so it will stick.

So lets say all that did happen: they heard your voice, they were paying attention, they followed through with a form of processing, but nothin’s there later when you check in. That trash did not make it out. The fish did not get fed. And that homework most certainly did not get done. Assuming we’re not talking about conveniently overlooking a chore, there is another reason the instruction did not ring any bells when you wanted it to. Consolidation is a process that is necessary for the brain to congeal that jello of new experiences, and sleep is like the frig in this scenario. No wintry, no wobble. Let your kids get plenty of rest!

Ok, makes sense, he didn’t sleep in between the time I told him to clean his room and the time I got home, but what about long standing truths, like remembering his own address? Couple of things could be at play here. Some psychologists suggest an idea known as decay, where pieces of info just shrivel up and die because they weren’t used often enough. Another explanation is that a thorough “search” of their long-term memory wasn’t really available to them at the time you asked them what their address is. We all have a cap on the weight of our cognitive load, which refers to the amount of information, sensory or otherwise, that we can hold at once. If there is too much going on, including an emotional burden of some kind -fear, anxiety, stress- then that scale is going to tip until enough chunks fall out and the load is manageable again. Maybe the address was one of them; we’re not super good at prioritizing what goes and what stays while in the middle of cognitive overload.

Two more reasons why I’m gonna have your kid’s back on this one: interference and reconstruction. Finally cognitive psychs have used some normal words to explain brain stuff! Interference is just what it sounds like, something got in the way. This is most likely to happen when someone tries to learn things that are very similar to each other at the same time. Easy to mix up tiny tidbits when its all going in at once, and even more so if it was “memorized” in a rote fashion. You can learn two things in one way and confuse them later, but two brains can remember one event differently too! Quit it with the ones and twos already.

Possibly the most confounding reason for information going dark on us is an error happening when we reconstruct the event in our minds. I cannot say how many times my husband and I have had different descriptions of the same darn moment. They call this one an error in reconstruction. Sometimes, while trying to sleuth down that single piece of the past, we do an excellent job at remembering some of the scene. If this “retrieval” is incomplete, we just fill in the blanks as we see fit... and that’s where the “he said, she said” gets rolling.

I hope by now you are convinced that your kiddo is most likely not messing with you, and that there are actual reasons (and good ones!) that they might be forgetting. Maybe next time I’ll tackle some tips on helping the memory work for them, but for now, follow through and make them take out that trash! See, I’m on your side sometimes, too.

Reference: Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis., et al. Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Pearson Education, 2017

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