What are the odds that your most vivid family memory isn’t totally accurate?
Parents are often surprised by what their teens and young adult children remember from childhood. Children and parents may turn imagined events into memories, misremember details or interpret shared events differently. And grown children often recall incidents parents have forgotten or blocked out.
Taking time to compare memories and hash out the differences can help family members make peace with lingering issues that they never thought they could resolve.
Mary Dell Harrington
has no recollection of walking down the driveway of her Larchmont, N.Y., home to meet her daughter’s school bus one afternoon 12 years ago. Ms. Harrington had just gotten word that her beloved 80-year-old father had suffered a stroke in a distant state, and she was upset.
Her 21-year-old daughter,
was 9 at the time. She recalls the moment clearly.
“I can see the outfit she was wearing,” she says. It was a longish blue skirt and sunglasses that hid her mother’s tears. Before Ms. Harrington could tell Annie the news, Annie asked her to drive her to the mall. When she learned a moment later that her grandfather had fallen ill, Ms. Berning felt sad and overwhelmed, she says. As the family cared for him and later prepared to attend his funeral, she began feeling guilty about asking for a trivial favor in the midst of a family crisis.
Ms. Harrington was dismayed to learn her daughter still harbored some guilt when the topic came up recently. She reassured her that asking to go shopping hadn’t been inappropriate or unkind. Ms. Berning says she found the conversation comforting.
“Talking about these stories gives you a chance to clear up tiny misconceptions, or tell your children it’s OK,” says Ms. Harrington, a writer and co-founder of Grown and Flown, a blog for parents of 15- to 25-year-olds.
Recalling a memory isn’t like replaying a mental video. More often, memories are reconstructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact, helping them build a sense of identity. Parents and children alike may forget difficult moments they don’t want to recall.
Children and teens are most likely to remember events that are both emotional and relevant to the developmental stage they’re in at the time, a 2016 study shows.
Playing sports was important to Annie’s brother
as a teenager. He was a football, baseball and hockey player and also ran track. His most vivid memories from that time are of injuries that sidelined him, including a clipped Achilles tendon in a schoolyard accident that kept him off the baseball diamond for a while. Now 26, Mr. Berning is a Washington, D.C., financial analyst.
Twins and siblings who are close in age sometimes claim memories that actually happened to the other sibling, such as winning a swim competition, a 2001 study says.
Children perceive the passage of time differently than adults, says
a psychology professor at Emory University. Adults can track time on a phone or calendar, but a few days can feel like weeks to a child, causing him to remember events as lasting longer than they actually did.
That generation gap has become a running joke in the Wingens family.
two older sons, Andrew, 25, and Jonathan, 20, vividly recall a baby nurse staying with the family for several weeks after their younger brother David was born 16 years ago. Every time it comes up, Ms. Wingens wonders what they’re talking about. Ms. Wingens, a Livingston, N.J., writer, insists the nurse stayed only for a weekend.
Andrew and Jonathan remember the nurse watching “CatDog” cartoons on the family TV, and insist they wouldn’t have such vivid memories after only a weekend. Whatever the case, the baby-nurse dispute has become a fixture in family lore. “I don’t think we’ll ever settle it,” Jonathan says.
Setting the record straight can be worth the effort. Children’s memories sometimes reflect harmful distortions, such as a child blaming himself for his parents’ divorce, says
author of “The Co-Authored Self,” a book on how individuals build a sense of identity through shared stories. It’s best in such cases to explain the real reasons in an age-appropriate way, to relieve him of that burden.
In other cases, it’s better for children to be allowed to stick to their own version of events. Families sometimes tell and retell stories that cast a child in the same role over and over, as a screw-up or a maverick, without regard for the fact that she has changed and moved on, Dr. McLean says. This can feel confining to teens or young adults.
Parents might dwell on stories about how sensitive a teen was as a child and how she cried a lot, while the teen may be trying to cobble together a more mature self-image, insisting, “No, I’m not sensitive at all. I’m strong!” says Dr. McLean, a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
As she presses family members to revise their view, Dr. McLean says, the teen learns to stand up for herself.
Work & Family Mailbox
Q: Enjoyed your recent column on visual distractions at the office. I’ve been wearing noise-cancelling headphones to block out my co-workers’ loud voices, but they’re not working. Any advice?—D.Z.
A: Noise-cancelling headphones block continuous sounds such as an airplane engine, but don’t work well in screening out co-workers’ conversations. Many people find listening to background-noise apps with headphones or earbuds works better. These apps include variations on white noise, which is consistent in intensity across all frequencies and has a tinny sound. Pink noise plays lower frequencies at greater intensity, like the low rumble of rain or wind through trees. Brown noise is the deepest of the three and resembles the roar of a waterfall.
Among the best apps is myNoise.net, with dozens of tracks from ocean waves to the running water and birdsong of a Japanese garden. Noisli allows users to create their own blend of sounds from a menu ranging from coffee-shop chatter to a meadow at night. Another is Coffitivity, offering tracks that evoke the ambience of various kinds of cafes. Also worth considering is Naturespace, with a big catalog of high-quality nature tracks.
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Write to Sue Shellenbarger at Sue.Shellenbarger@wsj.com