The Early Years: What Will Children Remember?

Consider your first memories and at what age they appear. Some remember very little about Kindergarten. Others will have a few memories from age four, and even fewer adults have any clear memories before that age. This seems obvious to most parents, but the influence of this perspective is less clear and leads to myths about development. So much so that some adults will say, “They won’t remember,” when considering certain choices, commitments, exposure to content or environments during a child’s first few years of life.

It turns out, “What will children remember?” is the wrong question. How children remember offers the keys to development in the early years. So much is happening in the first three years of a child’s life and sets the foundation for every aspect of development. Memories are stored in emotional and sensory form and lay the groundwork for a sense of self, of relationships, and how the world works. 

A secure attachment is vital to this process, as the current of connection between child and caregiver creates connections in the developing mind. This attachment provides the home base of security that enables a child to feel secure, and to explore and learn. A child secure in this home base can hold their caretaker in mind as they manage the emotions and natural stress of learning and exploring. Note that a child will have specific attachment relationships with each of their caregivers.

Attachment theory is grounded in decades of research and the influence of the infant-child attachment on development points to its predictive power. When a child is provided with consistent responsive and loving care, the secure attachment is a strong positive predictor of important domains of development, including self-regulation, self-esteem, language, social, and cognitive development, as well as emotional regulation. 

The impact of this early interpersonal connection extends to the school-aged years and beyond. A secure attachment predicts social competence, close friendships throughout development, as well as having trusting, romantic relationships in adulthood.

Unfortunately, an insecure attachment is predictive as well. Early on, it has been linked to aggressive behaviors, deficits in social skills, and poor emotional regulation. In adolescence, insecure attachment has been predictive of anxiety, depression, higher stress levels, inadequate coping skills, lower self-esteem, poorly developed social skills as well as externalizing behaviors such as aggression against self and others.

What will young children remember before they are able to make memories with words? In an implicit manner, with their hearts, minds, and bodies they will remember the quality of home base, how they were comforted under stress, and the conditions of their exploration and learning — in a nonverbal way. In other words, the internal foundational qualities of trust, autonomy, and initiative all form before a child can make explicit memories (explicit episodes of their personal story) and are highly influenced by the security of attachment in those first years of life. It turns out that how a child makes these foundational memories or beliefs of self, relationships, and how the world works is important groundwork for the memories they can make and recall in the years to come.  



Lee A, Hankin BL. Insecure attachment, dysfunctional attitudes, and low self-esteem predicting prospective symptoms of depression and anxiety during adolescence. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2009;38(2):219–231. 

Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. Guilford Press.

Siegel, D. J. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships,“mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal: Official Publication of The World Association for Infant Mental Health22(1‐2), 67-94.

Sroufe, L.A. and Siegel, D.J. (2011):  The Verdict is In; Psychotherapy Networker, March.  

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