Trauma, mental representation, and the organization of memory for mother-referent material

Michael Lynch, Dante Cicchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Research on the effects of child maltreatment and exposure to community violence suggests that children who experience these types of traumatic events may be at risk for alterations and biases in attention and memory similar to those that have been observed in adults suffering from traumatic stress reactions. Along these lines, attachment theory posits that representational models of relationships also may act as moderators of similar cognitive biases by selectively guiding children's attention to and processing of interpersonal stimuli. Building upon the trauma and attachment literatures, the present investigation examined the links among trauma, representational models of caregivers, and children's memory for mother-relevant information using an incidental recall task in a sample of maltreated (n = 71) and nonmaltreated (n = 102) children between the ages of 8 and 13 years. Results were consistent with the hypothesis that experiences of trauma and representational models of caregivers are associated with differences in the way children process and retrieve information about positive and negative mother attribute words. In particular, experiences of trauma initially were associated with increased insecurity in children's representational models. Moreover, the interaction of traumatic experience and security of mental representation predicted children's recall for mother attribute words: victimized children with insecure models recalled the highest proportion of negative mother stimuli. Trauma and mental representation did not have a consistent effect on structurally encoded aspects of recall. Results were discussed in terms of the ways in which children who have experienced trauma process information about their worlds. The importance of assessing functioning in multiple developmental domains when studying memory also was discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)739-759
Number of pages21
JournalDevelopment and psychopathology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

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