Implicit Memory and Adoption

Guest Blogger Robert Allan Hafetz, MS/MFT, shares the second installment of a three part series of adoption-focused posts.

How to change what the child feels and create a secure attachment

Adopted children have implicit memory resulting from the adoption process. Placement in foster homes can add to these memories. Implicit memories are created by experiences that have enough emotional intensity to shape the child’s beliefs, expectations, behaviors and feelings about a specific event in their current lives. “How the child responds to a situation is not caused by circumstances but by viewing current circumstances through the lens of unconscious implicit memories. The projection of the past into the present.”( Ecker, 2011). The adopted child’s view of the adoptive family today is seen through the experience of implicit memory from the past.

Other manifestations of implicit memory: Undue attention seeking, power struggles, withdrawal, anxiety, sadness, shame, low self-esteem, feeling isolated or disconnected. This is not a cognitive or thinking process; this is an emotional response to current events filtered through past experiences. Implicit memory is long term doesn’t fade with time and is as powerful today as the moment it was created. David Brodzinsky and his colleagues at Rutgers, in studying the development of 130 adopted children, found that adoptees are psychologically indistinguishable from nonadoptees only until the age of 5 or 6. Then the ramifications of adoption start to dawn on them. I want to stress that this is a normal reaction to being adopted and is in no way part of a mental disorder. Adoptees are often diagnosed with attachment or behavioral disorders when they are responding to painful implicit memories.

What this means when you adopt a child is that implicit memory is a barrier to creating a secure attachment, and providing optimal development for the child. The good news is that these implicit memories can be changed by “rewiring” the child’s brain or changing the structure of these memories. By combining old therapeutic concepts with knowledge from current neuropsychology we can address the child’s behavior with an understanding of how memory is recalled, experienced, and reconsolidated back into the brain.


  1. The problem behavior is caused by non conscious emotional knowledge held in right brain implicit memory.
  2. Behavior persists by current constructions of reality formed in the past.
  3. Change occurs through experience not cognitive insight (reading books, talking), verbal therapeutic intervention, or medication.
  4. Cognitive insight follows from rather then leads to these experiences. Children do not need verbal skills or analytical insight to benefit from these experiences.
    (Adapted from Bruce Ecker, Depth Oriented Brief Therapy)

The Process

When an implicit memory is triggered the child experiences the emotion as if it has just occurred. Anything can trigger a memory, attachment behaviors, birthdays, seeing another family that resembles one another, movies, music, death of a pet etc. What we see are problem behaviors such as, undue attention seeking, power struggles, withdrawal, opposition, tantrums, poor academic performance defiance, ADHD like symptoms, etc. What is occurring in the child’s mind is a re-experiencing of memories from the past as if they are occurring today. These are normal survival responses created by the trauma of maternal separation, or multiple placements in foster homes. These are attachment related events and will create attachment related triggers in the adoptive family. When the child recalls the memory the synapses unlock in the moment of experiencing it (when the child is misbehaving). In this moment of unlocked synapses we now know that this memory can be changed or rewritten, but only in the moment before the behavior stops and the memory goes back into storage (reconsolidated).

What this means for parents is that when our children are at their worst behavior we have an extraordinary opportunity to enable them to heal themselves. It is also a time when parents are stressed, having their buttons pushed, tired from working, or just had enough of this crazy behavior give me a break. Adoptees will provoke you to see how authentic you are by your behavior not your words. They watch your nonverbal expressions very carefully and they must be consistent.

All behavior is goal directed nothing occurs randomly.

What parents must do

Since emotional change occurs only through experiences the task of the parent is to create an experience when in the moment of the problematic behavior while the memory is unlocked. The experience must be concurrent with and in contradiction to the memory. For example when the child is experiencing fear of attachment, or feels disconnected and isolated, an experience that contradicts that memory must be created. The parent must create an experience in which connection to the family is secure and makes the child feel wanted and loved. The child must experience this on an emotional not a cognitive level. The child must feel securely attached and loved because knowing it will not change the implicit memory. The experience creates a juxtaposition experience that contradicts the memory. When he child’s memory expresses anxiety triggered by feelings of disconnection, loss grief, isolation, or fear of attachment, the current attachment experience must be secure, and unconditional. Both can’t be true which puts the mind in conflict. The human mind must make sense out of dissonance and will modify the implicit memory before it goes back into storage. Eventually through the experience of a warm loving accepting attachment experience the child will develop a secure bond with the parents.



By Robert Allan Hafetz MS MFT

Robert Allan Hafetz was born January 28, 1951, in the Door of Hope Salvation Army Booth Home, in Jersey City, New Jersey. A late in life graduate of Temple University, Robert was awarded a BS/CTRS degree in Therapeutic Recreation. Robert then went on to Holy Family University to complete his Master’s Degree in marriage and family counseling. Robert received The Bill Dayton Award from Temple University for work with the physically disabled. He was wheelchair weightlifting coach for McGee Rehabilitation Hospital, and his team holds two world records in the Para-Olympics. During the past 15 years Robert has worked as an adjunctive therapist serving acute inpatient adults and attachment compromised adolescents in residential treatment. In 2005 he published Not Remembered Never Forgotten an adoptee’s search for his birth family. In 2008 the second edition was published. A member of New Jersey Care and State Representative of the American Adoption Congress Robert has testified many times before the New Jersey Senate and Assembly on pending adoption legislation. He is the founder of Adoption Education & Family Counseling LLC devoting full time to adoption education and support for all members of the adoption family.