Memory For Faces

Is your child unable to place that face?

Is your child:

  • Struggling to recognize familiar faces?
  • Saying, “I can’t recall that face. Have I met her before?”
  • Having trouble remembering what people look like?
  • Sitting at the same table with kids all year and not remembering them?
  • Distracted when meeting new people?
  • Looking away when someone says, “Hi. How are you?”
  • Becoming confused and getting lost in large groups of people?
  • Failing to remember people but easily remembering Pi to the 30th place?
  • Avoiding other children?


Some children have difficulty remembering people’s names or recalling what people look like.

It may be that your child has known a group of children for a long time, either through sports or school, and your child still doesn’t know any of their names. It also could be that your child often tells you a story about a friend at school but cannot tell you his or her name.

Sometimes, children with these challenges become very confused if someone they know gets a haircut or wears glasses one day. If the person’s appearance changes at all, the child is no longer able to recognize him or her.

Sometimes, your child may space-out when meeting someone new. He or she may hide behind your leg or simply walk away when people are talking. Other children may get frustrated at recess or lunch when your child forgets who they are.

Family members may be offended when your child doesn’t remember Aunt Edna’s name or cannot identify one grandparent from another.

Many potential reasons may explain why your child would struggle to remember people’s faces or names. One significant issue that may explain why your child struggles with remembering faces could be a deficit in social skills.

In this case, your child may not be as engaged socially, so he or she does not focus as much on other people’s names or faces. This deficit in social skills could relate to poor perspective taking and empathy. A child with these challenges is likely to have a hard time making friends and interacting socially with peers.


General issues with names and faces could be in the following areas: visual memory, attention, cognitive processing or social skills.

Visual Memory is the ability to remember something by looking at it. Someone who struggles with visual memory may have difficulty with games like memory, with recalling people or pictures, with recognizing familiar people, or with recalling landmarks.

He or she may have been acquainted with people for a long time and may still forget their names. The child may sit with kids in school for a whole year and not remember who they are. He might be on a soccer team for a whole season and not remember anyone on the team.

The child may get people confused, for example, thinking the school librarian is the principal or the recess monitor is the music teacher. When asked who he or she sat with at lunch today, the child may say, “I can’t remember.” In this case, learning disabilities and cognitive (Understanding) issues should be considered.

Difficulty remembering faces could be related to attention. Attention challenges may impact visual memory because your child may not be paying attention to his or her surroundings, and therefore details and elements may slip by unnoticed. A child with these challenges may appear distracted when meeting new people.

Attention (Focusing) means the ability to focus and to sustain one’s attention long enough to complete a task or activity without becoming distracted.

Sustained Attention is the ability to focus on something even if the task is very boring and without immediate reward. If your child is struggling with attention, executive functions (Organizing) and ADHD should be considered.

It is also important to consider cognitive processing and fluency.

Cognitive processing (Understanding) could be a deficit when considering problems with learning and memory. Children may struggle to remember what they see (visual encoding) or hear (auditory processing) due to poor processing abilities.

The problem could be cognitive-efficiency, or the ability to think quickly, to hold information in the short-term memory, and then to recall it smoothly and fluently. If your child is often slow in completing tasks, is late a lot, or gets very nervous for timed activities, his or her processing speed or cognitive efficiency could be impaired.

A final reason why your child may not remember familiar faces is poor social cognition.

Social perspective taking refers to understanding another person’s perspective and not only your own.

Social skills refers to the ability to understand nonverbal social cues, to understand how to interact with and react to peers in a way that creates a positive climate for friendships to be built.

If your child struggles not just with remembering what people look like, but also with relating to peers, social skills (Socializing) or Autism Spectrum Disorder should be considered.


Get the class yearbook or class photo from last year, and post it in your home. Write the names of each child on the photo.

Have pictures of family members and friends that are labeled, and look at these with your child when you have a moment. “Oh look at Aunt Sally at the beach last summer, and there’s your cousin Tom, we’ll see them next month.”

Providing labeled pictures and visual reminders can help a child remember even when faces are hard.

If your child struggles with social skills such as perspective taking, empathy, and positive social interactions, this difficulty is worth looking into with an evaluation by a psychologist.

Children with social skill deficits have trouble with sharing, turn-taking, and listening attentively to peers. These issues may be a sign of an Autism Spectrum Disorder and, in this case, require assessment and treatment.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Shifting or sustaining attention (Focusing): difficulty with attention will often lead to challenges remembering something important, like a face
  • Interacting (Socializing): problems with remembering faces could relate to poor social skills
  • Perseverating: challenges changing tasks due to excessive interest or focus on a certain topic. This challenge is common in autism and can impact a child’s ability to scan and encode different information. For example, a child might be only interested in that video game and might not be looking at the child who is playing with them
  • Executive functioning (Organizing): difficulties related to planning, sequencing, and organizing information
  • Depression: problems with being forgetful or distracted can be related to underlying feelings of sadness and depression; too depressed to care
  • Processing speed: problems thinking fluidly and quickly can impact memory for faces. A child may not encode information if he or she is an auditory learner and is not good at visual learning


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): challenges sustaining attention, distractibility, impulsivity, and at times slow processing speed that can all impact how we learn and engage with the environment
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: restricted interests or behaviors; hyper focus; challenges with social communication. Research supports the idea that individuals with autism have more difficulty recalling people’s faces; this aspect is an important consideration if your child cannot remember friends’ names or faces
  • Major Depression: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable; leads to apathy, checked-out behavior and mood; depressed individuals may forget things easily
  • Learning disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): learning problems, memory deficits, or poor cognitive efficiency may be the reason for challenges remembering faces


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist.
  • Neurologist: to look at brain-based causes for visual memory deficits if these deficits seem to be severe across multiple settings. It would be important to rule out seizures, as they could look like a lapse in memory.
  • School Psychologist: to determine learning needs based on neuropsychological profile; perhaps an IEP, 504 plan or RTI is warranted to help your child.
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to consider a child’s symptoms in a mental health and/or behavioral context

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • NEPSY: assessment of memory, attention and processing strengths and weaknesses with this measure for children provides a number of batteries including one that looks at memory for faces and other forms of visual memory (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)
  • WISC-V: assessment of intellectual abilities, which can test cognitive processing and determine what interventions may work best (Psychological, or School Psychological evaluation)
  • TOL-2, CTMT, WCST, TOVA: assessment of executive functions to determine the skills and resources a child has, like their ability to plan, organize, and attend (Neuropsychological evaluation)
  • ADOS-2: assessment of concerns socially and in executive functioning to determine whether an autism diagnosis should be considered
  • BASC-3, Clinical Interview, Brief Projective Measures: assessment of emotions through drawing tasks, open-ended questions, interviews, rating scales (Neuropsychological or psychological evaluation)


[1] Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

[2] Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.


[3] Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.


[4] Lorayne, Harry & Lucas, Jerry (2012) The Memory Book: A classic guide to improving your memory at work school and play.


[5] Grandin, Temple. (2006). Thinking in Pictures, Expanded edition: My life with autism.


[6] Higbee, Kenneth. (2008) Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it (A book about Mneumonics)

Image Credit:
Description: Young family with two daughters visiting grand parents
Image ID: #508355011 (Shutterstock)
By: Iakov Filimonov
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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