Who says teenagers don’t talk? I can assure you that they do, at least when you seat them on a sofa across from an interested and patient interviewer who hangs on their every word. They talk – oh yes, they talk. In our research on teens’ life stories, we have some 50-page transcripts of teens talking about their lives.
What do they tell us? Quite a lot.
Certainly it is not the unedited version that they share with their friends, but their life stories are of real events that shoot to the centre of what it means to exist in this world: breaking up from one’s first love; hurting a close friend or being hurt by one; even losing a parent. They tell us these stories with unflinching honesty because they need to share them. And it turns out that the way they tell their life stories is intimately linked with their wellbeing.
In our research, we have asked hundreds of 12- to 21-year-olds to tell us their life stories and to report on their wellbeing. By the time they are older teens and young adults (from about 16 years and up), we are finding that when
they tell more coherent stories about their lives, they report higher life satisfaction and self-esteem, and even lower levels of depressive symptoms. Learning lessons from life events, and drawing causal connections between life events and self are key: “I lost my best friend after I was mean to her, but it has made a kinder person because now I know I cannot treat people like that.”
We find these links between narrative and wellbeing even after we account for other important factors such as their personality traits and family background. Here is an anonymised excerpt from an older teen’s narrative about a turning point in her life, the breakdown of her first relationship:
I, like it was like my first time love and I’d been obsessed of him for like two years, like two years straight, and then like ahhh, he finally wanted to go out with me and I’m like yeah, and then it just all crashed, and then I just had to learn that I couldn’t, like you just have to get over things. And it just totally made me a stronger person like I wasn’t dependent on him and then I realized that there was bigger things than like, like all the little relationships, like there’s bigger things than relationships.”
To our surprise, younger teens showed the reverse pattern, with more coherent narratives linked to lower wellbeing. We are working to figure out why, but we think it is because they still need help from parents and other adults to make sense of difficult life events in a way that has positive spinoffs for their self-concept.
Instead of thinking “Why has this terrible event happened to me? I must deserve it”, they need help from an adult to turn it around to “Terrible things happen sometimes for no particular reason; what can I learn from this event that will make me stronger?” In contrast, the older teen above was able to learn from a difficult life event and to grow from it.
Of course, we don’t know from these studies that telling more coherent life stories leads to young people’s wellbeing, or if it’s simply that those who feel better in general are in a better position to present their life stories in a clear and logical way. We would love to extend this work into the clinical realm to see whether helping teens to view their lives in more coherent ways helps them to feel better about themselves—a kind of life story therapy, as it were.
But what we do know from other longitudinal studies we’ve done, starting in early childhood, is that parents of children and pre-teens can give their future teens a boost by helping them to fully explore and understand difficult life events before the stakes get so high, talking for instance about the loss of a favourite toy, a fight with a friend, the death of a cherished pet.
Learning to cope with conflict and loss is a lifelong struggle for most of us. We can’t expect our teens to get it straight off the starting block – they still need our help, as vehemently as they tell us otherwise. So if you are a parent of a teen, wait patiently in the wings, and be ready with some gentle help for them in making those crucial connections in a positive way. You never know when they will want to tell you their tales.
Professor Elaine Reese is a lecturer and researcher in the Psychology Department at the University of Otago, New Zealand. She is also affiliated with the Growing Up in New Zealand study. Her research focuses on the role of social and cultural factors in children’s and adolescents’ development. She is particularly interested in the way adults talk with children about memories and the impact this has on children’s and adolescents’ identity and wellbeing. Her book for parents, Tell me a story: Sharing stories to enrich your child’s world (Oxford, 2013), gives practical advice to parents on positive ways to converse with children and adolescents.
- Reese, E., Myftari, E., Chen, Y., McAnally, H., Neha, T., Wang, Q., Jack, F., & Robertson, S-J. (2017). Telling the tale and living well: Adolescent narrative identity, personality traits, and well-being across cultures. Child Development, 88, 612-628.
- Reese, E. (December 9, 2013). What kids learn from hearing family stories. TheAtlantic.com.
- Reese, E., & Newcombe, R. (2007). Training mothers in elaborative reminiscing enhances children’s autobiographical memory and narrative. Child Development, 78, 1153-1170.