Family Narratives

Family Narratives

We all talk about past events with our families: We chat over the dinner table about day-to-day events and we also spend time reminiscing about important family events such as a vacation or the death of a relative.  Family reminiscing is a unique opportunity in which families share their past experiences together. Creating a shared history by reminiscing helps to maintain emotional bonds within a family. Children are also learning about how to conceptualize themselves within the family. Who am I? What kind of experiences have I had? How do I relate to other people? And how does my past experience help me understand who I am today? Our projects look at families across time, by examining parental reminiscing style in preschooler and early adolescence and family narratives and intergenerational narratives during adolescence.

Parental Reminiscing Style

In our research, we examine how parents and children talk about the past together.  We have found that parents differ along a dimension of elaboration, with some parents reminiscing in a highly elaborative manner, talking in great detail and including a lot of emotion and evaluation in their narratives, whereas other parents are less elaborative, including less detail and emotion in their narratives.

During preschool

During the preschool years, children are just learning how and why to reminisce about their past.  Although even infants are able to remember specific details of their experiences, over the course of the preschool years, children learn how to organize these memories into narratives that help provide a structure for understating and evaluating their past experiences, and their selves.

In these early reminiscing conversations, parents do most of the work, providing most of the information and asking their children to repeat or confirm information.  Across the preschool years, children become more competent participants in these reminiscing conversations, essentially becoming able to create a coherent narrative of their past on their own.  Importantly, children of highly elaborative mothers learn to tell stories about their own past in more detailed and coherent ways.  Intriguingly, these children also develop a more differentiated self-concept, and higher levels of emotional regulation. These patterns of results indicate that children are learning how to remember and narrate the events of their lives in family social interactions, in which autobiographical memory and self emerge.

During adolescence

During adolescence, children begin to develop a more extended sense of self, beginning to understand and construct a more overarching life story that defines who they are and who they will be. The ways in which families reminisce about their shared past helps adolescents to understand who they are both within the family and as an individual in society. Families that are more elaborative, with each family member contributing to the ongoing narrative and sharing their perspectives and opinions, have children with higher levels of self-esteem and emotional well-being. More specifically, families that are able to reminisce about highly stressful events in an emotionally expressive and explanatory fashion have children with higher levels of self-understanding and self-esteem.

Intergenerational Narratives and Family History

Families not only tell stories of their shared past, but tell stories of the more extended family, stories parents tell about their own childhood, about their parents, and their parents before them. Intriguingly, we have found that these kinds of family stories emerge even during everyday conversations across the dinner table. More importantly, families that tell more of these kinds of family history stories have adolescent children that have higher levels of self-understanding and emotional well-being.

In addition to knowing specific stories about family members, we have developed the “Do You Know…? Scale (with Dr. Marshall Duke). Also called “the 20 questions”, adolescents are asked if they know things such as where their parents and grandparents grew up, went to school, how they met, and other questions about family history. Adolescents who know more family history show higher self-esteem, lower levels of behavior problems, such as withdrawal and aggression, higher sense of self-efficacy, and a more differentiated sense of self.