/ Dec 13, 2019

How Storytelling Helps Teens Overcome Adversity

Jordan Booker directs the Positive Youth Development Lab at the University of Missouri

He focuses on the many ways teens and young adults develop character, identity, and resilience. Among the strategies he investigates is how well individuals remember and share the stories of their lives and why the very act of storytelling is so central to an individual’s overall well-being.

In this latest Q&A, Allison Gilbert, senior writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, explores what parents need to know about teens and their ability to appreciate and share their own stories.

Jordan Booker, expert on storytelling

Allison Gilbert: You study opportunities for adolescents to better navigate adversity. One way, you believe, is by paying attention to storytelling. What do you mean?

Jordan Booker: Humans are natural storytellers. We use stories to make sense of our past and better understand who we are as individuals. We use stories to better comprehend how our experiences define us and how they set us up to work toward future goals.

From the moment we’re born, we’re surrounded by family members who share stories with us, but it takes time for us, in turn, to share our own stories well and form clear understandings about what these stories, truly and more deeply, mean. By adolescence, the time when individuals are exploring their identity, teens have more skills in place to talk about their lives in a richly detailed and coherent way. They are able to use their stories to better understand who they are as individuals. Like adults, however, adolescents differ in how they find meaning from their experiences and their ability to tie that meaning back to their lives in general. These differences can shape the way adolescents manage adversity. 

Here’s an example:

Imagine your son is having trouble with one subject of his math class. If he’s able to keep in mind the successes he’s had in other math topics (and other ways he’s overcome challenges), he’ll be more likely to frame his story in a way that reaffirms who he is (a strong scholar overall) and enables him to move forward feeling more capable.

AG: You talk about “autobiographical reminiscing.” Can you help us understand this concept as well?

JB: Autobiographical reminiscing is a specific way of using memories for storytelling. It focuses on the memories you have of concrete experiences, rather than general knowledge of world facts. This extends to fields of study where people might not be thinking explicitly about stories, but stories come into play, nonetheless. If you want to see how children and teens can express and handle emotions when they’re talking with or about their parents, one of the best ways is to have them talk about emotional experiences they’ve had.

Parents are essential for showing children how to talk about life events.

AG: Do parents play a role?

JB: Parents are incredibly important. As adults, we use stories all the time: We share stories in the living room, in the car, and before bed. We tend to surround children with stories well before they can talk, and once they are doing some early talking, we are excited to bring them into the process (“How was your day at the park?). Again, children take a lot of time before they can contribute well and keep track of details. Parents are essential for showing children how to talk about life events. 

Children need exposure to language to function in society. Children are influenced by parents’ differences in talking about life stories — for example, when parents provide more rich detail for children and are heavily engaged and responsive to children’s stories, their children will continue to show a much more elaborate approach to storytelling as they get older. 

Even more, children really do hold onto what parents share with them over time. I worked with colleagues recently who collected stories from adolescents asking them about stories related to their parents’ upbringing. These young people could give richly detailed, well-organized recollections of their parents’ childhood experiences. These stories often had important life lessons grounded in them, and adolescents usually took steps to make connections between how their parents were growing up and how adolescents viewed themselves in the present. For example, “My mom always pushed herself so hard in her sports, just like I do now,” or “My dad always liked to prank my aunt, and I do that with my brother a bit.” So, yes, parents are really important, and adolescents pay attention to what they share.

AG: Are there good times — and optimal locations — for parents to engage with teens in such specific ways?

JB: I don’t think there’s only certain “ideal” times or places for engaging in storytelling with teenagers. A lot of families already find themselves sharing stories when they’re relaxing in the living room together or shopping in the grocery store. These are great times to casually check in with adolescents. See how their day has been. Share how your day has been. Those casual approaches may feel routine, but that’s okay. It’s still important for bonding, providing a safe environment for adolescents to open up, and possibly reach out for support if something’s upsetting them. 

It’s helpful for parents to show they’re invested and appreciate hearing from their sons and daughters, maybe offering stories from their own experiences that build off of what the adolescent has just shared. By explaining how the parent experienced a similar challenge and how that problem resolved, teens learn they can get through this, too, and they are stronger than they might be feeling in the moment. 

AG: Should parents consider the way they share their stories? If so, can you offer a few examples and strategies?

JB: If you’re already receptive to talking with your child and responsive to what he or she is sharing, and you’re sharing your own relevant experiences, I think you’re already doing a lot of good. If you find that it’s hard to talk in great detail or you feel uncomfortable with the emotions your teen is sharing, both would be helpful to address.

Further, when parents are supportive of children’s emotions, even if they are emotions about feeling frustrated or scared about an experience, it is helpful to acknowledge these feelings and walk the child through the negative experience further. You may want to ask, “Why did you feel that way?” or “How will you manage if it happens again?”

AG: What’s next for you in this line of research?

JB: One of the bigger lines of research for us right now is looking more closely at how adolescents and their moms reminisce about their shared experiences over time, and how that interaction helps us understand topics like identity and well-being. We’re hoping to see ways mothers continue to be influential sources of insight and feedback for their growing teens, as well as ways older adolescents (who are a bit more influential in the parent-child relationship) might be shaping mothers’ behaviors as well. We also hope to extend our focus to fathers once we have a good foundation with this work.

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