I admit it — I am a “Dear Abby” addict. After reading the often-difficult news every morning, I relax over my second cup of coffee with Abby’s advice.  As most of you know, her readers ask questions about everything, ranging from etiquette to deep psychological problems, and I always find Abby’s advice down to earth.  This morning, a reader wrote with a very difficult question.  This mother had experienced sexual violence as a teenager: At a party where she admittedly had drunk too much, she was forced into unwanted sexual activity.  As a result of this experience, she suffered serious psychological difficulties, including poor grades and eating disorders.  Her two daughters are now teenagers and beginning to go to parties, and the mother asks Abby if she should share this very difficult story with her daughters to help them understand the dangers of teenage drinking.

As a college professor, this question also hit home because I am only too well aware of the issues surrounding drinking and sexual violence on college campuses. The statistics vary widely, but estimates are that 25 percent of college women experience unwanted sexual activity, and much of this occurs during the first semester of the freshman year during parties that include lots of alcohol and drugs.  Freshman are obviously most vulnerable as they face increased freedom and autonomous decision making in the move from home to dorm.  Parents send their children to college with great joy and great trepidation for exactly this reason.  But how might parents help protect their children from experiencing the worst of unwanted experiences, sexual violence, heavy drinking and partying, sometimes spiraling down into enduring negative consequences?

Research from the Family Narratives Lab suggests that when parents share stories of their own teenage vulnerabilities and transgressions, it helps their adolescent and young adult children in multiple ways.  Shared stories of positive experiences of achievement and pride are certainly important as models of effort and triumph, but stories of difficult, challenging experiences are also important as models of overcoming adversity and building reliance.  And then there are stories of great vulnerability and horrible experiences.  These are the stories that parents often struggle with whether to tell or not. 

We asked adolescent and young adult students to tell us stories they know about their parents, both mothers and fathers, of times when they transgressed, when they did something wrong, or hurt someone, and/or felt guilty or regretful.  Almost all of the students we asked could tell us these kinds of stories, so parents are telling them—and adolescents are listening and hearing.  More important, adolescents who made links to themselves in these stories, who explicitly said they learned something about themselves, or that they learned a valuable lesson from the stories, had higher levels of self-esteem and a higher sense of autonomy, purpose and meaning in life.  Most interesting, stories about parents played more of a role in building this kind of self-esteem than stories about the self.  That is, adolescents and young adults are able to take stories about their parents as life lessons more so than their own experiences!  This may not be all that surprising—after all, they are still processing their own experiences, whereas the stories their parents tell them are already formulated, and, of course, told by important role models.

So, should you tell your adolescent and young adult children about your own difficult, transgressive experiences?  Yes, but carefully.  Here are some guidelines to help you do this in ways that will help build your child’s resilience:

  1. Be developmentally appropriate.  Certain stories should not be told to young children.  Wait until your child is facing similar developmental challenges.  We have found that adolescents find the stories the parents tell them about the parents’ adolescent experiences to be the most valuable for the child; similarly, college students are most likely to tell stories they know about when their parents were in college. 
  2. Find the right time.  Family stories are told often and mostly in casual everyday conversations.  But stories about particularly difficult experiences may need a different kind of telling context, when there is enough quiet time to reflect on the experience. 
  3. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.  In telling your child about difficult experiences the goal may not be to demonstrate how strong and brave you are—showing your vulnerabilities, your doubts, and your difficulties can allow space for your children to share their problems with you more openly and honestly.
  4. Choose your stories carefully.  When sharing our deepest vulnerabilities, it is important to put them in a larger life context.  Choose to tell stories about events that you have been able to process and resolve. Try to focus on lessons learned, relationships strengthened.  Hopefully something good came of working through this challenge.  This is the kind of story that helps build resilience in children. 
  5. Stories may take time.  Especially difficult stories.  If your child cannot respond to the story when you first tell it, don't push it.  Allow your child to process, come back to the story when appropriate and be open to allowing your child to revisit the story with you. 

And remember, in sharing your vulnerabilities and difficult life stories with your adolescent and young adult children, you are also strengthening your relationship with them.  As research by McLean and Morrison-Cohen has shown, sharing stories of vulnerability helps mothers and children to create a more nuanced and complex understanding of each other, one that will help build a healthy parent-adult child relationship. And, of course, do not forget to tell the good stories too!  Building connections through telling of positive experiences with love and humor is always important.

References

Coker, A. L., Follingstad, D. R., Bush, H. M., & Fisher, B. S. (2016). Are interpersonal violence rates higher among young women in college compared with those never attending college?. Journal of interpersonal violence, 31(8), 1413-1429.

Merrill, N., Srinivas, E., & Fivush, R. (2017). Personal and intergenerational narratives of transgression and pride in emerging adulthood: Links to gender and well‐being. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 31(2), 119-127.

McLean, K. C., & Morrison-Cohen, S. (2013). Moms telling tales: maternal identity development in conversations with their adolescents about the personal past. Identity, 13(2), 120-139.

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