An Unprecedented Parenting Opportunity Is Slipping Away
Journaling can help kids build resilience. Now is the perfect time to start.
Posted Jun 02, 2020
I proudly proclaim that I speak fluent Teenager. I thought I was really good at getting into the pre-teen and teenage mindsets. Then I had an eye-opening experience. I found my sixth-grade journal.
Reading about incidents that I once passionately cared about, and are now forgotten, I got some major insight into the lived experience of being a sixth-grader. I forgot how intensely I felt things back then, how it felt to be the youngest sister, what it was like to be a shy, bookish nerd. I forgot how devastating it was when my best friend didn’t pick me to be her trip partner, and how elated I was when my favorite teacher told me my short story showed my promise as a writer. Mostly, I forgot just how uncomfortable I was in my skin back then.
To Read, Or Not To Read: That Is The Question:
I vividly remember one incident that I wrote about in my journal. My mother, herself a mental health professional, asked if she could read my journal. We made a deal—I would tape together the pages that I deemed “private,” mark the pages I specifically wanted her to read, and she would only read those pages. I remember feeling supported and understood—that she wanted to read it, and that she would respect my privacy and not open the taped-up pages. She showed me how to sign the edges of the masking tape, so that I would know if someone had opened it.
I don’t recall the conversations we had after she read the selections from my journal, but I’m sure she helped me gain some insight into the things I wrote about. When I was reading my journal, I had this curious sense of double vision. Child me felt the injustice of teacher favoritism, the mingled envy, scorn, and pain of being rejected by the “cute kids,” and saw the world in black and white absolutes. Adult me wants to alternatively shake and hug child me. I want to say “It’s OK to be quieter. It’s OK if the cute girls get all the attention. The smart girls have their day in adulthood. You won’t always feel this uncomfortable in your own skin.” And I also want to shake child me—even as I wrote a story with my own viewpoint, it’s clear when I was being inflexible and unfair. I can see times I didn’t see my parents as independent entities, with their own rights and reality. I can see times I was hopelessly self-centered, overly reactive, and naïve. In other words, I was a 12-year-old girl.
Reading a child’s journal without their permission is obviously wrong on many levels. (For more on honesty with children, click here, here, and here.) Asking a child if she’d like to share a particular journal entry, at any time, by photocopying or printing out those pages, is an entirely different experience. In that case, the child is giving you insight into her autobiographical self. It’s different than hearing a story as it happens. The act of writing creates some distance and perspective, and its that distance and perspective that helps us start to engage with the child’s future adult self. It’s a startling but fascinating experience.
Constructing the Autobiographical Self: The Flashlight Metaphor
As restrictions begin to ease, and the end may be in sight (perhaps?) it’s important to encourage our children to journal their experiences. In narrative therapy, we talk about re-authoring a story. By retelling a story in a narrative form, we can start to feel a sense of distance, perspective, and control. It allows us to emphasize certain aspects of the narrative, to notice times of resilience and coping, and to think about the aspects of the experience that helped us grow.
To use a metaphor from acceptance and commitment therapy, our attention is like a flashlight in a darkened room. While it’s true that we can only see the things that are directly in the path of the beam, we are the ones holding the flashlight, and we get to direct the beam. Journaling helps children with this process. The instant we write down an experience is the instant we choose which details to emphasize and which to leave out, which aspects of a story to highlight, and which aspects don’t add anything to the narrative.
Writing a story down also allows us to gain some distance and perspective. There’s a lot of research about using third-person language in self-talk as a way to help us gain more self-control. If I want to gain some control over an automatic or instinctive process, such as mindless snacking, simply writing about how “Robyn” will handle her temptations will help me gain a greater level of self-control. In ACT, the autobiographical self is called the observing self, and understanding that there is a difference between the experiencing self and the observing self is a therapeutic goal. I think it should also be a goal for parenting. Journaling is one way to achieve that goal.
But My Kid Chronicles His Life On Social Media: How Is a Journal Different?
Writing a journal down, or recording a video journal, is entirely different than social media posting. It’s true, our children are used to documenting their lives via social media, and that can serve as a record of their attitudes and experiences as the time. But the public nature of social media posting automatically creates a self-censorship effect. It’s more social than media, and it’s about communicating your public face to your peer world. Journaling is internal. It’s about chronicling what’s important to you, and what you think about it, and its meant for your own eyes. Journaling may be the first time a child engages in internal dialogue, and it may be the first time a child re-reads her own experiences a few days or weeks later, and sees how time changes our perspective. The self we portray on social media is our performative or aspirational self. That’s not the self that journaling helps us access.
Teaching our children to write down their experiences helps them understand that there is a difference between the experiencing self and the autobiographical self. It’s not so much what happens, as what we make of it. Writing about their daily lives during an interesting time will not only allow them to chronicle what’s happening. It will also allow them to experience how our perspectives change over time. Reading what we’ve written in a “hot” and activated state while we’re in a “cold” or calm state also gives us insight into what our “hot” selves are like. This can help us undo the “hot/cold” empathy gap, and allow us to develop more control during hot states.
Unprecedented Opportunity of Covid-19
Our children have an extraordinary opportunity right now. They are living through history in a way that few previous generations have. We’ve been through some major events in this country, but none have completely pervaded the lives of every single citizen the way COVID-19 has. Even 9/11 didn’t cause the kind of wholesale shutdown of the entire country that we are living through.
Right now, our children are less busy and occupied than they have been in the recent past. There are no organized sports, no school bus to catch, no mall to hang out in. Even as restrictions gradually ease, the demands on their time will increase only slowly. This is a perfect time to instill the journaling habit in our children.
Writing about their recent experiences with corona will help children process what happened, allow them to record what it felt like, and help preserve those reactions for posterity. It will also allow them to access their autobiographical self, and begin to understand that while we can’t control events, we can control what we make of them. It will also allow them to provide their future selves with an unbelievably precious gift, the gift of meeting their former selves. Who knows? They may one day find those journals and attain insight into their own children’s’ lived experience during a traumatic time. (For more on helping our kids hack their challenges into superpowers, click here.)
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020.
Fivush, Robyn. (2019). Family Narratives and the Development of an Autobiographical Self: Social and Cultural Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory. 10.4324/9780429029158.
McAdams, D. P. (2008). Personal narratives and the life story in John, O., Robins, R., & Pervin, L. A., Handbook of personality: Theory and research (pp. 241-261). Guilford Press.
Zettle, R. (2016). The self in acceptance and commitment therapy. In A. Beck (Author) & M. Kyrios, R. Moulding, G. Doron, S. Bhar, M. Nedeljkovic, & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), The Self in Understanding and Treating Psychological Disorders (pp. 50-58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139941297.007