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Why Sharing Stories of the Pandemic Is Good for Us

Parents can help their children understand and resolve emotional experiences.

Key points

  • People feel isolated and anxious about the pandemic; talking with others about these feelings can help.
  • Children whose parents endorse a more avoidant communication style subsequently show greater emotional difficulties.
  • Children whose parents reminisce in more coherent elaborative ways show higher well-being and self-esteem even decades later.

I have spent the last three days “attending” what I hope to be my one and only online academic conference, the biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Memory and Cognition, my favorite professional organization. As much as I enjoyed hearing about all the new research findings, I found myself yearning for actual social interactions, wanting to chat with my colleagues about their findings, what they mean, how to interpret them. Indeed, we learn through social interactions, through sharing our experiences with others. And that is one of the major themes that emerged from the various talks that I attended this week: Communicating about COVID is essential for all of us, and maybe especially for our children, to understand and cope with these challenging experiences.

My colleague Kathy Pezdak presented data on a study examining themes emerging from older adults' journals during the pandemic. The themes that emerged were not all that surprising – isolation and a lack of motivation, pandemic worry, anxiety about control and about the future, and through all it, trying to stay positive and achieve some normalcy. What is surprising is that these are the very same themes we see emerging in college students’ narratives about their experiences of the pandemic in a study I am conducting with my colleagues Monisha Pasupathi and Cecelia Wainryb at the University of Utah, Jordan Booker at the University of Missouri, Andrea Follmer Greenhoot at the University of Kansas, and Kate McLean at Western Washington University.

We have been following students who were college freshmen when the shutdown began and have now completed their sophomore year. Mikayla Ell, a graduate student at the University of Missouri working on the project with us, reports that the major themes emerging from 18-year-olds' narratives are social isolation, anxiety about academics and the future, lack of motivation, and trying to create routines and normalcy.

We are all experiencing the pandemic in similar ways across generations. Does the fact that we are experiencing and expressing so much anxiety mean that we should not talk about it to each other? More especially, does it mean that parents should try to “shield” their children from this stress and simply not talk about pandemic worry? The answer is absolutely not.

Research from The Family Narratives Lab, which I direct, has found that parentally guided reminiscing about stressful and challenging events helps children understand and cope with difficult emotional experiences. New research findings from the Growing Up New Zealand study confirm and extend these findings. Growing Up New Zealand is an amazing longitudinal study of 6000 children growing up in New Zealand beginning at birth. Elaine Reese and Amy Bird asked the mothers and children, now age 8, to reminisce about a negative event, a time that they had a conflict with someone or were disappointed. Parents who engaged in the reminiscing conversations in more elaborative ways, asking more open-ended questions (e.g., What happened then? What else do you remember?) had children with fewer emotional problems and better prosocial skills, skills like empathy and perspective-taking. More specifically, parents who guided their children to a resolution of the challenging experience had children with fewer externalizing behaviors (anger, aggression) and lower depression scores. So parents who help their children to coherently structure, understand, and resolve difficult emotional experiences help their children build positive skills and experience fewer emotional problems.

But what about talk specifically about the pandemic? Is this too stressful as it is still ongoing? My colleague Lindsay Malloy reported a study with almost 1400 U.S. and Canadian parents, first responding to an online survey just weeks after lockdown and then again 6 months later. Parents who reported a more avoidant, less elaborative communication style at the first time point, who did not think it was a good idea to talk about the pandemic or to bring up feelings of anxiety or fear in conversations with their children, had children who, 6 months later, were showing higher levels of anxiety and internalizing (depression, withdrawal) and externalizing problems than children of parents with an active communication style. Children’s earlier emotional problems did not predict parental communication style, so it is not that children who are highly emotional solicit more avoidant communication from their parents, but the direction seems to be that a more avoidant communication style can lead to problems.

Does this mean that parents who have an avoidant style are dooming their children? Again a resounding no: In yet another longitudinal research study, Elaine Reese’s lab has been following families for over 20 years. They demonstrated that mothers can easily be taught to be more elaborative in their reminiscing style. Mothers were randomly assigned to one of two groups when their children were about 2 years old. Half of the mothers were taught to be more elaborative when reminiscing, with quite a light touch. They were simply asked to:

  • Praise your child’s responses.
  • Follow in on your child’s responses with related questions.
  • If your child doesn’t respond, rephrase your questions with new information.
  • Keep it fun!

These simple instructions led to mothers becoming more elaborative in their reminiscing, and this effect held as families continued to be assessed over the next couple of years. Here’s the real kicker: Now the children in this study are 21 years old, and the children of the mothers who had been trained to be more elaborative almost 20 years earlier now had more coherent memories of their own experiences. Even more interesting, higher levels of maternal elaborative reminiscing during toddlerhood predicted these young adult’s current well-being: They had higher self-esteem, higher sense of well-being, and lower depression. We knew from much of the work in The Family Narratives Lab and elsewhere that more coherent autobiographical memories are good for us – but that a simple intervention in early childhood that helps mothers become more elaborative has such long-term effects is remarkable.

So, what does all this tell us? Clearly, we crave social interaction and lament the isolation the pandemic has caused, and we worry about the future. But talking with others about it helps. Children especially may need the guided structure of parents to help them create a narrative that is more detailed, more coherent, and has some resolutions. What I learned in my hopefully one and only online conference experience is that we need to talk to each other, to our families, and to our children about what we are experiencing in order to process and cope with the challenges all of us are facing.