Inside Out was on to something. A new study has found that conversing with your kids about the past and talking about family memories is an effective way to fight against teenage depression and anxiety.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Otago in New Zealand and published in the Journal of Personality in March, is based on a simple concept: that talking about the past gives kids the skills to process future life events and emotions.
Here’s how it worked: 115 moms were taught “elaborative reminiscing” — an open and conversational approach to recalling everyday events with their toddlers, like a visit to grandma’s house or a walk in the park. They used their new skills to talk with their kids, and researchers measured their progress over the years.
The result? Teens that grew up reminiscing with their mom about family events reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
"Our findings suggest that brief coaching sessions with parents early in children's lives can have long-lasting benefits, both for the way adolescents process and talk about difficult life events and for their well-being," project leader and psychology professor Elaine Reese told Science Daily.
Not only did teens who often talked about memories tend to be less depressed and anxious, they also had much better tools for dealing with difficult life events, tragedies, and challenges.
Reese says that kids who reminisced with their moms were better able to reflect on and talk about tough topics in their lives like parental divorce or school bullying — to analyze their emotions, understand the events, and gain insight into how such moments impact their lives as a whole.
"We believe parents' elaborative reminiscing helps children develop more complete, specific, and accurate memories of their experiences, providing a richer store of memories to use when forming their identities in adolescence,” Reese said. “Elaborative reminiscing also teaches children how to have open discussions about past feelings when they're no longer in the heat of the moment."
Elaborative reminiscing is super easy to learn, and chances are that you already do some of it as a parent. It just involves regularly reliving memories in great detail with your kid, making sure to use all your senses to create a rich scene (even if you’re just talking about a trip to the grocery store). Asking kids questions so that they can participate in the recollection is key, like, “What did the gorilla look like at the zoo? How do you think the gorilla felt? What was the gorilla’s name? How did it smell?”
"As a parent of a toddler myself, I can confirm that these elaborative reminiscing techniques are enjoyable and easy to learn. Our study helps pave the way for future work with parents of young children to promote healthy interactions from the beginning that could have enduring benefits," Dr. Claire Mitchell, the study’s lead author, told Science Daily.
The study will continue into the future, where researchers will follow the teens from the study into adulthood. Mitchell hopes that their findings continue to help prevent mental health difficulties by giving more people tools to understand their experiences and feelings.