Young people participating in Professor Elaine Reese’s research enter a room at the University of Otago that has couches, magazines, and large stuffed animals. It’s definitely not a sterile office.
“Even though we call this a lab, it’s in an old villa, it’s in a house. So it’s not hard to make it feel homey,” says Elaine (left). “We consciously leave it a little bit messy, to help them feel a little but more at home.”
Elaine and her team want adolescents who enter the lab to feel comfortable enough to divulge their life stories and the turning points they've experienced to the interviewers.
“The main thing is that our interviewers are very, very good listeners and very supportive listeners and they let the teenagers know that anything they say in this room is going to be confidential,” Elaine told Ruth Beran.
Life stories give an indication of a person’s identity. Adolescents in particular are trying to work out who they are and how they are unique.
“Nobody has the same life story that I have, and so we do think that it tells us something special or unique about each one of the teenagers or children who are in our study,” says Elaine, author of the book Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World.
In particular, Elaine is looking at the highs and lows, and the turning points in the young people’s lives, getting them to describe what has changed them as a person and why. The emphasis is on the young person’s perspective, and whether they can see how the events in their lives have shaped who they are becoming.
The ability of teenagers to see the “silver lining” in an event, rather than the storm clouds, is a reflection of their psychological well-being.
“We think it probably has its origins in the way parents are talking to very young children throughout their lives about negative events and difficult events,” says Elaine.
However, it seems that 12 and 13-year old boys who are telling the most coherent stories appear to be having the highest rates of depression, which is still a bit of a mystery to Elaine and her team. It may be that the cognitive processing of the event is beyond their emotional level and they’re not able to fully integrate it and to pull out the positive aspects.
“In a sense, they’re over analysing,” says Elaine, and they’re ruminating without necessarily coming to a resolution.
This rumination will be the focus of future research for Elaine’s group to try and prevent depression in teenagers, as well as working with parents to increase dialogue with their children to see if putting a positive spin on life events helps depression too.