Study: Teen’s knowledge of family history a sign of social-emotional health

Teenagers who know their family histories are more likely to show higher levels of social and emotional health, according to a rare study that looked at how storytelling helps families function.

Psychologists from Emory University recorded family dinner conversations to learn more about how (or how much) families shared their stories. Then they developed a “Do You Know” scale to assess how much teens knew about their family history.

They found that greater knowledge of family history — and higher scores on the Do You Know scale — were associated with a host of positive outcomes for the teens, including better measures of self-esteem, a stronger belief in their capacity to control the future, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, more resilience in the event of hardship, better academic performance and better relationships with their parents.

“One of the big tasks of adolescence is [deciding] who you want to be in the world: occupation, religion, values, what kind of person do you want to be,” said psychologist Robyn Fivush, who co-authored the study, which was published in 2009.

Family stories offer lessons that help teens shape their identities, she said.

So does that mean that studying up on family history will help your teen mature gracefully? The researchers said that it’s likely that the knowledge itself does not cause these benefits, but the fact that it reflects a cohesive family structure and systems that benefit the teens.

Curious to test your own knowledge?

Here’s the Do You Know scale that the researchers developed.

The main criterion for questions was that they had to reflect something that the teens could not have experienced or learned on their own.

The Do You Know Scale

1. Do you know how your parents met?

2. Do you know where your mother grew up?

3. Do you know where your father grew up?

4. Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?

5. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?

6. Do you know where your parents were married?

7. Do you know what went on when you were being born?

8. Do you know the source of your name?

9. Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?

10. Do you know which person in your family you look most like?

11. Do you know which person in the family you act most like?

12. Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?

13. Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?

14. Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?

15. Do you know the national background of your family (such as English, German, Russian, etc)?

16. Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?

17. Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?

18. Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?

19. Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?

20. Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

Score: Total number answered “Yes”

** The last question is meant to show that the stories families tell are not always true, according to the study’s co-author, Marshall Duke.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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