Emerging Identities: Narrative and Self from
Early Childhood to Early Adolescence
Elaine Reese, Chen Yan, Fiona Jack, and Harlene Hayne
You know when you were younger how everything seems so like
happy and stuff? (Uh huh) You kind of wake up.
(11-year old telling a researcher about a life-changing event)
This chapter is about when and how we begin to draw meaning from important
events in our lives. Although children may indeed “wake up” to a new level of self-
reﬂection in adolescence, we will argue that these newfound realizations are built
upon experiences and capacities that have been developing from early childhood.
We will also propose that the ability to draw meaning from life events is present
much earlier in development than previously assumed, at the very latest by early
adolescence, and possibly even earlier.
Our approach to self-understanding is grounded in narrative. A primary way that
we learn about ourselves is through the stories that we tell to others about ourselves
and through the stories that we hear about ourselves from others (McAdams, 1993,
2006; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007; Singer, 1995). Eventually, these stories
about self coalesce into a life story. We deﬁne a life story as a dynamic collec-
tion of self-deﬁning memories that are in narrative form and that can be organized
with respect to major lifetime periods (see Conway, Singer, & Tagini, 2004). Thus,
a deﬁnitive life story does not exist for any individual. Rather, we reorganize the
chapters in our stories throughout our lives, and we select different events to include
in those chapters depending upon our audience and our current perspectives (Linde,
1993; McAdams et al., 2006).
At what point in development is it possible to “have” (and to tell) a life story? If
we adopt a dynamic view, we never really “get” a life story; instead, we are always
in the process of revision. Although Habermas and Bluck (2000) originally argued
that true life stories are not possible before mid-adolescence, at around age 15,
there has actually been a dearth of research on life stories in preadolescent samples.
Although there have been prior attempts to elicit life stories from preadolescents,
E. Reese (B)
Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 9054
K.C. McLean, M. Pasupathi, (eds.), Narrative Development in Adolescence,
Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-89825-4_2,
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
24 E. Reese et al.
children failed to respond to the researcher’s prompts or they narrated individual or
generalized events, not a story of their whole life (e.g., Engel, 1999).
Habermas and de Silveira (in press) recently overcame some of the obstacles in
prior research and successfully elicited life stories from children as young as 8. In
the largest and most systematic study of life story development to date, they asked
over 100 German 8–20-year olds to tell the story of their whole life to a researcher
after ﬁrst writing down 7 important life events. Using this structured procedure,
even the 8-year olds were able to tell a life story. Furthermore, Habermas and de
Silveira also found that the life story developed in several important ways from mid-
dle childhood to early adulthood. First, and perhaps not surprisingly, the length of
participants’ life stories increased in a linear fashion with age, so all content analyses
were conducted on the proportion of different elements that participants of different
ages included in their life stories. One of the most striking qualitative changes with
development occurred in the participants’ inclusion in their life stories of causal
connections between distant past events and their current personality. Only 20% of
the 8-year olds ever made these connections in their life stories, but over 75% of the
12- to 20-year olds made these connections, which seem vital in drawing meaning
from life events for self. Another critical development in the life story was the inclu-
sion of “biographical arguments.” Biographical arguments comprise insights about
life events and attributing one’s behavior to characteristics such as one’s youth or
prior experiences. There was a dramatic development in the appearance of these bio-
graphical arguments in t he life story between 12 and 16 years. Other aspects of the
life story continued to develop even beyond age 16, including causal connections
to distant life events, statements of formative experiences, and complex cognitive
reasoning. Finally, overall coherence of the life story developed in a linear pattern
from 8 to 20 years.
Habermas and de Silveira’s (in press) data provide important new evidence about
the development of the life story from middle childhood to adulthood. Clearly,
the life story is developing in both quantitative and qualitative ways across these
ages. Instead of conceiving of the life story as present at mid-adolescence, and
absent before that age (Habermas & Bluck, 2000), we agree that Habermas and de
Silveira’s new developmental approach is a more productive way of understanding
the life story. In fact, we propose that the developmental precursors to the life story
have been emerging from early childhood, when parents and children create nar-
ratives together about children’s early experiences (c.f. Baddeley & Singer, 2007).
The most illuminating approach will be to track the development of these seeds of
the life story as they grow into its fullest form.
The purpose of this chapter is twofold: First, we review likely precursors of the
life story that arise from parent–child interactions in early childhood, and we present
new longitudinal evidence linking young adolescents’ narratives about early mem-
ories to mother–child reminiscing in early childhood. Second, we present a new
method of assessing the life story in 8–12-year olds. This new method, which we call
the Emerging Life Story Interview (ELSI), is adapted from McAdams’ Life Story
Interview (1995) and is aimed at exploring how children and adolescents begin to
organize their life stories and draw meaning from life events. We then present new
evidence that emerging life story abilities are related to the self-concept in early
Emerging Identities 25
adolescence. In research with adults, coherence and level of insight in life stories
are linked to identity formation (McLean & Pratt, 2006), personality traits (Blagov
& Singer, 2004; McAdams et al., 2004), and well-being (Baerger & McAdams,
1999; Bauer, McAdams, & Sakaeda, 2005). Drawing upon our knowledge of the
development of personal narratives and self from early childhood, we hypothesize
that these links between the life story and self-concept may already be present in
The Development of Personal Narratives from Early Childhood
Personal narratives begin almost as soon as children begin to talk, in the second year
of life, when they reference personally experienced past events (Fenson et al., 1993;
Reese, 1999). These early references to the past usually consist of one- or two-word
utterances. For instance, one 18-month old said “Hand. Door.” while showing his
uncle his ﬁnger that he had pinched in a door 6 days earlier (Reese, 1999, p. 233).
Children’s early talk about the past is already emotional and evaluative (Miller &
Sperry, 1988) and in this sense it already contains the seeds of meaning making or
what Fivush (2001) called a “subjective perspective.” Children do get more com-
petent at telling a coherent story about a past event such that by age 3.5, they can
narrate a simple story about a single event from the past to a naïve listener. Their
past-event narratives continue to get more sophisticated, and more interesting, into
middle childhood and early adolescence (Fivush, Haden, & Adam, 1995; Peterson
& McCabe, 1983; see Reese et al., 2009 for a review).
Parents, and especially primary caregiver mothers, provide critical support for
children’s personal narratives and their ability to draw meaning from those events
over the early childhood period. Mothers who structure conversations about the past
in a highly elaborative and evaluative fashion help their children to tell richer and
more evaluative narratives about the past (see Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006 for a
review). These past-event discussions are not just about what happened, but about
the meaning of the event for both participants. For instance, mothers who provided
their 3-year-old children with more evaluative information about past events, such
as emotional states (you were sad) and subjective judgments (you looked pretty),
had children who went on to include more evaluative information in their personal
narratives to a researcher by age 5 (Haden, Haine, & Fivush, 1997).
Just as McAdams (1996) predicted in his initial hypotheses about the origins of
the life story, these qualitative differences in the evaluative aspect of early child-
hood reminiscing are grounded in the attachment relationship between child and
mother (Fivush & Vasudeva, 2002; Newcombe & Reese, 2004; Reese & Farrant,
2003; for reviews see Reese, Newcombe, & Bird, 2006; Laible, 2004). Children
who are securely attached to their mothers experience an early reminiscing envi-
ronment that is more evaluative, although not necessarily richer in orienting devices
to the where, when, and who of the past (Newcombe & Reese, 2004). Most criti-
cally, only securely attached children internalize their mothers’ evaluative style of
reminiscing by the end of the early childhood period. In Newcombe and Reese’s
26 E. Reese et al.
longitudinal analysis from ages 1.5–4 years, there were no reciprocal links across
time in the evaluative reminiscing of insecurely attached children and their mothers.
In these dyads, the child’s level of evaluative reminiscing was not a function of the
mother’s level of evaluation. The contrast in the amount and quality of evaluative
talk in dyads with securely attached and insecurely attached children is evident in the
following examples. The ﬁrst excerpt is from a conversation between a mother and
her securely attached child about a bird dying in the backyard. Evaluative comments
M: Do you remember what happened last, a couple of days ago, when you were
playing in the sandpit?
M: Do you remember what happened to the bird?
C: What? Yes, it (unintelligible) it died.
M: It died, didn’t it? Well, how did it die?
C: Because it hurt itself.
M: How did it hurt itself?
C: It ﬂew past it.
M: It ﬂew past it.
C: You, and it hit it. [break in conversation] ....
M: How did it hurt itself?
C: Because it, um, it, it hit meself on the nose.
M: Yeah. It ﬂew into the window, didn’t it? And it got hurt. And then what did
C: Bury it.
M: We buried it.
C: I li-, I don’t like burying things.
M: No, it was a bit sad, wasn’t it?
C: I don’t care if it’s sad, because I hate birds.
M: You were a bit upset, weren’t you?
C: No, I wasn’t.
M: But then you decided you weren’t upset. Cos it was a bit much.
C: No, I was only sad upset because I didn’t want to um, put my red ﬂower in
the little place.
M: It was nice that you gave him a ﬂower though.
The mother ﬁrst takes the child through the whole event and then highlights its
emotional aspects. The child and mother at ﬁrst disagree about the emotions the
child experienced during the event, but by the end the mother accepts the child’s
interpretation that she was primarily upset about putting a ﬂower on the bird’s grave,
not about the bird’s death. In contrast, the following excerpt from a mother and her
Emerging Identities 27
insecurely attached child is almost curiously devoid of emotion, although the event
(watching a bull being slaughtered) is potentially upsetting for the child.
M: Tell me, t ell me about the tractor the other day. What did Daddy use the
tractor for at, at the Galloway’s?
Can you remember that?
M: Why did Daddy take the t ractor up to Galloway’s?
M: Can you remember why?
M: What had he, what had, what had Paul Galloway done?
.... [off topic talk]
M: What did yo-, what did Daddy do with Paul? With the tractor?
C: He, he putted the big, big bulls on the thing.
M: And what did Paul do with them?
C: He was cutting the guts out.
M: He was cutting the guts out was he?
M: Yeah. Can you remember that?
M: And did, what did they do with it?
C: Um, I don’t know.
M: Where, what did Daddy do with it?
M: He took a tractor down, and what did he do with the big bull?
C: They, he put, he hooked them up on the thing.
M: What thing?
C: On the, um, trees.
M: Yeah. [break in conversation]...Yeah, what took, and, and, and what did,
and what did Daddy use?
C: I don’t know.
M: And what did Galloway use? Galloway used a big, big? (pause). What did
he use? What did he use to get the guts out?
C: I don’t know!
C: Yes. No.
M: What did he use?
C: I don’t know!
M: Did he use a spoon?
M: You didn’t see him use a big? (pause) Knife. You didn’t see him use a big
All names in conversational excerpts are pseudonyms.
28 E. Reese et al.
The mother in this excerpt goes into great detail about the tool used to remove
the bull’s guts, complete with a disturbing dinnertime analogy, but she does not
explore any emotional or evaluative aspects of the event with the child. Reese (2008)
found that mothers who were less elaborative and conﬁrming in their reminiscing
style with their children were also less coherent in the Adult Attachment Interview
(AAI). Coherence in the AAI is a marker of parents’ insecure orientation with
respect to their own early childhood experiences. Parents who were more secure
and coherent with respect to their own early childhood instead talked more openly
and elaboratively with their children about the child’s early experiences.
Mothers can, however, be trained to reminisce in more elaborative and evaluative
ways with their preschoolers, and their children go on to provide richer narratives
of their lives with others (Peterson, Jesso, & McCabe, 1999). Reese and Newcombe
(2007) trained one group of mothers to adopt a more elaborative reminiscing style
with their toddlers. Although parents were not speciﬁcally trained to become more
evaluative in their reminiscing, they generalized the training such that by the time
their children were preschoolers, the trained mothers were also more evaluative in
their reminiscing in comparison to a group of untrained mothers. At age 2.5, after 1
year of intervention, children of the trained mothers included more memory infor-
mation in their conversations with mothers about the past compared to children of
untrained mothers. At age 3.5, children of trained mothers told richer and more
accurate stories of the past to a researcher compared to children of untrained moth-
ers, but only if the children had started the study with more advanced levels of
self-awareness. Thus, maternal talk about the past can enhance children’s personal
narratives, but these effects may depend upon the social-cognitive levels of the child.
Children who have a ﬁrmer sense of self may be better able to incorporate their
mothers’ talk into their own personal narratives. Thus, self-concept, life-event narra-
tives, and the child’s early narrative environment are all linked from early childhood
(see McLean et al., 2007; Reese, 2002).
By the beginning of the school years, children have developed a style of dis-
cussing personal narratives about individual events (Haden et al., 1997; Reese,
Haden & Fivush, 1993). At this age in many cultures, children are telling personal
narratives using a classic high-point structure, in which a series of complicating
actions build to a high point, which is evaluated and then resolved. For instance,
Peterson and McCabe (1983) noted that over half of the 9-year olds in their sam-
ple adopted a high-point structure in their personal narratives, although even higher
levels of structure for individual narratives are achieved in adolescence (O’Kearney,
Speyer, & Kenardy, 2007). Much less is known about how children’s personal narra-
tives continue to be socialized by adults during the school years, but it is likely that
narrative socialization continues to take place at home and at school. Teachers prefer
personal narratives to be succinct and to have a point that is readily apparent to the
audience (Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981). Individual differences in parents’ styles of
discussing past events also continue to exist into middle childhood and adolescence
(Fivush, Bohanek, Robertson, & Duke, 2004; Weeks & Pasupathi, this volume).
Some families jointly collaborate in their family storytelling by building upon each
other’s contributions. In contrast, other families’ stories are more one-sided, either
Emerging Identities 29
from a parent’s or an adolescent’s perspective, or are even disharmonious, with a
parent or an adolescent disagreeing about the other’s perspective on the event.
We do not know at present whether the parents who were elaborative and eval-
uative with their children during the preschool years become collaborative in their
style of discussing past events during middle childhood, although we predict that
this would be the case. We are aware of only one study to date that has followed
children’s reminiscing over the transition from early childhood to adolescence. Jack,
MacDonald, Reese, and Hayne (in press) demonstrated that adolescents had earlier
ﬁrst memories if their mothers had reminisced with them in a more elaborative way
in early childhood. However, the empirical link between mothers’ subjective per-
spective toward the past during early childhood and adolescents’ later subjective
perspective on their lives has not been established.
Personal Narratives and Self-Concept in Childhood
In narrative theories of identity, a subjective perspective on events is an essential part
of the self-concept. Clarifying one’s perspective on an event is a means of establish-
ing a self. Accordingly, autobiographical memory theorists contend that personal
narratives are linked to self-understanding throughout development (Bird & Reese,
2008; Nelson & Fivush, 2004).
By as early as the preschool years, children appear to possess a psychologi-
cal and multidimensional view of the self. Eder (1990) designed the Children’s
Self View Questionnaire (CSVQ) to assess children’s psychological selves using
an engaging puppet task with minimal verbal demands. Even 3.5-year olds were
able to provide consistent reports over short periods of such psychological dimen-
sions as their achievement orientation, risk-taking, need for social closeness, etc.
Most important for the present argument, children’s psychological selves are linked
to discussions of past events with their mothers by the preschool years. Preschool
children with a more organized self-concept on the CSVQ experience conversations
about past events with their mothers that are more emotional in general and specif-
ically in which negative emotions are explained in greater depth (Bird & Reese,
2006; Welch-Ross, Fasig, & Farrar, 1999). The reason for this link is not yet clear,
but one possibility is that children who experience richer conversations about past
events, especially about the meaning of the past, are better able to draw upon spe-
ciﬁc personally relevant memories when building up a generalized concept of self.
Take, for example, a mother who emphasizes the child’s bravery when discussing
past scary experiences. If enough scary experiences are discussed in this way, the
child will eventually build up a concept of self as brave and self-reliant. Of course,
the converse could also be true. A child who has a concept of self as brave might be
more likely to notice and emphasize his or her bravery in new experiences. Thus, the
direction of inﬂuence between personal memories and self-concept almost certainly
goes both ways, but it is primarily the way events are interpreted, not the objective
facts of the event, that is most important for self. For instance, although adults’ over-
all elaborations about a past event are critical for children’s memory for the facts of
30 E. Reese et al.
the event (e.g., McGuigan & Salmon, 2004), it is instead the emotional content of
parents’ reminiscing that is important for the child’s self-concept. In-depth discus-
sions of the emotional aspects of negative events appear to be particularly important
for children’s self-understanding (Bird & Reese, 2006; Marin, Bohanek, & Fivush,
2008; McLean et al., 2007).
Discussions of the past are not only simply linked to the organization of t he
child’s self-concept, but also to children’s well-being, as measured via their self-
esteem. Mothers who emphasize positive aspects of past events, whether the events
themselves were negative or positive, have children with higher self-esteem at ages 5
and 6 (Reese, Bird, & Tripp, 2007). This link between a focus on positive emotions
in family storytelling and children’s self-esteem was also evident in a sample of
preadolescent children (Marin et al., 2008).
In sum, personal narratives and self-concept are linked in complex ways from
early childhood. The ability to tell a personal narrative initially depends both
upon the child’s growing self-awareness and their reminiscing environment. In the
preschool years, and continuing into the school years, personal narratives and self-
concept continue to be linked through parent–child reminiscing and especially via
the exploration of the emotional aspects of events.
At least two signiﬁcant gaps remain in this body of research, however. First,
although theorists posit that the early reminiscing environment is critical for ado-
lescents’ and adults’ narrative identities, research has not yet established a direct
link between mother–child reminiscing in early childhood and adolescents’ per-
sonal narratives. Jack et al. (in press) showed that mothers who were relatively more
elaborative with their children in early childhood had adolescents with earlier ﬁrst
memories, but did not conduct a narrative analysis of adolescents’ early memories.
In our ﬁrst study, we analyzed the subjective perspective of these same adolescents’
narratives of their childhood memories and speciﬁcally the emotional content of
those narratives, in relation to the emotional content of mother–child conversations
about the past during early childhood.
A second gap in this body of research is the link between children’s life stories
(not simply single-event narratives) and their well-being. A small number of studies
focus on the link between narratives of single events in childhood and adolescence
and the self-concept (e.g., Marin et al., 2008; McLean & Breen, 2009; Reese et al.,
2007), but to date, researchers of the life story in childhood and adolescence have
not included well-being measures. Thus, studies of the life story and well-being in
adolescence are needed to bridge the gap between research on personal narratives
and self-concept in childhood and research on narrative identity and well-being in
Study 1: A Subjective Perspective in Adolescence as a Function
of Mother–Child Reminiscing in Early Childhood
To address the ﬁrst gap in this literature, we explored the origins of adolescents’
subjective perspective in early mother–child reminiscing with the same sample of
mothers and adolescents from Jack et al. (in press). We predicted that adolescents
Emerging Identities 31
who adopted a more subjective perspective by including more emotions in their nar-
ratives of early memories would have mothers who had discussed more emotions
during reminiscing in early childhood. We were speciﬁcally interested in moth-
ers’ focus on young children’s negative emotions because it is these exchanges
that are theorized to be most important for the child’s growing self-concept (Bird
& Reese, 2006). Positive emotions do not need to be resolved, but negative
emotions need to be explored in more depth for young children to make sense
The participants in this study were originally recruited to take part in a lon-
gitudinal study of young children’s emerging autobiographical memory skills
(MacDonald, 1997). In this study, 20 mother–child dyads were visited at home
on 5 occasions when the children were 24–40 months of age. At each time-point,
mothers were asked to discuss a number of past events that they had recently
experienced with their children. The researcher asked the mothers to talk to their
children as they normally would when discussing things that have happened in
the past. These conversations were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Only
the conversations recorded at the 40-month time-point are included in the analyses
Approximately 10 years later, when these children were 12–13 years old, they
were invited to participate in a follow-up study on autobiographical memory devel-
opment. Seventeen adolescent participants visited the university with a parent to
take part in an individual interview about their memories for events that happened
at different times in their lives. For each participant, a personal timeline was con-
structed on colored poster board, featuring several photographs of the participant
at different ages (see Tustin & Hayne, 2009, for details about the timeline proce-
dure). The researcher began each interview by explaining to the participant that he
or she would be asked to describe some memories for past events. The researcher
reviewed the sequence of the timeline with the participant, explaining that the time-
line started at the participant’s birth and stopped at the participant’s present age,
and represented his or her whole life so far. The timeline activity was performed
to reinforce the notion of a linear time sequence and to provide an external cue for
thinking about memories from different epochs of the participant’s life.
During the interview, the researcher asked the participant to recall and describe
events that happened at various ages. Speciﬁcally, each participant was asked to
nominate and describe in detail one event that had happened within the last month
or so and one event from each of ages 10, 5, 3, and before 3 years of age. The partic-
ipant also recalled and described parent-nominated events from each of these target
ages. During the interview, the researcher also asked the participant to describe his
or her earliest memory.
In these event discussions, the researcher ﬁrst gave the participant the opportu-
nity for free recall by providing general prompts (e.g., “Tell me about [the event],”
followed by “Can you remember anything else about [the event]”) until the partic-
ipant had reported all that he or she could remember. The researcher then asked
four speciﬁc questions about the memory: “Who else was there?,” “Where were
you?,” “What did you do?,” and “How did you feel?” The questions were followed
by another opportunity for free recall, e.g., “Is there anything else that you can
32 E. Reese et al.
remember now that you would like to tell me about [the event]?” until the partic-
ipant could recall no more. These interviews were tape recorded and transcribed
verbatim. Codes were totalled across free and prompted recall.
One of the adolescents who visited for the follow-up memory study was not
visited at the 40-month time-point of the original longitudinal study, so the analy-
ses reported here include the 16 participants who participated at both the 40-month
and adolescent time-points. Mothers and children discussed different numbers of
events at 40 months, as did adolescents at the follow-up interview, so all codes were
computed as averages per event for each participant. We coded for subjective per-
spective (Fivush, 2001) by noting the number of maternal and adolescent references
to the child’s emotions (You were sad) and the valence of each emotion as posi-
tive or negative. Bird and Reese (2006) found that references to others’ emotions,
and evaluative references (It was a fun time), were not as critical for children’s self-
understanding as were references to the child’s emotions. Reliability between two
independent coders on 25% of the mother–child transcripts at 40 months and 25%
of the adolescent transcripts was κ = 0.77 and κ = 0.82, respectively. One of the
coders coded the remaining transcripts.
We then conducted Pearson correlations between mothers’ references to chil-
dren’s emotions and adolescents’ references to their own emotions, both positive
and negative. Our prediction was that mothers’ references to the child’s past neg-
ative emotions would provide the strongest link to adolescents’ later subjective
perspective on their memories, but we also analyzed mothers’ and adolescents’ total
references to children’s emotions (see Table 2.1 for bivariate correlations). Mothers’
total references to children’s emotions during past-event conversations at 40 months
of age marginally predicted adolescents’ references to their own emotions (r = 0.45,
p < 0.10) and signiﬁcantly predicted adolescents’ references to positive emotions
(r = 0.55, p < 0.05). In particular, mothers’ early references to children’s negative
Table 2.1 Bivariate correlations among mother, child, and adolescent references to children’s and
adolescents’ positive and negative emotions
Children’s references to their
own emotions at 40 months
Adolescents’ references to their
own emotions at 12–13 years
emotions at 40
0.36 0.28 0.39 −0.05 −0.09 0.01
0.37 0.42 0.61
p < 0.10;
p < 0.05;
p < 0.01.
Emerging Identities 33
emotions best predicted adolescents’ references to their own emotions (r = 0.61,
p < 0.05), especially their own positive emotions (r = 0.76, p < 0.01) at the follow-up
Children’s references to their own emotions at 40 months, however, were not sig-
niﬁcantly correlated with their emotion references as adolescents (rs ranged from
−0.10 to 0.39, n.s.). Even when controlling for children’s own emotion references
at the 40-month time-point, mothers’ early references to children’s negative emo-
tions still predicted the adolescents’ references to their own emotions (r = 0.55,
p < 0.05), especially their positive emotions (r = 0.72, p < 0.01). Therefore, moth-
ers’ earlier references to the child’s emotions were directly linked to adolescents’
emotion references 10 years later.
In line with our predictions and with past research and theory (Bird & Reese,
2006), it was mothers’ focus on the child’s negative emotions during early child-
hood that best predicted a richer subjective perspective in adolescence. Given that
our speciﬁc focus on emotion words was a relatively restricted measure of subjec-
tive perspective, the strength of the observed correlations is noteworthy. We did not
anticipate, however, that mothers’ references to children’s negative emotions would
be such a strong predictor of adolescents’ positive emotions. It appears that dis-
cussing negative emotions in early childhood may actually lead to a more positive
portrayal of life events later on. If it is the case that mothers help children resolve
negative emotions in early childhood, and not simply highlight these negative emo-
tions, then it is possible that these early conversations about negative emotions are
helping children to ﬁnd the good in the bad: the proverbial silver lining. Taylor and
Armor (1996) theorized that the ability to ﬁnd meaning in negative experiences is
part of a larger human tendency toward positive illusions about past experiences,
the future, and the self. These optimistic tendencies in turn bolster a sense of self-
efﬁcacy, which is theorized to lead to active coping with life events. In line with this
theory, the positive resolution of negative experiences is linked to greater well-being
in adults (King & Miner, 2000; McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman,
2001). However, in our ﬁrst study, we did not have an independent measure of the
adolescents’ self-concept or well-being, so these links between the early narrative
environment, coping, and well-being in adolescence are only hypothetical at present.
We turn now to new data on the concurrent link between personal narratives and
adolescents’ developing self-concepts.
As we mentioned previously, a limitation of the work on personal narratives and
self-concept in childhood and adolescence is that, to date, only single personal mem-
ories have been assessed. According to Habermas and Bluck (2000), it is the way
that multiple events are organized into a life story that reﬂects and shapes our sense
of who we are. We must be able to connect apparently disparate events in order to
draw some greater meaning from those events for our identities. Habermas and col-
leagues have explored the development of the ability to integrate multiple life events
into a coherent life story (Habermas & de Silveira, in press; Habermas & Paha,
2001), but existing research is only beginning to explore the link between life story
coherence and self-concept in adolescent samples (e.g., McLean & Breen, 2009).
In the following, we attempt to address this gap in the literature by (1) proposing a
34 E. Reese et al.
method of assessing organization and meaning making in the emerging life story in
early adolescence; and (2) exploring the links between the emerging life story and
adolescents’ well-being, speciﬁcally their sense of self-worth.
Study 2: The Emerging Life Story and Well-Being in Early
Our aim was to develop a new method of assessing the emerging life story that
could be used with 8–12-year olds. Habermas and de Silveira (in press) success-
fully elicited life stories from children as young as 8 years, but their objective was
to obtain a story of the whole life and not to speciﬁcally probe the organization of
those stories into lifetime periods. With help from William Friedman, and draw-
ing upon McAdam’s (1993) Life Story Interview, we designed the Emerging Life
Story Interview (ELSI). The ELSI has two parts. The ﬁrst part assesses the child’s
or adolescent’s ability to organize life events into lifetime periods. Conway et al.
(2004) proposed that the long-term self consists of both autobiographical and con-
ceptual components. The individual’s ability to organize life events into lifetime
periods is evidence of the conceptual component of the long-term self. In con-
trast, the individual’s ability to substantiate each lifetime period with examples of
general and speciﬁc events is evidence of the autobiographical component of the
long-term self and of the integration of these different levels of autobiographical
knowledge. The second part of the ELSI assesses the child’s or adolescent’s abil-
ity to draw meaning from life events, which we and other theorists believe is the
primary motivation for telling life stories (Fivush, 2001; McLean et al., 2007). We
modeled this part of the task after McAdam’s (1993) turning point narratives and
Singer’s (1995) self-deﬁning memories. The entire interview took around 20–25
minutes with our current cross-sectional sample of 62 8–12-year-old New Zealand
children. Here we present the results only from the 24 adolescents in the sample
(the 12-year olds).
After a brief warm-up chat with the adolescent in a family laboratory, the
I’d like to get to know you better and to hear about some of the important things that have
happened to you. The ﬁrst thing we’re going to do is that I’m going to ask you to think
about your life as if it were a story in a book. If you wanted to tell your life like a story
in a book, what would the chapters be? Think about how your life would be divided into
different chapters. Let’s start with your life right now. What would be the chapter that you’re
in now? What are some of the things that would be in that chapter?
Participants are then prompted to go as far backward i n time as they wish to name
all the chapters in their lives and to relate a few events from each chapter, although
researchers do not prompt for full recall of these individual events. Then participants
are encouraged to go forward in time from their ﬁrst chapter to make sure that they
have touched upon all the important periods in their lives. Throughout the task, the
researcher interacts with the child in an interested and natural way by conﬁrming
Emerging Identities 35
children’s responses and asking for more detail as appropriate, similar to McAdam’s
(1995) procedure. Our preliminary scoring of the chapter task consists of counting
the number of chapters containing at least one speciﬁc memory. Speciﬁc memories
are rated higher than general memories in our scheme because they are evidence of
a more sophisticated integration of the conceptual and autobiographical components
of the long-term self (Conway et al., 2004; Han, Leichtman & Wang, 1998). Thus,
if participants nominated six chapters but supported their chapters with only general
memories, they would receive a score of zero. They would receive a score of 6 if
each nominated chapter was supported by at least one speciﬁc memory from that
period. Our developmental prediction is that children who are able to structure their
lives in a more detailed way are building the framework of an organized life story
that will emerge fully in adolescence. We also hypothesize that a more organized
life story will allow children and adolescents to extract meaning from life events
The chapter task also serves as a warm-up for the second part of the ELSI, which
is a discussion of life-changing events. Our piloting suggested that the younger chil-
dren in our sample might not understand or respond to a prompt about self-deﬁning
memories. Thus we framed our question in terms of “life-changing events,” but
the task itself is drawn from Singer and Mofﬁtt’s ( 1991–1992) and McLean and
Thorne’s (2003) self-deﬁning memory procedure. At the end of the chapter task,
the interviewer prompts children, “Now try to think of one particular thing that
happened in an earlier chapter that changed your life. It should be something that
happened to you that’s still really important to you now.” When participants decide
upon an event, the interviewer asks them questions about who was there, how they
felt, how others felt, and most importantly, “How did this event change your life?”
Participants are asked to provide two life-changing events. We scored these life-
changing events for the highest level of insight achieved across both memories
using McLean and Pratt’s (2006) scheme. Level of i nsight on a 4-point scale ranged
from no meaning achieved (0); lesson learned (1); vague meaning (2); to insight
(3) (see Table 2.2, for examples). Participants also completed the global self-worth
scale from Harter’s (1982) Self-Perception Proﬁle, and at the end of the study, the
researcher administered the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, III-B (Dunn & Dunn,
1997) to measure differences in adolescents’ verbal abilities.
So far 24 young New Zealand adolescents (M = 12.5 years, SD = 0.43; 14 girls)
have participated as part of a larger study of time concepts and autobiographical
memory, conducted in collaboration with William Friedman. The sample is primar-
ily composed of European New Zealanders (91%). The study took place in a family
room in a university laboratory with the adolescent’s parent in an adjoining room but
out of earshot. The primary researcher who interviewed the adolescents was female.
Chapter tasks and life-changing events were recorded on digital voice recorders
and the life-changing events were transcribed for coding. Reliability between two
independent coders on 25% of the transcripts for the chapter task was 92% for the
number of chapters with speciﬁc memories. Reliability between two independent
coders on 25% of the transcripts for the life-changing event task was κ = 0.75 for
level of insight.
36 E. Reese et al.
Table 2.2 Examples of life-changing events and levels of insight in early adolescence
Level of insight Example
No meaning (0) Life-changing event: Starting a new sport
I went through all the different grades, and then I got selected for Metro.
And then I got into Metro, and [sic: it] started taking up a lot more of my
Lesson learned (1) Life-changing event: Telling a lie and getting in trouble
It taught me never tell, tell lies, especially coz you’ll get caught out.
Vague insight (2) Life-changing event: Parents’ divorce
I just think I do things differently, and that just changed you like if your
parents were still together. You might, it’ll just be a different sort of like,
like you wouldn’t have two homes, if you get bored at one, you just go to
the other one and things. It’s changed when I do things and how I do
Insight (3) Life-changing event: Getting bullied
I used to be really good at like maths and things, and then when I got
bullied, it all stopped. And I wasn’t good at like things. I was always had
probably that bullying in my head that really meanness of it. And umm so
I think if I didn’t get bullied back then I’d probably be smarter than I am
Adolescents nominated an average of six chapters in the chapter task, with a
range from 3 to 10. On average, 2.88 of each adolescent’s chapters contained a
speciﬁc memory, with a range of 0–9. On their life-changing events, participants
achieved an average level of insight of 1.43 for their highest s core across the two
memories. Average global self-worth was 20 with a range from 15 to 24. The
average standardized PPVT score was 107, so verbal ability was slightly above
We conducted correlations among the ELSI scores (organization of the life story
in the chapter portion and insight into the life-changing events) and adolescents’
self-esteem and verbal ability (see Table 2.3). Our ﬁrst prediction was that adoles-
cents with a more organized life story would have a stronger sense of self-worth.
We also predicted that adolescents who achieved higher levels of meaning making
in the life-changing event narratives would have higher levels of self worth, although
the literature is mixed on this point. One study with preadolescents found that
Table 2.3 Correlations among young adolescents’ life story organization, insight, self-esteem,
and verbal ability (N = 24)
Insight Self-esteem Verbal ability
Emerging Identities 37
greater levels of meaning-making when writing about stressful events were actu-
ally associated with lower levels of well-being (Fivush, Marin, Crawford, Reynolds,
& Brewin, 2007). As King (2001) pointed out, understanding does not always
lead to happiness. Insights can be painful, causing regret and self-doubt instead of
Indeed, our prediction of a positive link between the life story and well-being was
borne out only for the organization of the life story. Adolescents who nominated a
greater number of chapters containing at least one speciﬁc memory reported higher
self-esteem, but level of insight into the life-changing events was not signiﬁcantly
correlated with self-esteem. Contrary to predictions, adolescents’ organization of
the life story on the chapter task was not correlated with their level of insight
achieved. Verbal ability was not correlated with any measure.
Thus, the organization of the life story, but not the level of insight, was concur-
rently linked to well-being in early adolescence. Adolescents with a more organized
life story reported higher levels of self-esteem. This relationship was not a func-
tion of adolescents’ verbal skill. There are several possible reasons we did not ﬁnd
a link between level of insight and higher self-worth. First, in line with Fivush
et al. (2007), it is possible that insight and well-being only become positively
linked later in adolescence, when the ability to draw meaning from events and
apply it to one’s self-concept is more sophisticated. It is also possible that there
are gender differences in this relation. In research with a larger sample of older
adolescents (McLean & Breen, 2009), the relationship between meaning and self-
esteem was moderated by gender. We were not able to assess gender differences
with our small sample, but as we enlarge our sample, we will explore possible gen-
der differences in accounting for this absence of a correlation between insight and
self-worth. In future work with this sample, we will also explore the role of the
family’s storytelling style in the link between the organization of life stories and
well-being. We expect that adolescents who have a more organized and evalua-
tive life story also experience more collaborative and evaluative storytelling in the
These results are important in several ways. To our knowledge, this is the
ﬁrst evidence that the structure of the emerging life story is connected to well-
being in a young adolescent sample. Similar to ﬁndings with adults (Baerger &
McAdams, 1999; Bauer et al., 2005), young adolescents who have a more orga-
nized and detailed life story experience higher levels of self-worth. We cannot at
present interpret the direction of this effect. The organization of the life story may
be instrumental in self-esteem, or high self-esteem may enable adolescents to tell
more organized life stories. We are currently conducting the ELSI with two samples
of young adolescents that we have followed from age 1.5 years (see Reese, 2002;
Reese & Newcombe, 2007) and for whom we have previously collected informa-
tion on their early reminiscing environment and their self-understanding. In line
with McLean et al.’s (2007) model, we predict that the link between the life story
and adolescents’ self-understanding is most likely bidirectional and will be medi-
ated by their early reminiscing environment. Adolescents who experienced a richer
and more evaluative reminiscing environment in early childhood are expected to
38 E. Reese et al.
have more organized and detailed life stories, to be better able to draw mean-
ing from life events and to have a stronger sense of self-worth. It is also possible
that there are gender differences in the relations between narrative identity and
well-being (McLean & Breen, 2009; McLean, Breen, & Fournier, in press), per-
haps as a function of differences in the early reminiscing environments f or boys
Our r esults are also important from a methodological point of view. Taken
together with Habermas and colleagues’ work with 8–12-year olds, we conclude
that it is possible to elicit a life story prior to mid-adolescence (Habermas & Paha,
2001; Habermas & de Silveira, in press). We will continue to analyze our data with
the younger children in the project to ascertain whether this task works equally well
in middle childhood as it does in early adolescence. We believe that the ELSI is a
particularly promising tool for capturing the emerging life story in younger sam-
ples. At around 20–25 minutes on average, the ELSI is much easier and quicker to
conduct than a standard life story assessment. Habermas and de Silveira (in press)
estimated that their life story measure took only 15 minutes, but that estimate did not
include the time for participants to nominate and write down seven important life
events prior to the life story narrative. The ELSI has face validity and was readily
understood and engaged in by children and young adolescents, in contrast to more
traditional methods that are not easily understood by children, are more effortful,
or involve writing, which is still difﬁcult or unappealing for a number of partici-
pants in this age range. Moreover, the ELSI is fairly easily scored and coded. The
children’s responses to the chapter portion can be noted on a form during the inter-
view and then checked later against the recording, so that only the life-changing
event portion needs to be fully transcribed for coding. Other signiﬁcant life events,
such as high points and low points, could be added to the protocol as desired
(Baerger & McAdams, 1999). The entire interview would still take under half
We plan to extend our use of the ELSI in several ways in future research. First,
we will document developmental changes in the emerging life story over the 8–
12-year period with the full sample. We expect to ﬁnd few changes in the overall
number of chapters produced with age, but we expect large developmental changes
in the number of chapters that are s upported by speciﬁc memories. We argue that the
ability to nominate a speciﬁc memory for a chapter is evidence of children’s ability
to see the bigger picture of their lives and to substantiate that big picture with a
speciﬁc example from that life period. We will also explore deeper ways of scoring
the chapter task. For instance, we could examine the way in which children and
adolescents organized their stories at different ages. Did they organize their lives
according to true lifetime periods (schools, places lived) or simply by chronological
age, regardless of life themes? One 8-year-old pilot participant started a new chapter
for every even-numbered year of his life (When I was Born; When I was Two; When
I was Four, etc.). At the end of the interview, he noted, “I just went up in twos. I can’t
think of anything from when I was 7 or 3 or 5.” In contrast, the young adolescents
in our sample typically organized their lives in more conventional ways, such as by
the schools they had attended or places they had lived.
Emerging Identities 39
Our work on the emerging life story is still developing, so it is too soon to draw
ﬁrm conclusions. However, we believe that eventually our ﬁndings will have impli-
cations for theories of identity and self-concept development. I f the life story indeed
emerges from the stories that parents and children tell in early childhood and if
these stories simultaneously shape children’s self-concept, then perhaps the strug-
gle to form an identity in late adolescence is not as discontinuous a development
as some theorists have proposed (e.g., Erikson, 1968; McAdams, 2006). The chal-
lenge in future research with longitudinal samples will be to ﬁnd ways to capture
both continuity and change in the self-concept over time (Bird & Reese, 2008). One
advantage of adopting a narrative approach to the study of self-development is that
personal narratives are present from very early in childhood, and thus the way that
the self is portrayed through narrative can be examined using similar methods across
a wide span of ages. Measuring continuity in the self-concept over time with more
traditional measures is difﬁcult because different methods are used with participants
of different ages, t hus overestimating qualitative change and underestimating quan-
titative changes with age. Narratives provide us with a way of understanding the self,
as well as a way of potentially shaping the self-concept. McAdams (2006) claimed
that life narratives access the most unique aspects of personality in adults.
On a practical note for teachers who are seeking methods of eliciting the life
story as a way of exploring the autobiographical genre with their younger students,
it appears that structured methods are more successful than simply asking children
to tell the story of their life. A number of these structured methods are now available,
including Habermas and de Silveira’s (in press) method of having participants write
down seven important memories prior to narrating the life story and Jack et al.’s
(in press) method of creating a timeline with photos from different ages prior to
eliciting event narratives. Methods such as the ELSI that encourage young adoles-
cents to organize those events with respect to lifetime periods, and to highlight some
life events over others, could be particularly useful for guiding young writers and
storytellers in Gricean principles of meaning and conciseness in the life story.
We end with the caveat that these conclusions and recommendations may not
necessarily be appropriate for non-European adolescents. Research on the life sto-
ries of non-European adolescents is scant. In one of the few existing studies,
Chandler and Proulx (2008) reported a positive link between self-continuity and
well-being in First Nations Canadian adolescents. First Nations youth who were at
lower risk of suicide emphasized continuities between their past and present selves,
whereas 80% of actively suicidal youth could see little continuity in their past and
present selves; by extension, they could not conceive of a future self. These results
seem consistent with the positive link between life story coherence and well-being
found in adult samples (Baerger & McAdams, 1999) and in our second study here.
However, when compared to non-Aboriginal youth, First Nations adolescents on the
whole had different concepts of continuity between their past and present selves.
Whereas European Canadians adopted an “essentialist” stance in which they were
essentially the same person over time, First Nations adolescents endorsed a more
40 E. Reese et al.
“relational” position in which true change was possible, but common themes or
threads could be identiﬁed across different instantiations of the self. Thus, although
coherence in the life story may be linked to well-being across cultures and across
developmental periods, the form that coherence takes in the life story may differ in
important ways across ages and cultures.
Acknowledgments We thank Shelley MacDonald and William Friedman for allowing us to use
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