Narrative identity and well-being from middle childhood to late adolescence: A developmental, cross-cultural perspective
A mature sense of identity is associated with greater well-being in adults, and identity development is the central task in adolescence (Erikson, 1968). McAdams' (1985, 1996) life story theory proposes that identity can be represented on three levels: personality traits, characteristic adaptations, and the life story. The first goal of the present thesis was to investigate the development of narrative identity (as indicated in life story coherence) and factors that may facilitate this development, such as parent-child joint reminiscing, from middle childhood to late adolescence (8- to 21-year-olds). A second goal was to investigate associations between life story coherence and individuals' well-being in this age range. Given that culture influences people's recollection of autobiographical memories and their self-concept, a third goal of the present thesis was to examine whether culture also influences the construction of the life story and the associations between culture, the life story, personality traits, and individuals' well-being. In Study 1A, I investigated the development of the life story in middle childhood and early adolescence (8- to 12-year-olds), by examining children's narrations of the life story. The life story task required participants to narrate their lives in several chapters. The structure of the life story was coded in terms of chapter chronology, the number of first time experiences, and the number of chapters based on life-time periods. Children also narrated two life-changing events, and the coherence of these event narratives was coded in terms of the level of meaning that they provided in the narratives. As expected, age-related increases were found in the structure of the life story, such that children in early adolescence narrated more life-time period chapters than did those in the middle childhood group. Children's meaning-making skills did not increase with age; however, across the age groups (e.g.,middle childhood vs. early adolescence),girls scored higher on meaning-making than did boys. Neither the structure of the life story nor meaning-making scores were linked to children's well-being, suggesting that the life story has not been incorporated into children's sense of self at this age range. In Study 1B, I examined the relationship between emotion talk in mother-child past event conversations and children's ability to produce coherent life narratives and their well-being in middle childhood and early adolescence (a subset of children from Study 1A). Emotion talk was coded as the amount of emotions and evaluations attributed to the child by either the mother or the child. Significant correlations were found between children's meaning-making scores and the amount of mother-child emotion talk; however, these correlations were moderated by age and gender, such that emotion talk was positively correlated with 8- to 10-year old boys' meaning-making skills but not with older boys or girls across the age groups. Mother-child emotion talk was also linked to the level of self-esteem for girls, but not for boys; again, age moderated this association, such that mothers' references to children's negative emotions were negatively correlated with girls' self-esteem in middle childhood, but this link was positive for girls in early adolescence. In Study 2, I examined the development of the life story from early to late adolescence (12- to 21-year-olds) and compared the development of narrative coherence and its relation to adolescents' well-being between New Zealand European (NZE) and New Zealand Chinese (NZC) adolescents. Life story coherence was measured in terms of the overall coherence of life story chapters and the coherence of single events (i.e., low- and turning-point events). Well-being was measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larson, & Griffin, 1985) and the Reynolds Adolescent Depression Scale (Reynolds, 2002). As predicted, the coherence of both life chapters and single events increased with age, and there were no gender- and very few culture-related differences in measures of narrative coherence. Life story coherence was related to well-being; however, this association was moderated by adolescents' age. Higher levels of narrative coherence were significantly correlated with lower levels of well-being in early adolescence, whereas such correlations were positive in late adolescence. In addition to age, culture also moderated the relation between narrative coherence and well-being, such that narrative coherence became associated with well-being (as measured by life satisfaction) in a younger age in NZC adolescents compared to NZE adolescents. Furthermore, there were culture-related differences when comparing narrative coherence and personality traits in terms how these were associated with well-being. After controlling for the effect of personality traits on well-being, narrative coherence still explained unique variance in both life satisfaction and depression; the advantage of narrative coherence over personality traits was stronger among NZC adolescents than to NZE adolescents. Studies 1A and 1B suggest that the ability to create a life story narrative begins to develop between middle childhood and early adolescence. Mother-child joint reminiscing is one factor that not only affects this development but also is associated with children's well-being in this age range. The findings from Study 2 on the development of life story narratives are consistent with the notion that different aspects of narrative coherence contributing to a coherent life story do not fully develop until mid to late adolescence. The connections between narrative coherence and individuals' well-being emerged as early as early adolescence. Contrary to prior research showing positive associations between narrative coherence and individuals' well-being in adults, the present thesis suggests that higher levels of narrative coherence could be negatively related to adolescents' well-being when such links first emerge in early adolescence.
Advisor: Reese, Elaine
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology; Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Narrative identity; Well-being; Development; Cross-cultural; Adolescence
Research Type: Thesis