Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Life Stories of Troubled and Non-Troubled Youth: Content and Meaning Making Analyses

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Life Stories of Troubled and Non-Troubled Youth: Content and Meaning Making Analyses

Article excerpt

The developing capacity to interpret life experiences has been extensively studied under the banner of narrative thought (e.g., Bruner, 1990; Habermas. 2011; McKeough & Malcolm, 2011). People typically organize their past, present, and future in a story format, often referred to as a life story (McAdams, 1993). According to McAdams et al. (2006), the life story is an internalized structure that organizes and integrates experiences in and across time, containing explanations, interpretations, and evaluations of lived events. This story is continually modified as new experiences are encountered or explanations of experiences are constructed, leading to either the adoption of new understandings of the past or solidification of original interpretations (Bluck, Alea, & Ali, 2014; McAdams et al., 2006). Moreover, individuals are more likely to narrate events where a break has occurred between the "ideal and real, self and society" (Riessman, 2001, p. 3). As a result, if a past event is traumatic or represents a difficult period in peoples' lives, it is likely individuals will construct a story in an effort that makes sense of why the event occurred and account for the impacts it has had (McAdams et al., 2006). This is of import as research has noted that by studying life stories understanding can be gained regarding how people make meaning of specific types of life experiences (McAdams et al., 2006) and how their meaning making processes influence their psychological reality and functioning (Bluck, et al, 2014; Pals, 2006).

It is during adolescence that youth begin to form a coherent account of their life history, which forms the base of their identity (Habermas, 2011; McAdams et al., 2006). Coherence is attained through the process of interpreting and reinterpreting experiences by assigning psychological causality (McKeough & Malcolm, 2011). Such interpretive thought facilitates making meaning of past and present by considering both time periods simultaneously. Engagement in this process allows a deeper understanding of the enduring psychological traits or states of self and others (Bluck, et al., 2014; Chen, McAnally, Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McKeough & Malcolm, 2011; Wang, & Reese, 2012). This interpretive ability is developmental in nature and becomes more complex throughout late childhood and adolescence (McKeough & Genereux, 2003). To illustrate, when telling and interpreting their life stories, pre-adolescents tend to give simple chronological accounts of a particular event, an uncomplicated analysis of basic character traits, and rudimentary moral connections between previous situations and the current event. In comparison, adolescents tend to provide clear connections between previous situations and the current event, reflect on the changing nature of psychological traits, and demonstrate insight into their own behaviours and motives (McKeough & Malcolm, 2011). The developmental significance of meaning making has been demonstrated by Chen et al. (2012) who asked youth, aged 12 to 21 years, to provide stories about key events in their lives (i.e., high, low, and turning points). These researchers found that interpretive abilities and narrative coherence increased with development and, moreover, these increases were associated with increases in psychosocial-well being and engagement in prosocial behaviours. Thus, in adolescence, youth begin to understand how their present reality and actions have been influenced positively and negatively by their past experiences (Bluck, et al., 2014; Chen et al., 2012; Fivush, Habermas, Waters, & Zaman, 2011; Habermas, 2011).

In comparison, researchers who studied vulnerable youth (i.e., those who had past negative and traumatic experiences ) found that they were likely to exhibit depressive symptoms when engaged in narrative meaning making (Sales, Merrill, & Fivush, 2013) and others have found some tend to persist in troubled behaviours, such as delinquency (McLean, Wood, & Breen, 2013). …

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