Psychologists suggest that teenagers often struggle to balance their family’s values with their own exploration of what matters, in order to develop a healthy sense of identity.
However, a recent study conducted by Brigham Young University (BYU) indicates that family history knowledge can help older adolescents achieve this balance. The study surveyed 239 students aged 18 to 20 from seven American universities and found that those with the healthiest sense of identity – a connection to family and adherence to personal beliefs – also possessed a high level of family history knowledge.
According to Brian Hill, a professor of experience design and management at BYU and one of the authors of the study, family history knowledge can be grounding, providing a value system that can guide individuals. The survey assessed the students’ knowledge of their parents’ and grandparents’ major life events and significant stories, as well as their level of identity development based on various measures such as their political and religious beliefs, occupational exploration, and commitment to values.
The results indicated that many adolescents had high levels of family history knowledge, and the more they knew, the more likely they were to have a healthy sense of identity. Hill explained that knowing where we come from can expand our sense of self and enable us to sift through lessons accumulated in generations of ancestors’ experiences, broadening the possible values that we might think are important in our lives.
Hill also shared an example of a teenager he worked with in Australia who discovered his grandfather’s successful career in marketing and advertising, which inspired the young man to pursue his own dreams with newfound confidence. However, the study also found that a lot of family history knowledge can limit adolescents’ independence within their families, as they may feel pressure to conform to family narratives. Teachers and parents can prevent this effect by discussing family history in ways that allow adolescents to interpret stories independently, without imposing a particular meaning on them.
The study suggests several ways to encourage exploration and discovery while sharing family history, such as telling stories around the dinner table or creating family-history-focused rituals. Co-author Clive Haydon concludes that sharing family history is most likely to positively influence adolescent identity development when it promotes positive relationships, respects individual agency, and invites personal reflection.
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