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Talking to Toddlers About Their Memories May Make Them Less Depressed as Teens

A new study about “elaborative reminiscing” shows that the way we talk to kids about the past can improve memory, storytelling and the way they approach tough emotions.

memories and toddlers
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All toddlers love to tell you about events that have happened to them, like a zoo outing or a trip to a museum. But they’re not always the best conversationalists. Sometimes, the details are scattered or wrong. Sometimes, they focus on what seems tangential to the story. And sometimes conversations just peter out and they walk away mid-tale.

But the way parents react to these memories can actually have an effect on everything from memory to mood, even years later. Elaine Reese, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and author of Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World taught a group of mothers of toddlers how to do what she calls “elaborative reminiscing.” They engaged their kids in deeper conversations about the past using techniques like validating their memories, asking open-ended questions and slipping in bits of additional information.

“Some of these mothers naturally do this, asking open-ended questions like, ‘Who did we see at the museum? Who did we go to the museum with?’” she says, adding that her work was done with mothers, but fathers, grandparents and other caregivers can use the same techniques.

After conducting the study, Dr. Reese found that reminiscing this way certainly did have an effect, helping improve both memory and language in the toddlers. “Compared to those in the control group, the children in the elaborative reminiscing group were remembered more,” she says. “They were telling better stories.”

Not only that, but the study continued to check in on the families, and found that the effects of elaborative reminiscing could still be felt when the toddlers from the study turned into tweens. “When the kids were 11,” she says, “the elaborative mothers were also able to bring up more emotions with their kids, and the kids weren’t shutting them down as much.”

Not surprisingly, things changed when the kids got a little older.. “We tried to get conversations going between the mothers and their teenagers, but only about a third of them would do it. However, we do know that the 15-year-olds whose mothers had been taught the techniques were experiencing fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. They were also showing more insight into difficult experiences in their own lives. And they were able to talk about those experiences in more mature ways.”

Dr. Reese speculates that getting in the habit of talking about their memories in toddlerhood laid the groundwork for ways of approaching more difficult conversations in the future. “This is a really fun way for kids to talk about the past,” she says. “The mothers learned the techniques when their children were just the right age, when they were just starting to talk about what they remembered. Then it crystallized into this really nice conversation pattern that enabled them to talk about all kinds of things, including emotions, as the kids got older.”

The best way to talk about the past is to let the child lead.

Dr. Reese says that it’s best to wait until a child brings up a memory instead of trying to initiate a conversation for yourself — but that, once you’re attuned to it, you’ll realize that toddlers offer openings for these types of conversations all the time. “The children actually bring up these past events a couple of times an hour,” she says.

This is a really fun way for kids to talk about the past.

Once you’ve started, kids should be the ones leading the conversations, too. If a toddler went to a museum and all they want to talk about is a worm they saw crawling around outside before they even went in, it’s time to talk worm. “And then the highly elaborative mother would add more to the conversation,” Dr. Reese says. “She’d say, ‘Oh, you're right, before we went into the museum, you saw a worm. And what was the worm doing? You’re right, it was wiggling. And it was moving very slowly.’ Over time, those mothers were able to keep their kids in the conversation for longer, and they’d flesh out the whole story.”

The keys are in the validation — saying “yes, you’re right” — to assure them about what they’ve remembered, and then the elaboration. “Each time you ask a question, you just give another little sentence,” Dr. Reese says.

There are things parents might do that will shut down these conversations before they get rolling.

A free, painless way to help safeguard kids’ mental health without any appointments, equipment or other huge commitments? Sounds like a dream. But if parents get overzealous, they might wind up pushing kids away instead. “Sometimes parents find out about this technique and they get really excited and turn it into an interrogation, just firing questions at the kid,” Dr. Reese says.

When kids do come around, if they say something that isn’t quite true, you don’t have to issue a correction. “Then it just becomes about accuracy and not about the child's experience,” she says. Instead, slip the correct information into your next sentence. So if your kid says they saw a blue worm wiggling outside the museum, you can say, “And how fast was the brown worm moving when it was wiggling?”

Another mistake parents make is believing that they have to bring up those big, heavy topics in order to get the emotional benefits of elaborative reminiscing. But if you say, “Okay, family, it’s time to talk about the time our dog died,” no one really wants to have those conversations. (Who would?) “What works better is just to talk about regular events and to let the emotions evolve naturally,” Dr. Reese says. “And then it becomes this really safe, validating place to discuss those feelings.”

Something else kids don’t find validating? Seeing you glance at your phone while you talk. Even if you want to look up photos from the event you’re discussing, it’s best to limit it to one or two that you look at before putting away your phone altogether. “Otherwise, you're just sort of saying one thing about each photo. That's not very interesting,” she says.

For interested parents, Tell Me a Story explains how to do the elaborative reminiscing techniques, but anyone can try it. “My main tip is just to have fun and enjoy it, Dr. Reese says. “And you'll know it's working when you're having fun, too.”

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