Child Psychiatry and Human Development

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 561–573 | Cite as

Listening for Avoidance: Narrative Form and Defensiveness in Adolescent Memories

  • Kristin L. Nelson
  • Edward Bein
  • Julia Huemer
  • Erika Ryst
  • Hans Steiner
Original Article


We describe a linguistic clue to speakers’ states of mind that has utility for psychotherapists and counselors, and summarize the theoretical and empirical support for using this clue in clinical practice. Specifically, we posit that the degree to which people relate stressful episodes from their lives as a chronological sequence of events is negatively associated with the extent to which they self-protectively avoid experiencing negative affect. We review relevant discussions and findings from linguistics and psychology, and then present a new study that replicates previous research. In this study of the relationship between defensive avoidance and the narrative structure of stressful memories in non-clinical adolescents, 168 high school students spoke for 10 min into a tape recorder about “your most stressful life event.” Transcribed interviews were analyzed for narrative immersion, the extent to which the past is retold in chronological order, using a method adopted from Labov and Waletzky. A negative association was found between narrative immersion and avoidance (as operationalized by scores on the Marlowe Crowne Social Desirability Scale). Listening for narrative immersion in the speech of clients discussing past stressful times may therefore represent a useful tool in exploring defensive avoidance of stressful episodic memories.


Adolescents Autobiographical memory Avoidance Defensiveness Episodic memory Event-specific memories Narrative Referential activity Repression 



This project was supported by grants to Dr. Steiner from the NIMH-BSRG, the Constance B. Wilson Foundation, The California Wellness Foundation Violence Prevention Initiative and the Eucalyptus Foundation. The authors wish to thank Sanja Medic and Carol Chao for extensive work in narrative coding for reliability. We thank Nicole Hernandez and Alex Silver for help with transcript preparation. No conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristin L. Nelson
    • 1
  • Edward Bein
    • 2
  • Julia Huemer
    • 3
  • Erika Ryst
    • 4
  • Hans Steiner
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyMcDaniel CollegeWestminsterUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of Pittsburgh Medical SchoolPittsburghUSA
  3. 3.Department of Child and Adolescent PsychiatryMedical University ViennaViennaAustria
  4. 4.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of Nevada School of MedicineRenoUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesStanford University School of MedicineStanfordUSA

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