Dear Diary, remember when we were this close? I told you everything—my hopes, my hurts, my dreams. Even my elaborate plans to win over you-know-who, and the day I realized I no longer cared. I poured my guts out and somehow, my guts stopped churning. We were an amazing team, which is why it pains me to see our kids glued to their phones, passively enjoying someone else’s narrative. Where’s the catharsis in that? There isn’t any, which is why it’s time to reconsider why we loved journaling in the first place.
Not only is journaling a great excuse for kids to unplug (a meditative me time, if you will), but science backs up what we’ve always suspected: Expressive writing (as it’s known in therapeutic circles) offers all sorts of mind and body benefits to stressed out, teched-out children and teens.
BETTER MENTAL HEALTH
Kids and teens are rife with feelings about everything: friendships, fears, the future. A journal is a safe place to spill, allowing even reserved children to make sense of the thoughts swirling in their heads. “Putting upsetting experiences into words helps people organize and simplify very complicated events that are almost impossible to understand,” says James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and researcher on the connection between trauma, expression and health.
Journaling can help people get a sense of how they can relate these experiences to others, he says, prompting even deep secret keepers to open up in real life. Bottling up negative feelings takes a toll, potentially increasing stress, anxiety, rumination and depression. Writing things down lets in a fresh perspective. “They come to the realization that the events weren’t as overwhelming as they thought. For example, we’ve found that people who’ve kept big secrets for years will now talk to others after writing them down,” says Pennebaker. A regular writing practice can help kids open up to loved ones, air out negative feelings, de-stress and feel better.
A HEALTHIER BODY
The mind-body connection is strong, and mental improvements often manifest into physical ones. “The specific benefits will likely be better physical health [and] fewer colds, flus, infections and other problems associated with weakened immune systems,” says Pennebaker. He also cites sleeping better, lower rates of bedwetting and improved symptoms related to depression, among other additional potential upsides of expressive writing. Although numerous studies bear these findings, few are specifically focused on kids and teens, he notes. “However, I think the benefits for kids and teens are probably similar to adults.”
AN ACADEMIC BOOST
For some kids, words flow naturally from the pen. Most need practice (and more practice) to master writing. Journaling prompts kids to experiment, self-reflect, find their voice and simply work out kinks in a low-stakes, low-pressure manner without an adult lecturing on the importance of capitalization and paragraphs. “Children can learn all sorts of skills from having their own ‘writing life’ outside of assignments at school,” says Jennifer Serravallo, an NJ-based literary consultant and author of numerous books devoted to developing reading and writing skills.
Those skills include coming up with topics that matter, planning and organizing writing into parts, working on elaboration and self-editing, and playing with word choice, all of which can enrich in-school writing projects. And while a classic “dear diary” scenario suits many kids, some may enjoy filling pages with stories and poetry, memorable conversations and sayings and even art. “Drawing can be a great way for kids to get ideas down first before writing words. Sketching also counts as writing,” says Serravallo.
STRONGER PEER RELATIONSHIPS
From navigating fraught friendships to handling young love, growing up is hard. Journaling can help kids cope. “Personal writing without input from others forces you to make your own meaning, come up with solutions and work through it at your own pace. In many cases, I’d predict better social connections in the months after writing,” says Pennemaker. Kids gain perspective, find their own fixes and gain confidence in their own social abilities.
CLOSER FAMILY CONNECTIONS
We’re all so busy doing our thing. A shared journal, aka two people taking turns reading and writing, is one technique parents and kids can use to better relate to one another. Hannah (pseudonym), a Maplewood mom of four, started journaling with her oldest daughter in second grade on the hunch that she might be more comfortable expressing herself through writing.
“We have a big family and busy life so sometimes, with her quiet personality, she isn’t always ‘heard.’ Our notes back and forth are often short and sweet, but sometimes she’ll share a deep thought or spill a secret. Whenever that journal shows up under my pillow, it brings a smile to my face,” she says. “We write less often now that she’s in middle school, but it’s a great way to check in when I can tell something’s up but she won’t talk about it. If anything, it’s had more benefit to me, reassured me that she really was okay when I wasn’t so sure. It’s also just a nice way for me to remind her how awesome I think she is. She loves it so much she even bought us a new journal for my birthday!”
If sharing a single journal doesn’t feel right, another option is for each person to write separately (and keep their writing to themselves) and then discuss, says Pennemaker. “This allows both parents and children to hold back talking to the other about especially sensitive topics.”
—Jennifer Kantor is a lifestyle and parenting writer. She lives in Maplewood with her two kids.