Woman on the phone

Many moms will be getting flowers, gifts, and maybe even a phone call this Mother’s Day. If you notice a change in mood after talking to your mother, that might not be a coincidence. As one scientist discovered, a conversation with mom can prompt women to “re-author” narratives about negative experiences in a way that makes them more positive, improving both their outlook and coping skills.

Dr. Haley Horstman, a professor at the University of Missouri, offers research that suggests when people experience something difficult, they tend to “storify” the memory. Telling the story helps the individual cope with the bad experience, in what is called “Communicated Narrative Sense-Making,” or CNSM. But Horstman also found that sharing that story with one’s own mother tended to create a more positive version of the narrative, and improve the person’s overall well-being.

Discussing painful experiences with mom helps daughters reframe the narrative, Horstman's study suggests.
Discussing painful experiences with mom helps daughters reframe the narrative, Horstman's study suggests.

Horstman’s first experiment began by inviting 62 young adult women to her lab to share a personal, negative experience. The women wrote their stories and then answered questions about how they felt at that moment. Two days later, the participants’ mothers joined them at the lab and each pair was asked to have a 15-minute conversation about the same stories. Two days after the mother-daughter conversation, the young women were asked to repeat step one of writing down the same story and answering the same questions about their mood.

Horstman’s team of researchers found that the second versions of these stories were overwhelmingly positive. Findings revealed that CNSM, particularly when the mother and daughter took turns speaking, predicted increased positivity in daughters’ stories over time. The study was eventually published in the journal Communication Monographs and suggests that CNSM with mom contributes to the “re-authoring” of individual stories in a way that helps them cope.

“The takeaway from this study is that our narratives matter,” Horstman told the academic nonprofit Futurity. “Interpersonal communication has the power to change the way we make sense of our lives. If mothers can foster warmth and affection in their conversations, and if daughters listen to their mother’s perspective, the conversations can help daughters work through negative emotions associated with stress.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until Mother’s Day to feel the positive effects of these conversations. The tactic of CNSM can be applied whenever you feel like giving mom a call.