New BYU study shows one way adolescents can develop healthy identity and why it matters

Study provides some empirical evidence that supports what Church leaders have long taught about participation in family history

In 2006, Brigham Young University professor and researcher Brian Hill traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa. With the help of DNA, or genetic genealogy, he was able to help youth who had been abandoned on the streets as children identify their tribes and families.

“They had some fun singing and dancing what they had learned,” Hill recalled to the Church News. 

Afterward, he interviewed the youth. “I remember very vividly how some of them said that before the program, ‘I didn’t know who I was.’ … This meant to me that knowing where we are from and about our family tells us who we are. Family history knowledge is a bedrock part of our identity.”

This experience illustrates in part the results of a study on the impact of family history on adolescent identity. “People almost universally know where they are from and something about their family. We take this knowledge for granted, but now I can imagine what it might feel like to be without that,” Hill said.

Why study family history?

Hill, along with fellow researcher Clive Haydon, has been studying family history in an academic sense for more than 15 years. 

Through the years, Hill’s department at BYU has evolved into what is now the Experience and Design Management Department within the Marriott School of Business. 

“One focus of our program is transformative experiences which are often influenced by our ability to tell stories about how we have been changed,” Hill explained. “I see a meaningful link between storytelling, transformation and the stories of our ancestry.”

Haydon is a part of the Applied Ancestry Project, which was established in 2002 by friend and colleague Peter Rancie. The mission of the project is to utilize family history to strengthen individuals, families and communities, especially youth who have experienced a breakdown in family relationships or are struggling to find their place in the world.

The list of blessings of family history promised by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — or ways it can strengthen individuals, families and communities — is lengthy and thorough. 

Just last weekend at the Family Discovery Day of RootsTech 2023, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles promised: “The trials and accomplishments of our ancestors can bless us with faith and strength today. Their love and sacrifices can increase our perspective and gratitude.”

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But the new study results, co-written by Hill and Haydon, provide some empirical evidence that supports what Church leaders like Elder Gong have long taught: that family history work can facilitate important blessings, especially to youth.

“Although intuitively the idea that knowing family history can strengthen individual and family identity feels right, and anecdotal evidence also suggests this, we felt it was important to provide empirical evidence to support that proposition and to underpin applied ancestry youth programs,” Haydon said.

Specifically, the study — published in the journal Genealogy — found that family history knowledge is linked to healthy adolescent identity development. The more youth knew about their parents and grandparents, the better.

What they found

The researchers surveyed almost 250 18- to 20-year-old students at seven U.S. universities and found that individuals who had the healthiest identity development also had high levels of family history knowledge.

The study looked at what students knew about the major events and important anecdotes from their parents’ and grandparents’ lives. The researchers also assessed how developed the students’ identities were — whether they were close with family, how they had arrived at their political and religious views, how they had explored occupational options and how committed they were to their values.

A young woman looks on a microfilm reader while doing family history research.
A young woman looks on a microfilm reader while doing family history research. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

About 77% of the adolescent participants knew the answers to three-quarters of the family history questions. The more they knew, the more likely they were to have developed a healthy sense of identity.

“Family history knowledge is particularly good at keeping us grounded,” Hill noted in a BYU news release. “There are kids who go off and explore their own paths without settling into a value system that can guide them going forward. We need knowledge of where we come from along with individual differentiation from family to find a steady path.”

The importance of identity

The teenage years are a period of exploration where adolescents weigh family and societal values and make decisions about what they believe. 

A teenager with a healthy sense of identity will feel both a sense of connection to family and an adherence to their own beliefs, Hill explained. “I might also call this a balance between family identities and individual identities.”

Adolescents who develop a healthy sense of identity are less likely to struggle later in life with family and individuality conflicts, Hill said. “They can function better independently and interdependently at the same time.”

Identity formation is a lifelong process, but it peaks in late adolescence, noted Haydon. Research suggests that healthy identity formation is related to well-being and flourishing, such as increased self-worth, being able to exercise self-restraint as well as academic success, whereas poor identity formation is related to anxiety, depression and misbehavior.

“Healthy identity formation in adolescence predicts well-being in adulthood,” Haydon told the Church News.

A family looks through family history records together. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Haydon also noted a caveat to the study’s findings. The way family history is shared and explored may impact whether it enhances or hinders positive identity development. “Our limited experience suggests that sharing family history is most likely to influence positive adolescent identity development when it promotes positive relationships, respects personal agency and invites personal reflection,” Haydon said.

When values, goals and roles are imposed upon adolescents, positive identity development is hindered. 

This study represents just a fragment of the ongoing research involving family history and identity development. Keeping in mind the limitations of the study, Haydon said, “this research provides limited empirical evidence that suggests that the prophetic teaching that engaging in family history work can help us ‘connect, belong and become’ is accurate” (see Elder Gong’s talk, “We Each Have a Story,” from April 2022 general conference).

Hill added: “I think we see the prophetic influence on encouraging youth participation in family history — it leads to all kinds of good. By participating in family history work, youth can be touched by the spirit of Elijah and the powerful feeling of closeness to ancestors, they are more likely to go to the temple on behalf of these ancestors and feel the Savior’s peace as they spend time there, and now we know they can also further develop with positive and healthy identities as they learn more about their families.”

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