Family stories contribute to the healthy development of young people

Kids with a strong understanding of their family’s history have higher levels of emotional health.

In a recent article in the New York Times, writer Bruce Feiler examined the value of knowing and sharing our family stories. Feiler highlighted the work of researchers Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, who have explored the ways in which people recall the events of their lives help to define who we are in the world and how we understand ourselves and others. Through their work, Duke and Fivush have found that young people who have a strong understanding of their family history have a greater capacity for resiliency and higher levels of emotional health and happiness.

When Grandpa came back from overseas, he carried wartime images and memories that would stay with him forever. At the same time that he was learning how to return to a “normal” life, Grandma was leaving behind her small town and crowded family home, carrying her high school diploma and dreams of what life in the city might bring.

At the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University, Fivush and her colleagues have found that the development of teens is strengthened by hearing both the positive and challenging life experiences of their family members. During adolescence, teens are deepening their ability to understand the perspectives of others. Having access to family stories and a strong family narrative can help them better navigate their own challenges.

As the four-year-old girl entered the restaurant with her caseworker to meet the people who would become her adoptive parents, her face reflected anticipation, fear, curiosity and hope. She then stepped forward and walked into their hearts and lives, at the beginning a lifelong bond that nothing could break.

Michigan State University Extension says to consider ways to intentionally build opportunities for cross-generational sharing of family stories:

  • ŸLook for the everyday moments as well as special occasions to bring these stories into your conversations. Find opportunities during family meals, phone calls or car rides to bring up the “do you remember when?” or “did you know?” conversations. Find time during special gatherings – such as holiday meals, weddings and family reunions – to invite people across the generations to share something from their past.
  • ŸTell these important stories many times! When we provide space for a story that’s been told and re-told, it allows us to reinterpret and re-evaluate what these experiences mean to us. It can also help us understand that those involved with a particular story may have different perspectives about the same events.
  • ŸKeep in mind that cross-generational sharing means that people of all ages – including the children and youth who are present – should have the opportunity to share their stories and experiences. Remember that children will be in a different developmental space in terms of their understanding of stories they hear and relate to.
  • ŸEncourage those who are sharing their stories to add more and go deeper if they’re willing. While it’s important to hear about the “who, when, where, what and how” of an event, getting to the “why” helps us deepen our learning and understanding about why some things happened and why people may have behaved in particular ways.
  • ŸKeep in mind that the sharing of these stories often takes a lot of courage, especially when the circumstances we’re talking about were hard. Consider how you can model courage in sharing your own stories for and with young people in authentic ways.
  • Finally, reflect on your definition of “family.” Help the young people in your life learn from the stories and experiences of all those who are part of their important circle – close friends, extended family members, pets, significant teachers or youth leaders, and others. Having access to the stories of this circle of support helps kids learn that they belong to something bigger than themselves and can strengthen their resiliency now and in the future.

Coming out of early trauma that the people in her family could only wonder about, the cat grew into a steady, calming, trusting and gentle presence within the home where she ultimately lived for more than 16 years…

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