What makes families resilient?
From research by Dr Marshall Duke
The single most important thing you can do for your family may be to develop a strong family narrative.
Marshall Duke is professor of psychology at Emory University, Atlanta. He has authored more than 100 research articles and seven books, with a focus on families and other social learning networks.
His research shows that children who know a lot about their family tend to be more resilient: higher levels of self-esteem, more self-control, better family functioning, lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioral problems, and better chances for good outcomes when faced with challenges.
Why is that? Part of it is that family stories help children frame the question: “Do I come from the kind of family who would do X,Y or Z?” The X, Y or Z can be good, like helping someone in need, or bad like using drugs. This context goes with the child even when the family is not there. So this is very powerful. Through family stories, children develop a sense of what we call the “multigenerational self,” and the personal strength and moral guidance that comes with that. When something challenging happens, they can call on that expanded sense of self to pull through.
The research involved a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions. Such as: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mum and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?
They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
How do families develop this? Simple - storytelling - and that is a process. It comes out of time spent together, with certain people doing the telling and other people doing the listening.
Especially powerful are stories about a family’s specific successes and struggles, and how the family bounced back from challenging times. This helps the younger generations see that they, too, can overcome adversity.
It’s really important for grandparents, as well as parents and others, to realize that telling stories is life-affirming. Use meal-times, car journeys, special events like holidays, birthdays, family reunions, where extended family is together and not getting pulled away by various things. All the adults in the family should get into storytelling in whatever way they can. Everybody has stories that other people don’t have and people tend to have different versions of the same story. Grandma might say this was a terrible thing that happened but dad might think it wasn’t so bad. These different views teach kids perspective.
Family structure does not really matter. If a child is adopted into a family, the stories in that family belong to that child just as much as a biological child. If there is a second marriage, and there are stepmothers and stepfathers, those stories belong to the children as well. It’s just a richer set of stories. The more stories the kids can have about people dealing with situations in life that are not always great, the better. It’s about learning how people close to you behave in situations that arise in life.
The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.
See more in an interview with Dr Duke here.
Why not encourage families in you community to be storytellers?
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