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The Power of Story: Weaving Threads of Resilience Across Generations

Published on: December 30, 2013


This post is part of our Growing Character series on raising a resilient child.

When my children were little, every now and then we’d share stories at dinner. I’ll never forget the morning we sat at breakfast long after the food was gone listening to Grandpa tell us his stories about flying in a bomber during World War II. We got to imagine him in the plane, freezing cold because the entire crew had given their jackets to the man who lay in the nose cone of the plane for protection. In the eyes of the crew this was the only man on board who “had to live” because he had children at home.

Some of our favorite stories included mistakes. Like the time we got to the airport only to realize that one child had left her shoes at home. Or the time that the very curious cat found herself head down at the bottom of the tiny space between the hot water heater and the wall and how we rescued her. Or how we rescued that same cat when she found herself in the space between the walls in the house.

Stories.  What do our stories have to do with resilience? We know now that the stories about ourselves and the stories we know about our family make a big difference. Our sense of connection to our inter-generational family helps us moderate the impact of stress in our everyday lives. That sense of connection creates resilience.

Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, began exploring resilience in children in the 1990s. His sense was that when children knew about their families that they handled the ups and downs of life more easily. He and a colleague, Dr. Fivush, developed a 20-question survey called “Do You Know” that they gave to children to find out what kinds of things they knew about their families. As reported recently in the New York Times, “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.” Much to their surprise, the “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Drs. Duke and Fivush found three basic kinds of family stories or narratives: the kind that imply that things are getting better (an ascending narrative), those that suggest that they are getting worse (a descending narrative) and what they call an oscillating narrative. Stories featuring an oscillating narrative include both elements of success and failure, stories of living with and overcoming adversity.  Not surprisingly, children who knew their families through stories of success and failure fared the best in moments of challenge.

How to weave threads of resilience into the fabric of your family:

  • Build rituals and traditions. They become part of your family’s story. They can be daily, weekly, or around special times of year. How do you celebrate April Fool’s Day? Or May Day or any of the holidays that reflect your family’s religious or cultural traditions?
  • Create a family journal. Document some of your family’s history through writing and pictures. Our family meeting agendas have become a kind of family journal. We can look back at the doodles in the margins, the “problems” we solved and even how we planned family outings and meals.
  • Have a regular family story night. At the dinner table you and your children can share favorite celebrations, playful moments, challenges, mistakes and learning. Share how you bounced back from more difficult moments as well as embraced the positive ones.
  • Learn more about the bigger family. Help your children ask older relatives about their stories. StoryCorps offers great ideas and suggestions for documenting family stories.
  • Weaving your own family narrative, it turns out, may not only increase the resilience and happiness in your own family but may mean that your family may thrive for generations to come.

    Jody McVittie, MD is the executive director and cofounder of Sound Discipline, a local nonprofit dedicated to teaching people to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Sound Discipline works with schools and families in the Puget Sound Community.

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