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Help Kids Cope During Tough Times

by Ronica O’Hara

In these challenging times as our children struggle to cope with a swiftly changing world, one of the best things we can do is simply to let them know what strong stuff they come from. Decades of research show that children that know their family’s stories—especially how their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other forebears overcame adversity—have the ability to handle societal and personal trauma better.

“Family stories help children feel safe, secure and grounded,” says psychology professor Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., director of the Family Narratives Lab at Emory University, in Atlanta. “The stories provide a sense that they belong to something larger than themselves.” In the midst of unsettling events, she says it’s especially important for children to know that the family has been through hard times before and persevered.

Emory research shows that children, teens and young adults that know more of their family’s narratives have a greater sense of control over their lives, more self-esteem, better grades, higher social competence, less anxiety and depression, and fewer behavior problems. After 9/11, children that tested high in measures of family narratives proved to be more resilient and less stressed.

Family stories can be of loss—“Once we had it all”—or of triumph—“We came up from nowhere”—but the most powerful stories are those that show both the peaks and the valleys, the hilarious escapades and deep losses. “Even simply hearing what other people wish they could have done differently helps to offer children a broader perspective to current experiences,” says Carrie Krawiec, a family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic, in Troy, Michigan. Accounts of the deepest trauma also prove formative: Knowing how their great-grandparents survived the Holocaust gave young adults a sense of gratitude, pride, courage and a greater religious commitment, a University of Pennsylvania study found.

Stories unfold easily at holiday dinners and during long car rides; even during an ordinary dinner, some kind of story—“Guess what happened today at the store?”—occurs about every five minutes, Fivush’s research shows. But summer vacation or days spent together inside a house provide a special opportunity for kids to dive deeper into their family background. For example, they can write an essay about a grandparent or aunt, write and direct a play with siblings, make a scrapbook, read history or novels to study events that took place during a specific time period, write a song or story from the ancestor’s point of view, research and draw a family tree or create a mini-documentary based on an interview with an older relative.

This is the quiz used in family narrative research, but Fivush cautions that the 20 questions are only a starting point, and many more can be created. Nor does getting the facts exactly right matter—those can easily be in dispute among family members. “It is the telling, the sharing and the listening that is more important than the story itself,” she says.

Do you know how your parents met?
Do you know where your mother grew up?
Do you know where your father grew up?
Do you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
Do you know where your parents were married?
Do you know what went on when you were being born?
Do you know the source of your name?
Do you know some things about what happened when your brothers or sisters were being born?
Do you know which person in your family you look most like?
Do you know which person in the family you act most like?
Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?
Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?
Do you know the national or ethnic background of your family?
Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?
Do you know some awards that your parents received when they were young?
Do you know the names of the schools that your mom went to?
Do you know the names of the schools that your dad went to?
Do you know about a relative whose face “froze” in a grumpy position because he or she did not smile enough?

Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.

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