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Family Dynamics

Family Stories Are the Ties That Bind Us

Knowledge of family stories links to positive youth outcomes.

Key points

  • Research shows that adolescent well-being links to family stories and knowledge of family history.
  • Family stories make abstract values concrete; they embody a way of being in the world.
  • Children and adolescents embedded in family stories have a sense of history and belonging.

Ten years ago, Bruce Feiler, who writes a newsletter on The Nonlinear Life, published an article in The New York Times titled “The Stories That Bind Us.” It remains his most-read piece of writing across all the books, articles, and newsletters he has written in his remarkable and successful 35-year career. And what are the stories that bind us? Why, family stories, of course!

As Bruce was writing this article, and the larger book from which it was excerpted, The Secret of Happy Families, he contacted me and my colleague, Marshall Duke, about the longitudinal research that we were doing on family storytelling. We had just published our first few articles demonstrating that if adolescents knew more about their family history, where their grandparents went to school, how their parents met, and even difficult events such as a terrible illness that a family member suffered, they showed more positive outcomes: lower anxiety, higher self-esteem, a higher sense of family cohesion.

We started that work before the tragic events of 9/11. As we followed these families through that crisis, we found additional evidence that those adolescents who know more of their family history coped better with the challenges brought on by the 9/11 attacks. It made perfect sense on some level – children and adolescents embedded in family stories have a sense of history and belonging. Yet, as scientists, we could not help but wonder, what is it about family stories and family storytelling that might be this powerful?

Over the past decade, we have continued to explore this question. One thing we are very sure of, is that the initial findings hold up. We have now interviewed hundreds of adolescents across multiple cultures, asking them to tell us stories they may know about their parents growing up, what we call intergenerational narratives, and asking them the “20 questions” that tap the knowledge of family history.

Some adolescents and young adults know more stories, tell stories in more elaborated ways, and especially tell stories from the perspective of their parent, what their parent was thinking and feeling, and how their parent interacted with their parents. The life lessons they may have learned from these experiences. These adolescents and young adults really benefit from knowing these stories – we have replicated again, and again outcomes such as lower anxiety and higher self-esteem and have further found that these adolescents and young adults have a higher sense of meaning and purpose in life.

We have also determined that it is storytelling that is important. Certainly, open communication plays a role, but even in those families that report high levels of open communication, trust, and engagement, knowing family stories still predicts higher well-being. And it is the stories about families that matter. Stories about friends and mentors are important but do not have nearly the same impact as stories about parents and other family members. Critically, although the 20 questions is a good predictor, it is not whether adolescents know these specific stories – rather, these question index the extent to which a family frequently engages in storytelling.

So why family stories? Parents remain critical identity figures for adolescents and young adults; they look to their parents as they explore their identity: who am I and who do I want to be? How am I like my family (or possibly not like my family)? How do I understand my life as it unfolds? What are the important lessons and values? Answers to these questions are embedded in the stories that adolescents and young adults tell about their parents – stories that chart their parents' successes and their problems, difficulties, and challenges.

How parents and their parents before them met the inevitable obstacles of life, provide models of perseverance and hope. Family stories make abstract values concrete; they embody a way of being in the world, and adolescents and young adults model themselves on these stories – this is the kind of person I am. These are the kind of people I come from.

Ten years later, we have confirmed and expanded our understanding of the importance of family storytelling for positive youth development. Family storytelling has become part of our public discourse; applications and websites abound for collecting and collating family stories. Many of these provide excellent resources for documenting family history. But you don’t need an app!

Research from the Family Narratives Lab confirms that most families spontaneously engage in storytelling all the time – an average of five to six stories emerge over an everyday dinner conversation – and that adolescents are listening and hearing these stories and using them to carve out their identities. There is no secret to happy families; just tell stories!

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