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How Family Stories Help Us Cope

Especially with social distancing, family stories will keep us close.

These are unnerving times and all of us are struggling to make sense of the COVID-19 crisis. Experts are providing excellent advice on how to practice self-care, how to keep your families safe, how to talk with your young children about what is happening, and I encourage you to take advantage of all of these sources of information.

But here is one more thing you can do—tell family stories! I know, it sounds ridiculous at some level. What do family stories have to do with keeping safe today and tomorrow? But you might be surprised. One thing that we have learned from decades of research in The Family Narratives Lab at Emory University is that family stories provide a foundation for feeling emotionally safe and secure for children. Family stories anchor children in a history of parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, many of whom faced great challenges and persevered. These stories help children build resilience and strength.

Many of you are home with your children now, trying to both school them and entertain them. Family stories are a way in. Stories of family members who were part of history—wars, the civil rights movement, 9/11—help your children both understand the family they are a part of and understand that they are a part of history. Create family trees, and tell stories about the members. Tell stories about funny escapades and close calls, about joyous occasions and deep losses. Illustrate a family story. Help your children understand that families persevere through both the good times and the challenging times.

Family stories also build connections among family members—physical and psychological attributes that tie us to each other in tangible ways. For example, family members may share the same nose and also the same stubbornness. We laugh at others and that lets us laugh at ourselves. We cry for others and that allows us to understand our own sorrow in new ways.

As you tell these stories, listen to your children. As you tell family stories, children may become more empowered to talk about their own fears and anxieties. Their responses to these stories will help you understand what your children are most stressed about. Let your children express their anxieties, and help them find a way to cope with them. Providing a sympathetic ear and reassuring them can go a long way.

And on the lighter side, family stories can be fun. Stories about great adventures and funny escapades help people relax and laugh together. We are living in close quarters and tensions run high—laughter is really good for us! Laughing together reminds us how much we care about each other, and laughing actually boosts our immune systems!

We are, indeed, living in unnerving times. We may need to physically social distance, but the stories will keep us close.