Can emotional health be connected to a story about your grandma’s difficult childhood? It turns out family stories are more than entertainment. They’re one of the best ways to teach your kids resilience.

Before we get into the science side of this article, I thought about some of the recurring stories my kids want me to tell them:

“Mom, tell me about that time your sister got stuck in the mud and you left her there and didn’t tell anybody.”

Emotional health post with graphic of generational family

“Will you tell me the story of when you were a baby and Aunt Heidi made you eat poisonous toadstools?”

“I want to hear about the 4th of July when Grandpa accidentally shot a firework at Uncle Bandy and it burned a hole in his shirt.”

As a kid, I asked my parents and grandparents to tell me stories about:

“Grandpa, tell me about that time Troy almost drowned in the pond.”

“Grandma, what did you do after the hurricane destroyed your trailer home?”

“What was it like to have polio, Grandma?”

Create a Strong Family Narrative

I was doing some research on family stories and an article about children and emotional health came up in the New York Times. It said one of the most important things you can do for your family is to develop a strong family narrative. It turns out that children who know a lot about their families do better when they face challenges. A couple of researchers created a test, the Do You Know? scale, that asked children to answer 20 questions like, Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Where did your mom and dad go to high school? Have you heard of an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know how your parents met?

They taped families answering these questions and compared the children’s answers to psychological tests the children had taken. They discovered that 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 test turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness, according to the Times article.

Being Part of Something Larger

Why would knowing where your grandmother grew up help a child overcome stress in their lives? It has to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family. Children who have the most self-confidence have a strong “intergenerational self,” according to the Times.

“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.” state the article.

Start Defining Your Family Narrative

So let’s get started. How do you create a family narrative? Start by grabbing a notebook and writing down a few family stories that answer topics like:

  • A time we helped someone in need
  • A sad event we went through together
  • A challenging time for our family
  • A proud moment or shared achievement
  • A difficult experience faced by a grandparent
  • A time when your family’s honor or reputation was at risk
  • A personal tragedy someone has experienced
  • A story of lasting love
  • A story of supporting someone who made a mistake

Once you’ve created your list of family stories, ask your spouse or partner to add to it. Start sharing a stories around the dinner table, on car rides or while waiting for your food to arrive at restaurants. As you share these stories, take note of any new stories that are told.

Record and Preserve Your Stories

As favorite stories emerge, take time to record yourself telling them. Write them down. Add details. Ask your kids to tell the stories. Talk about how the stories make you feel. Make sure to talk about the hard times. Learning how their parents and grandparents survived difficult times will help give your kids the emotional intelligence they need to survive their own difficult times ahead.

If you need more inspiration, check out the 200+ biography questions in the Resource Center. They might help jog your memory about family stories.

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Grandma and granddaughter baking in a kitchen.Family creating a family time capsule