I recently found an article about an intriguing study at Emory University finding that children who knew more about their family history show higher levels of well-being. I cannot locate the original 2010 study, and while I have found related studies, I have not found any more recent work replicating the findings of the Emory study. But it tracks with other research and what we all know about the power of stories. Helping children know where they fit into their family story is an important part of helping them find their place in the world.
A few weeks ago, I attended a funeral for a family friend, and overheard someone saying that our friend was the “5th generation buried in this cemetery.” The friend’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are scattered across the country now, but they know the stories of those generations and where they fit in their family history. The area may not be home to them, but it is part of their family story.
So, where does this leave stepparents and foster parents? In both instances, we drop into a family history that is not ours. Our children, particularly foster children, may have lost contact with their families and their own early history. We can’t just fill the hole with our stories. They may or may not accept our family stories as their own, and there is no true replacement for stories of the family that they remember. That doesn’t mean that we can’t tell those stories; we just have to recognize that our stories won’t have the same value.
The only answer, then, is to help children rediscover stories of their biological family. The Emory researchers recommend helping kids find the answers to 20 questions about their family. The questions range from how their parents met to where grandparents grew up. These questions are not a complete list of stories that we can help our children learn, but they are an excellent template.
If we have a good relationship with their biological parents, the job is much easier. Encourage your children to ask their parents these questions. If nothing else, it will give them something to talk about with each other. Even if your children (ahem, teenagers) don’t seem to be interested, keep up with the project. As Prof. Robyn Fivus, an expert in the field said recently, ““If they roll their eyes, so be it, they’re still listening.”
If we and children have lost contact with biological family, the task is more daunting. But it is not impossible. One project that I wish I had worked on with my foster children is a Lifebook. Designed for foster and adoptive children, Lifebooks help them learn about their past and connect it to their present situation. The Child Welfare website has links to some excellent examples. Of course, if a child comes from a traumatic background, it may not be emotionally safe for them to revisit their past outside therapy. As always, be guided by their therapists and clinical treaters. At the very least, we can start with the day that they moved into our home and keep up with photos, school awards, and other mementos that they can take with them as they grow.
Family stories and Lifebooks are ways to harness the universal storytelling impulse. The more stories of resilience that we can find, the more likely our children are to see themselves in those stories. Then they can weave those stories into their own narratives and be confident and resilient as they approach the challenges that life will throw at them.