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The Family: Its Stories and Myths

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The family story: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

“I remember as a twelve year old boy, living in my grandparents apartment in a walk up building in the Bronx, my grandparents, with all of us gathered around an open window in hopes of catching a warm breeze on those hot and humid August, would tell their stories of how they grew up in Russia and the Lower East Side of Manhattan of long ago. The stories were sometimes funny, sad, tragic and other times, warmly nostalgic as they talked about long passed away great and great great grandparents, uncles and aunts. Those stories live in my head and imagination to this day.”

Stories and story telling are an important part of our lives. We read stories written in novels, watch reality television in which the stories of other people are depicted and we watch stories on the big screen in the movies and on our big television screens. Many of us read the stories of real people who write questions to Mentalhelp.net about their lives and problems. All us have our personal stories but all of us come from families where there is a family narrative. The answers to the questions above form part of the family narrative.

Psychologists state that every family has a story or narrative that unifies all within the structure of that family. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, those narratives take one of three shapes:

First, there is the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “As my daughter I want you to know that we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

Third, “The most healthful narrative,” according to Dr. Duke continued, “is the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.'”

Dr. Duke reports that children who have the most self-confidence have what he calls a strong “inter generational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. These families talking through problems. However, talking also means telling a positive story about the family. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming that challenge. This is particularly important for children who need this family narrative or lore during adolescence when identity if being solidified.

It really doesn’t matter whether the narrative is factually accurate or not. After all, memory distorts events from the past. Rather, the narrative becomes part of the family theme that takes on almost mythical dimensions. The oral tradition is the way stories, tales, myths and adventures have been handed from generation to generation from the beginning of time.

Do you know your family narrative? If not, why not find out if family members can relate them to you now? It’s never too late. Add that the fact that, remembered or not, we add to the narrative in the present to hand down to our children and grandchildren.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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