Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rx: Storytelling

Like many of you this week I have been asking "what would make someone do that?" in the  aftermath of the the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Acts of terror are always scary. But even more so when we confront home-grown terrorists. We want to know: "How could they do this to us of they are of us?" But as the story of the suspects emerges, we see that though they were living in Cambridge, they were not at home there. The Tsarneav brothers seem to have felt cast adrift, disconnected from the world around them. Certainly they had no family support. And it seems, even though Dzhokhar had friends at school, the brothers weren't all that rooted in their community.

Which brought to mind a very different article I read last month in the New York Times. This article  resonated with me. Though we all experience stress in family situations, most of us cope with it in a very haphazard, ad hoc way. So I was happy to see author Bruce Feilor more closely examining the issue by asking: "What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?" I hoped, for the sake of parents everywhere, that he had an answer we could easily implement. In a world that allows for instant connectivity, it seems to me that true connection--the kind that grounds a young person in a real community--is harder and harder to come by.

The good news is: it's not rocket science or brain surgery. The answer is a strong family narrative, a story of the generations who came before and rode the rollercoaster of life, of the family that has survived and now makes up this generation. The article sites research by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robin Fyvush of Emory University that shows kids who deal well with adversity are the ones who feel embedded in a strong family story: "Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves..."

They continue to explain that even after suffering the trauma of September 11, the kids who had a strong family narrative recovered from their psychic wounds more quickly. Of course most of us know we need to communicate about problems, struggles, what we may call our "issues." But building a family story involves more that trouble-shooting or reacting to the next bad report card or phone call from the principal. To create this story you need to take the initiative and be proactive. The experts tell us "talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence."

Your children, nieces, nephews, and younger friends may resist your stories, greeting them with eye rolls and yawns, but it is important to tell them. We all have a deeply human need to be part of some group larger than ourselves. And if we have an empty space inside where that connection should be, we can easily fall prey to gangs and cults that offer to fill it. So we must make these connections by telling those stories to do our families--and our communities--a greater good.

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