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Is it really about the Skeletons?

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In my last blog I talked about trauma in previous generations of the family and how knowing about this can be helpful for the current generation. Now let’s talk about the benefits of knowing about family, not just about the traumas.

Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University in Atlanta Georgia asked children from 48 families 20 questions about their family history. They called this the “Do You Know” scale. Marshall Duke points out the major criterion for inclusion in this set of questions was that they test knowledge of things that children could not possibly have learned firsthand, thus relying on having learned these through the telling of family stories or other indirect sources. What they found was that children who knew more had:

  • a stronger their sense of control over their own lives
  • higher self-esteem,
  • lower levels of anxiety,
  • fewer behavioural problems
  • improved chances for a good outcome if the child faces educational or emotional/behavioural difficulties

They also found that the families of the children who knew more functioned better. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush reassessed the children in these same families shortly after the tragedy that was Sept 11. The families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, but they had all experienced the same national trauma at the same time. They found that the children who knew more about their families proved more able to moderate the effects of stress, were more resilient.

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.”, a sense of their history and that their identity stretches back 100 of years giving them connection, strength and resilience.

The research shows that children who have a strong “family narrative” in particular one about the ups and downs of life and how the hard times were overcome, enjoy better emotional health. Dr Duke asserts that negative family stories can be even more important than the positive ones for fostering children’s emotional resilience.

So this is good news right, all we have to do is teach our kids the answers to the “Do you know” questionnaire and they will have all these benefits. An easy fix is really appealing but of course there is more to it than that. We need to look at how it is that some children know more than others and what are the factors in the family that contribute to this.

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