Our family stories help our kid's mental health
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I’d ike to introduce you all to Dr. Amanda Gummer, a research psychologist specialising in child development. Amanda has set up three organisations: Fundamentally Children, FUNdamentals and The Good Toy Guide Ltd, all of which promote the value of play and positive parenting in child development.
Amanda is also a founding member of the Children's Activities Association. Her first book, Play: Fun Ways to HelpYour Children Develop in the first 5 Years, is written from her evidence-based model of family life called Parent-Centred Parenting which is used as the basis for her parenting workshops and consultancy.
Amanda is a member of The International Toy Research Association, the British Psychological Society, and Play England and has been involved with parliamentary policy on children’s issues. She regularly appears on national TV and her opinion and expertise is sought by many of the national newspapers, and various national and local radio stations.
Amanda is passionate about giving children the best opportunities in life and we’re really excited that she’s found time to speak to us about a subject that is so close to our hearts as well.
A Girl for All Time (AGAT): Hi Amanda – it’s great that you’ve managed to carve a little time from your busy schedule to have a chat. Thanks so much for speaking to us.
Amanda Gummer: Thanks for having me, Frances – really pleased to be here today.
AGAT: I am going to dive right into the interview then!
A very large part of your teaching and advocacy is that children are programmed to learn through play. Given your expertise on the emotional benefits of play, we’d love to hear some of your input about a topic we’re passionate about: how children benefit from knowing their own family stories and its impact on their mental wellbeing.
AG: Mental health and well-being for our children is one of the most important topics in childcare right now, and knowing how we as parents and carers can help our children deal with the challenges that they are facing today is vital. There is quite a bit of research supporting the fact that knowing our family stories can be a powerful tool when dealing with negative life experiences and every day peer pressure, and can give us a stronger understanding of who we are, deepening our connection not only to past generations, but to our future ones as well.
FC: So knowing our own stories impacts no only us, but others as well ?
AG: Yes, absolutely. I think that knowing, recording, and preserving your family history directly impacts you, your family, and even future generations of people you may never know.
FC: So do you feel knowing your own story is all about dates and names and places of birth etc? Or is it something more ?
AG: Family history is definitely much more than pedigree charts, censuses, and birthdates- it’s actually the everyday stories of the people who lived before us.
FC: Yes, I completey agree with you about that. My own family, especially my grandmother, has always loved sharing stories about their own past, which is probably why it fascinates me so much. Knowing stories about my ancestors almost makes me feel as if I know them just a little bit better.
AG: Yes, that is precisely why it’s so important to share them. As human beings, we desire attachment, belonging, and connection. The relationships we form with other people can be incredibly durable, and that connection is not limited only to people in our lives right now: we can also connect with people in our past and by doing so, we connect with those in our future, too.
FC: I think that is a brilliant way of illustrating how a family tree reaches both behind us and in front of us. I’ve also read in a few articles that children who know about their family stories have better chances of coping with challenges later in life – can you tell us a little about that?
AG: I’m glad you mentioned that – caring for our children’s mental health is an ongoing job and having every tool available to ensure our children are in the best position possible to deal with today’s challenges is key for so many of us. The short answer is that that knowing our family history builds resilience. In learning about our ancestors’ lives, we can see patterns of overcoming failures and surviving hard times. Their stories remind us that not everything in life will work easily, that disappointments occur and inequalities exist, but that we can recover, triumph, and find happiness despite hardships.
One of the most important pieces of research on that very subject comes from the American psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, who found 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 their believed their families functioned. [It] turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”- Bruce Feiler (New York Times)
FC: So it sounds like it’s actually a good idea to share stories about the bad times as well as the good in our families past. Isn’t there a worry that children will find those distressing?
AG: Actually, the opposite is true. Families often shield children from the anything that can be distressing, but negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience. Duke made the point that discussing past family dramas can actually help facilitate interaction between parents and their children ( especially older ones ) especially when reading our older children a bedtime story is no longer part of our routine. As Duke said, sharing stories of our ancestors having overcome trauma “… do good even when the person is dead, [as] we continue to learn from them.” Hearing these stories also gives children a sense of their history and a strong ‘intergenerational self’. What he means is that even if they are only young, knowing that their family identity goes back generations connects them to the present, giving them strength and resilience.
FC: So you’re saying share the bad, along with the good!
AG: Yes definitely, just keeping in mind that the stories need to be told in an age appropriate manner. You do have to craft the story to the child’s age, in a sense. But there do seem to be three main types of story arcs, at least according to Duke and Fivush:
- The acsending one ( We came from nothing )
- The descending one ( We lost it all )
- The oscillatory one ( We've had our ups and downs )
The great thing is that these are really familiar formats and we often find them in children’s books so it’s easy to adapt our own family stories to these sorts of story arcs that our children will already be familiar with.
FC: It seems like it would be a great way to open up a sort of dialog between parent and child – get them involved in their own stories, as it were.
AG: Yes it really can help families open up a wonderful opportunity for communication and dialogue between parents and children, get children to ask questions and get parents talking in an honest way about the ups and downs life will have in store for all of us. When we know about the history of our ancestors, it helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, and it can inspire greater compassion for their flaws and mistakes. Their stories can teach us that not everything if life will work out the first time and that disappointments will happen but if we persevere, we can triumph and find happiness despite hardships. This empathy and understanding can then easily translate to relationships with those people that are here and now, our friends and family.
FC: Amanda thanks so very much for taking the time to speak to me over the last week. It's been so interesting to hear your own take on what is such an important part of raising children
Our family history goes beyond the names and dates we find out our tree, it makes us who we are. It’s about people with whom we can form deep connections. There is a beautiful quote from family therapist Stefan Walters, and seems a beautiful analogy to end this interview on:
We all feel stronger if we are part of a tapestry… One thread alone is weak, but, woven into something larger, surrounded by other threads, it is more difficult to unravel.