Building resilient foundations: Crafting impactful family narratives for enhanced wellbeing

Building resilient foundations: Crafting impactful family narratives for enhanced wellbeing
Family narrative consultant Jamie Yuenger explains how open and vulnerable storytelling can keep families together…
By Jamie Yuenger

For a number of years, social researchers at Emory University and other respected institutions have been investigating the scientific impact of personal storytelling on people’s wellbeing over time. Solid, peer-reviewed research now demonstrates a strong relationship between a person’s overall mental and emotional health and the family stories a person has heard, particularly those about challenging times.

Robyn Fivush, a researcher on autobiographical memory at Emory University, says there are three critical elements to personal storytelling that directly correlate with a person’s current and future wellbeing. “From knowing these stories [about challenging times], we see an increase, particularly among adolescents and young adults, in self-esteem and their sense of meaning and purpose in life,” says Fivush. In short, we can build resilience in our families and children by engaging in impactful storytelling.

Building resilient foundations: Crafting impactful family narratives for enhanced wellbeing

Maybe you’ve found yourself telling a story to your children, your spouse, or a larger group, and you shy away from expressing negative emotions related to the event. Or, perhaps you skip over certain parts of a story for fear of judgement. This behaviour is common, and in certain situations, it’s entirely appropriate. However, our decisions to “keep it light” or tell a too-rosy version of our family’s history can negatively affect our familial relationships in the long-term.

In our work, we emphasise the importance of helping a family identify and consciously share the lessons they have learned from challenging times. Always careful with gnarly and sensitive topics, we help families benefit from their worst of times. We ask: “What business or personal experiences were tough, but nonetheless part of your journey?” The aim is to remember and celebrate positive and good luck moments, as well as to consciously craft stories of resilience.

Building resilient foundations: Crafting impactful family narratives for enhanced wellbeing

As you look at your own narrative or those of client families, consider the three building blocks of successful, positive-impact storytelling:

Coherence of a story. Does a listener understand the sequence of events a person is telling? Can they follow the story and make a connection between the actions and the results? This is key. A teller must connect the dots for us. Don’t skip the “hard parts” of the story that make sense of the timeline.

Positive meaning making. Researcher Robin Fivush says, “This is not necessarily, ‘I’m just going to make lemonade out of lemons,’ but really some evidence that you’ve reflected on this particularly challenging event. You’ve taken something away that has helped you understand yourself or the world or other people in more expansive ways.” Positive meaning making isn’t about wrapping things up in a pretty bow. It’s about a genuine willingness to share how an event altered your sense of self, the world, or both.

Balance positive and negative emotions. Often, people want to get to a positive outcome. They like to leave out the “dark” or “sad” elements. Fivush emphasises letting the negative emotion in and letting yourself express them, but balancing negative with positive emotion as well.

Most parents, especially those raising children within the context of substantial wealth, are concerned about bringing up well-adjusted children who are grateful, engaged, and self-sufficient. Crafting a conscious familial narrative that allows for vulnerability and self-reflection will ultimately result in a more connected, stronger family unit. We can create resilience narratives one step at a time. For example, a family might host a roundtable during a family meeting focused on lessons learned from recent or past experiences. Invite each person to share the meaning they make from their “challenging” experience. Together, a family can learn, grow, and be grounded by positive meaning making.

The aim is to create stories that become anchors in tumultuous times. Family members who know their own family stories better understand that they come from a long line of people who have faced challenges. Even if everything in their lives falls apart, the narrative running in the back of their head is this: We got through it. We got through it together. We persisted. We are a family, and we’re still here.

Jamie Yuenger is a family narrative consultant helping advisors, family offices and their clients. She is also the founder of StoryKeep, a premier legacy film company that collaborates with ultra-high-net-worth families worldwide.

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