The Power of Storytelling in Family Bonding

Teen girl and grandmother read a book together.

In our daily lives, stories are everywhere. They pop up on our phones, TVs, and in our conversations, filling our days with endless tales and adventures. But here’s the thing: even though we’re constantly surrounded by these stories, most of them don’t stick around. They come and go as quickly as the latest trend, and we hardly remember them afterward. It’s a paradox of our times: we are surrounded by stories, yet only a fraction of them will ever make a lasting imprint on our hearts and minds. 

However, a treasure trove of stories filled with meaning and emotion exists, ready to be unearthed: our family stories. These narratives connect us to our past and present, especially during special celebrations that mark the milestones of our lives. And, unlike the transient nature of most stories, family stories stick—they stay with us. As we explore family storytelling, we’ll uncover its profound impact on forging identities, nurturing resilience, promoting mental health, and fostering a sense of belonging.

Forging an Identity

As children get older, their thoughts turn more and more inward. They want to know who they are and where they fit in. Family stories automatically craft a firm sense of identity in a child. Children learn by imitation, and stories give them something to imitate. Dad might tell about his worst bully, or Mom might share a slice of her youthful naughtiness, but these personal stories invite the child to see two crucial truths:  I belong, and I am loved. Robyn Fivush, an expert in family storytelling, explains, “Family stories make abstract values concrete; they embody a way of being in the world, and adolescents and young adults model themselves on these stories – this is the kind of person I am. These are the kind of people I come from.” Hearing how someone else dealt with life helps a child read their own. The child sees who his parents are and who they are.

Handling Hardship

Family stories help deal with hardship. Fyodor Dostoevsky reminds us of the significant source of fear. “Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most.” Children and adults immersed in stories have a map to use to face fear. They know someone who has been there before. A parent may have failed at their first interview, but that experience gifts strength. The storyteller lived to fight another day, has wisdom to share, and the “scars” to prove it.

Nourishing Mental Health

Because family stories solidify identity and lessen fear, they are the antidote to self-doubt and anxiety. One researcher discovered, “Adolescents who report knowing more stories about their familial past show higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for the general level of family functioning.” Even for families that don’t typically function well, storytelling was crucial. It is not surprising that stories help soothe anxieties. Much of anxiety is due to the stories children tell themselves. They convince themselves they are a failure and not good enough. After hearing the stories of their family, it is no surprise that stories equip them with the knowledge to tell their own story correctly.

It’s Not Just For the Kids

The benefits for children are powerful, but the most significant power is in the repetition. When ritual harnesses the power of storytelling, it isn’t just the children who benefit from it. The parents see their pasts differently when they hear their children’s stories. The stories of the child help the parent know their child, help their child, and lead their child, but they also remember who they are through their children. New York Times writer Bruce Feiler says, “The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations.”

Now, imagine this same storytelling family reading stories together, watching movies together, and connecting their personal stories to the stories of the world around them. Imagine this family reading together and talking about how Robin Hood reminds them of Uncle Chris. He’s delightful and always in trouble. Just like vacations and birthdays create a ritual of story, regular family storytelling creates lives filled with stories that resonate. 

So, parents, fill your house with classic and family stories. Feed their imaginations, situate them in their past, drive them out of themselves, and let them see the rhythms of life outside of their preferences. Find a time—the family dinner table is traditional for a reason—to talk to each other about what you struggled through and triumphed through. Cheer each other on. Let’s not just wander in a world of stories but fill the world with our own.

About TLC

The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC) is a social enterprise company serving the Greater Philadelphia Area. Among its five divisions, TLC offers School-based Staffing Solutions, Mobile Coaching and Counseling, and Heather’s Hope: A Center for Victims of Crime. These major programs are united under TLC’s mission to promote positive choices and cultivate meaningful connections through education, counseling, coaching, and consulting.

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