Family is a Place to Belong...Isn't It??
by Linda Kondracki
The sense that "I belong in this family" is not something children automatically feel. Rather, it is something we orchestrate for them as we give our children a sense of their family history.
Eleven year old Jason was crying. His dad had just told the family he was moving out of the house to live somewhere else. "I can never go to school again," he said through his tears.
"Why not?" Dad wanted to know.
"Because all the kids will think I'm different," came the reply.
Dad wasn't convinced. "Jason," he asked, "how many kids in your class have parents who are divorced? He waited while Jason named eleven kids in his class of 25 students. "There," Dad consoled, "you aren't different. Lots of kids have parents who are divorced."
"I don't care," Jason wailed. "All the kids will think I'm different because I don't have a family anymore!"
Eight year old Jenny had been very quiet and withdrawn for several days. Finally, she asked her Mom, "Why don't we ever see Grandma and Grandpa anymore?"
Mom looked at her daughter with sadness. "Remember how I told you before that some things happened when I was a little girl that hurt me very much? Until we can work it all out, it's better for us to stay away from each other. I'm sorry you are missing them so much."
Jenny hugged her teddy bear closer. "Mom," she asked timidly, "when I grow up, is that going to happen to you and me, too?"
Belonging is a basic human need, and the place children learn about belonging is in their families. The issue of belonging to the family is really one of building positive bonds of attachment to each other - a healthy aspect of family life. Unfortunately, we are living in a time when children's sense of belonging in their families is very often seriously damaged by the emotional trauma so rampant in our society today. I'll never forget one seven year old girl's response in one of our Confident Kids support groups: "How can your family be a place where you belong," she asked timidly, "when your Daddy says he hates you?"
Parents in recovery must deal with the reality that one of the primary ways we help our children develop healthy attachments is by helping them understand their family history. The problem arises when parents who suffered damaged or severed family relationships want to protect their children from their past history rather than talk about it openly. However, parents in recovery also know better than anyone else that it is only by understanding our past history of family relationships - both positive and negative - that we can create healthy ones in the future. Although the following suggestions may be hard for your to do, they will help you accomplish that goal.
- Keep a family album for each child.
- Their album should tell them their family history. Include "heritage" pictures from both biological parents, as well as pictures of their own history beginning with their birth (or adoption). Be sure to include pictures that are important to your child's history, even if they may be painful for you to look at.
- Tell family history/stories to your kids.
- Kids love to hear family stories from the past, and it is an essential part of building family connectedness. I'll never forget sitting in on a family counseling session with a father and three teen-age boys. The therapist, realizing that the father had never told his sons anything about his life growing up, insisted that the father tell his boys their family history right there in the counseling room. The boys were deeply moved by the story of how their grandfather had been involved in the mafia! The father, however, had withheld this information because he didn't want his sons to know about their criminal ancestor, and possibly become like him. But I saw the bondedness that happened as they were finally given a sense of family history! No matter what the history is, kids need to grow up feeling connected to a past.
- Grieve family losses together.
- When there is a special loss in a family, the whole family needs to be included in the grief process. Times of loss are the most dangerous ones for losing a sense of belonging to the family. To stay connected, all family members need to know that you are all in this together, and can cry, be angry and remember the past without losing their place in the family.
- Plan for family togetherness.
- Having a family history is about more than just being connected to the past; it is also about creating a history by the quality of your life together now. Family belonging never happens automatically; it takes work and planning. If you don't plan for it, it probably won't happen. Schedule times for family outings, work days and celebrations - and don't let anything stop them from happening!
Activity: Celebrate Your Family History
Keeping connected to your family history takes intentional work. Set aside a specific time to do one or more of the following:
- Sort through family pictures, movies, videos, etc. Your goal: Celebrate memories, tell family history, grieve past losses, start or update family albums.
- Invite extended family over and record family history stories. Set up a tape recorder or video recorder and invite several generations of family members over and get them started telling family stories from as far back as they can remember. Use these stories as occasions to talk with your children about family dysfunctions, as well as the strengths.
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