Teaching Story-Based Family Relationships

There is nothing worse for parents who have written books on parenting to feel the sting of hypocrisy. Or, I suppose for a marriage and family counselor to feel like a fraud if things at home are sloppy. One could morph the season of pain into a laboratory of sorts, just fodder to help others, or embrace the lesson in humility: As it turns out, we are all human.

On my home front, it is the season of birthing a man. One more year and we will have an official voter, registered in the selective service, and headed to college! The youngest two started high school and middle school and overall, as one might imagine, we are swimming in hormones. Our home is riddled with emotion and angst, fueled by ambivalence. No one seems to know if they want independence or coddling, space or embrace, empathy or advice.It is the perfect storm for hurting each other and we are succeeding marvelously.

Parents, what do you do when you feel desperate? Run to Amazon or the Library to gather every resource with titles such as “He’s Not Lazy,” or “The Teenage Brain”? Enter Google search strings such as “my teen hates me”? Text a friend “I’m headed for the cliff. Bring reinforcements”?

I have done all of the above, but in the midst of our deepest sorrow we wanted to forgive and seek forgiveness, seek to understand and be understood. Could we help our family draw closer before it was too late?

An idea came to me after reading a business book. Our family needed a self-assessment in the same way a healthy company solicits employee input. I created a Google form with a mixture of 1-5 scales and short sentence answers to questions such as “Do you feel known by your family”? and “How do you show love to your family”? Each of us filled it out anonymously and we sat around the fire pit one night to discuss the state of things.

What emerged was stunningly beautiful.

story based family relationships


The form surfaced feelings and frustrations that were previously unnamed and placed all of us on equal footing. We had to listen. We were all hurt. Using recent, tangible examples, we entered holy ground.

One daughter explained a chronic feeling of being left out using an illustration from earlier that day. Her heart was raw and it was painful to hear. More painful though, was her ability to articulate the deeper story her life tells: a story of chronic exclusion from friends that has left her feeling unwanted. Her siblings learned that their unthoughtful exclusion poured salt into old, still festering wounds. When offered a piece of their sister’s story, what would they do with it?

My husband used the same daytime activity to illustrate a theme in his own story. From the days of childhood, he faithfully played the role of invisible caretaker to a disabled sister and parents who depended upon him. When the kids assume he will diligently serve them without any appreciation, he feels useful, invisible, unknown.

Story is heavy in any relationship, even if the years are short. Our daughter has already been shaped by enough people to have significant wounds, forming in her a story that plays out when her siblings leave her behind. I am unwanted. My husband’s story plays out in our thoughtless assumptions of him, I am unseen.

 When we can identify the backstory that our experience triggers, not only does it help us engage in vulnerable and holistic relationships, but it invites others to help us heal. As a family, we get to rewrite my daughter’s wounding, to offer a counter-story, to help her know she is wanted.

Story-based living is deeply challenging, yet redeeming. When we teach our kids to understand how shaped by story we all are, we build bonds of the heart that penetrate the hurtful surface behaviors. As our last year as a family of 5 unfolds, my hope is that we would love well through a storied-lens. 

Interested in learning more about story-based parenting? Check out my book, A Voice Becoming.