Family Stories and Rituals

Mukesh Kumar 58

Family Stories and Rituals

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Family Stories and Rituals

I remember a dinnertime when it was Christmas or something like that and mamma
would bring out a big turkey, and we would have ham, and beets, and homemade biscuits. And we would sit around and eat. And there was my aunt, uncle, grandmother,
grandfather, and cousins, too. I remember my uncle would say a prayer before dinner,
bless our food and our family. Or my grandfather might say it, my grandfather was a
deacon in the church, and I always loved it when grandfather said the prayer because
it was the shortest prayer in the world. Jesus wept. And that was it and we just dove
in and that was it. Sometimes there would be other kids over and we would have a
little table in the corner and we would eat, the kids, while the adults had the big table
to themselves. And I remember that being a ’specially nice time. A lot of laughing, and
cutting, and scraping, and eating and talking and all those kinds of good things. (Story
told to 5-year-old about her father’s meal-time experiences)
One of the challenges in family psychology is capturing how the whole is greater than
the sum of its parts. While the subsystems of the family (parent–child, partner–partner,
sibling–sibling) are essential to understanding the health and wellbeing of individuals,
how the family operates as a group provides an important window into its values,
meaning-making process, and affect regulation. Families come together as a group in a
variety of ways. They have dinners together, meet for special celebrations, and tell
stories to reminisce about memorable events and reinforce collective values. They practice routines to provide order to their lives and create rituals to impart meaning and cement
Family life is organized on multiple levels, some directly accessible to outsiders
through observation and some detectable only through careful interviewing. What can
be seen by others is often referred to as the “practicing family”; what is accessed through
interviews and closely held beliefs is considered the “representing family” (Fiese & Spagnola, 2006; Reiss, 1989). These domains are reflected in the study of family stories
and rituals.
In this chapter, we provide an overview of family stories and rituals as ways to tap the
whole family process, gain access to the “insider’s” view of daily life, and access both the
practicing and representing families. Stories and rituals therefore have unique potential
to show aspects of daily life that are at the heart of family functioning. Indeed, astute
clinicians often use stories to connect with families and to understand how they adapt
over time (Anderson, 2001). We conclude with a brief discussion of the therapeutic use
of family stories and rituals.

Family Stories

For researchers, stories provide a view of family life not readily accessible through questionnaires or even direct observation. Through detailed, and sometimes painstaking, analysis of narrative transcripts it is possible to “get inside” the dynamics of family life. This
provides the researcher with a rich accounting of the struggles and joys encountered
by families and how they come to make sense out of important challenges. It is this
meaning-making process that is illustrative of family resilience under a variety of highrisk conditions (Walsh, 2002). Family stories set an interpretive framework for how
members have struggled with, and sometimes resolved, emotionally evocative circumstances. For example, family narratives have been collected about the birth of the first
child (Oppenheim, Wamboldt, Gavin, & Renouf, 1996), diagnosis of serious mental
illnesses (Stern, Doolan, Staples, Szmukler, & Eisler, 1999), and adoption (Grotevant,
Fravel, Gorall, & Piper, 1999). While there is a multitude of ways to define family
stories, we consider them verbal accounts of personal experiences that are important
to the family, depict rules of interaction, reflect beliefs about the trustworthiness of
relationships, and impart values connected to larger social institutions (Fiese et al., 1999;
Pratt & Fiese, 2004). Family narratives are typically considered for their thematic content, narrative coherence, and co-constructive features.
Themes inherent in family stories are often related to socialization practices, the formation of intimate relationships, and explanation of personal transgressions. Parents use
family stories to teach lessons about growing up. Common themes in stories told to children include close family relationships, role assignment, routines, working hard regardless of the outcome, seeking independence, and risk taking (Fiese & Bickham, 2004).
Frequently these themes vary by gender of storyteller and story-listener. For example,
fathers are more likely to tell stories about how things work and personal achievement
than mothers, and these themes are more likely to be heard by sons than by daughters.
Parents also differ in the ways that they reminisce about past experiences. Some parents
use rich, elaborative styles when recounting past shared events while others use a more
concrete, descriptive style (Fivush, Bohanke, Robertson, & Duke, 2004). These variations are important because they provide clues to how individuals create images not only
of themselves but also of their place in the family and larger social world. A son engaged in an elaborate exchange about building a tree house not only learns the nuances of how
to use a hammer but also learns about problem solving, teamwork, and perseverance.
Over time, these themes have the opportunity to be threaded into his life story.
Moral values are part of family stories, particularly shared across generations. Pratt and
colleagues identified themes of justice, care, and kindness in grandparent stories told to
grandchildren (Pratt, Arnold, & Hilbers, 1998). One advantage of family stories is that
they connect generations across geographic distances, creating an oral heritage (Ryan,
Pearce, Anas, & Norris, 2004).
Transgressions are also important variants in family stories – what may be cause for
comment in one family may hardly raise an eyebrow in another. The same is true for
cultural values imparted through transgression stories. Miller and colleagues found that
families in Taiwan and Chicago tell different types of stories about their children’s personal transgressions (Miller, Sandel, Liang, & Fung, 2001; Miller, Wiley, Fung, & Liang,
1997). The parents in Chicago would frame the events as sources of personal bravado
– even though the 4-year-old had driven the car down the driveway alone! The parents
in Taiwan used narratives of personal transgression as teaching opportunities and highlighted misbehavior as the central point of the story in light of social order: “you made
your mother lose face.” In both instances the child is learning not only about the
values of the family but also how the family supports cultural mores.
The formation of intimate ties is another common topic in family stories. Researchers
and clinicians interested in the early stages of couple formation and the endurance of
satisfactory relationships found family narratives a useful resource. Narrative assessments were used with couples to collect stories about how they met, how they became
interested in one another, and what married life is like (Holmberg, Orbuch, & Veroff,
2004; Veroff, Sutherland, Chadiah, & Ortega, 1993). Story content was related to
how satisfied couples were with their relationships and how likely they were to remain
married years later. For example, couples who described their early days together as
chaotic and disappointing were more likely to divorce three years later than couples
who focused on the “we-ness” of their early dating relationships (Buehlman, Gottman,
& Katz, 1992).
While the thematic focus of family stories is evidenced by an examination of its content, narrative coherence is also important. Coherence refers to the fluidity or organization of the story. A coherent narrative is easy to follow; has a relatively clear beginning,
middle, and end; and points are clearly convincing. An incoherent narrative tends to
ramble; it is characterized by stops and starts, and the evidence does not fit the overall
thread of the story. The relative coherence of a story is proposed as reflecting how the
storyteller has resolved an emotionally provocative event (Oppenheim, 2003). The relative coherence of recounting negative experiences may be particularly important, as it
calls for processing emotional material that is important to the family. For example, the
relative coherence of narratives told about coping with a chronic illness is related to
better overall family functioning and problem solving (Fiese & Wamboldt, 2003a).
In addition to adult narratives, child narratives also tap whole family processes and
provide unique insight into how the child views his or her interpersonal life. For example, child narratives reflecting high emotional security in the context of challenging events

are associated with experiencing a consistency between low family discord and parent
communications emphasizing family security (Winter, Davies, Hightower, & Meyer, 2006).
Likewise, research indicates that children exposed to more destructive forms of family
conflict tend to represent escalating conflict (Grych, Wachsmuth-Schlaefer, & Klockow,
2002) and give more negative portrayals of marital and parent–child interaction (Shamir,
Schudlich, & Cummings, 2001).
Stories also need to be told. The act of co-constructing a family narrative reflects the
practicing aspects of the family. Some families will tell stories of personal experience in
a supportive manner, adding to others’ comments such that the final tale becomes richer.
Other families, however, use this as an opportunity to put each other down, derail the
storytelling process through sarcasm and cynicism, or shut off others’ opinions through
outright denial. Style of co-construction, in turn, is related to marital satisfaction and
parent–child relationship quality.
It is possible to consider both the content of the co-constructive process, focusing on
the resulting story, and the process by which the family works together (or not) to construct the story (see Table 44.1). These dimensions are related to how the family interacts with itself and are considered a reliable index of family functioning (Dickstein,
St. Andre, Sameroff, Seifer, & Schiller, 1999; Fiese & Marjinsky, 1999).

Family stories and health and wellbeing

There is emerging evidence that the stories that families create about critical events in
their collective lives are related to important health outcomes. For example, families for
whom tales of disease management are marked by clear strategies and a resolution of
anxiety over the chronic illness are less likely to use the emergency room one year later
and more likely to adhere to medical regimens than families whose family stories are
marked by anxiety, worry, and unresolved tension (Fiese & Wamboldt, 2003b).
Similarly, narratives of how a mother and daughter cope with their own chronic illnesses
are powerful indicators of the interconnectedness of providers, healthcare institutions,
and extended family members in supporting health and wellbeing (Weingarten &
Weingarten-Worthen, 1997).
Why might this be important? Narratives provide a window into the inner workings
of family life and how individuals ascribe meaning to important events. They reflect
how the family imparts values (see Chapter 43, this volume), highlight what they hold
in esteem, and reflect how they manage emotionally evocative circumstances. The
resolution of challenging events can be ascertained by the relative coherence of the story
and may reflect how close (or far away) the family is to coming to terms with the diagnosis of an illness, loss of a loved one, or suspected dissolution of a marriage. For clinicians, these are markers that can be used to chart response to treatment and gauge
therapeutic movement within sessions. Family storytelling may also be used as a technique to engage families to reveal important aspects of their history. Oftentimes these
stories are told in celebratory settings or at regular events such as meal times or weekend gatherings.

Family Routines and Rituals

Another way to access the whole family process is through the practice of routines and
the meaning ascribed to rituals. Every family has its own set of routines that the family
members use to organize daily life. For some families the day is highly scripted, to the
extent that hourly calendars are posted on the wall reminding everyone of their responsibilities and activities. For other families, however, routines are less deliberate and the
day unfolds as a series of unforeseen events. This predictability not only provides a sense
of order but comes to define a family identity linked to important developmental
transitions and family health outcomes.
There is a developmental quality to family routines. During the childrearing years,
creating and maintaining routines is part of daily life (Wolin & Bennett, 1984).
Establishing regular routines and predictable rhythms may contribute to parental competence and efficacy (Sprunger, Boyce, & Gaines, 1985), provide a sense of enjoyment
for parent and child (Kubicek, 2002), and contribute to relational wellbeing (Fiese, Hooker,
Kotary, & Schwagler, 1993). Families that practice regular and predictable routines are
more likely to have children who perform well in school (Fiese, 2000), including children in low-income, high-risk neighborhoods (Brody & Flor, 1997). Over time, family
routines become better organized and more child-centered. During the adolescent years,
family routines become less centered on home activities but their association with wellbeing and health outcomes remains strong (Fiese, 2006). For example, teens who report
more regular meal times with their parents are more mentally healthy and less likely to
engage in sexually risky behavior, smoke cigarettes, or consume alcoholic beverages than
those teens who do not eat with their parents on a regular basis (Compan, Moreno, Ruiz,
& Pascual, 2002; Eisenberg, Olson, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Bearinger, 2004).
Routines are part of the family climate that includes monitoring, order, and affect regulation (Fiese, 2006). While routines overlap with principles of family functioning such
as involvement, communication, and shared activities (Epstein, Ryan, Bishop, Miller, &
Keitner, 2003), they are also directly accessible to clinicians in providing an avenue for
intervention (Fiese & Wamboldt, 2001).
Routines have a protective quality, serving to buffer individuals from some of the morbidities associated with chronic health conditions. Bush and Pargament (1997) report
that for patients with chronic pain, life was less disrupted and less pain was reported
overall when there were more predictable routines in the household. Quality of life and
the practice of routines have been associated with children’s coping behaviors in the context
of severe headaches (Frare, Axia, & Battistella, 2002), reduced length of infant respiratory illness (Sprunger et al., 1985), and reduced risk of adolescents developing problematic
drinking patterns when raised in households with alcoholic parents (Fiese, 1993).
The mechanism of linking routines to health and wellbeing may be twofold. First,
families who are better organized in their daily lives are more likely to follow medical
advice and adhere to prescribed protocols (Fiese & Everhart, 2006; Fiese, Wamboldt,
& Anbar, 2005). However, organization alone does not account for all the variability
in family health. A second dimension, symbolic meaning and affective commitment, is integrally connected to quality of life and the emotional burden experienced for
families managing chronic health conditions (Fiese et al., 2005). It is the affective and
symbolic aspects of repetitive practices that come to define family rituals.
While it is common to think of family rituals as elaborate affairs such as religious or
annual celebrations, most families have their own definitions of rituals that are linked to
practices created over time (sometimes over many generations) and have special meaning. Family rituals may be as unique as the child’s first haircut or as culturally scripted
as Thanksgiving dinner. Key ingredients of family rituals are anticipation and felt
absence when they are not practiced. For example, after the death of a family member
there is often a re-evaluation of how to carry out annual events (birthdays, holidays,
reunions). The subtle alterations in these practices bring to the forefront the absence
of the family member and the emotional connections that were made during these
collective gatherings.
The meaningful commitment to family rituals is related to a host of positive outcomes
for youth and adults. When families report that their family rituals hold special meaning, adolescents are less likely to develop problematic drinking (Fiese, 1993), couples with
young children are more satisfied with their marriages (Fiese et al., 1993), and there
are smoother transitions post-divorce (Whiteside, 2003). However, while routines and
rituals can promote health and wellbeing they can also be disruptive. Routines that are
rigid and inflexible do not allow for developmental changes. Strict bedtimes and role
expectations for elementary age children will not be appropriate for adolescents. Ritual
gatherings can also be used to insult and single out members in non-supportive ways.
This may be particularly troublesome for members of marginalized groups such as gay
and lesbian family members (Oswald, 2002).

Therapeutic Use of Family Stories and Rituals

Clinicians have long used storytelling as a technique to engage family members. Indeed,
much of therapy is creating stories about important life events. There are several
resources about narrative therapy used in a family context (see Chapter 20, this volume;
Angus & McLeod, 2004). Rather than reiterate those sources, we wish to draw to the
readers’ attention the possibility of using family stories as an information source as well
as a marker of therapeutic change.
As an information source, family stories provide accounts of heroes, rogues, and villains across generations. While these stories can be told to a therapist, the work described
here suggests that stories among family members may serve as a source of family heritage. This provides a window onto how family members share information with each
other and modulate affect in the telling of sensitive events, and is revealing of what type
of information may be shared with one member but not another. Important events to
consider in family life may be dealing with transitions (birth, moves, marriage), illness,
loss, and celebrations. Our own experience tells us that asking family members to “tell
a story about the time” a particular event happened is a meaningful prompt when framed
from the perspective that we want to know the story they would tell a neighbor over a
cup of coffee.
Telling family stories may also be markers of change during the therapeutic process.
As individuals begin to resolve emotional distress, their stories should become more coherent and better organized, and relationships should appear more rewarding. Indeed, there
is evidence to suggest that following therapeutic interventions, traumatized children’s
narratives reveal more positive depictions of relationships (Toth, Cicchetti, Macfie,
Maughan, & Vanmeenen, 2000). Clearly, this is an area that deserves further research
to identify key markers to guide clinicians.
There is also a long history of using rituals in family therapy. One of the more widely
cited resources for the use of rituals in family therapy is the work of Imber-Black and
colleagues (Imber-Black, Roberts, & Whiting, 2003). Utilizing five different themes (membership, healing, identity, belief expression, and celebration), rituals are used to assist
families making the transition across different parts of the life cycle. Home-based interventions have been used to alter family routines to reduce problematic meal-time and
bedtime behaviors (Lucyshyn, Kayser, Irvin, & Blumberg, 2002).
Because families vary considerably in their routine practices, it is important to take
into account their previous experiences before implementing interventions. While some
families may find it relatively easy to fold a new routine into their daily lives given a relatively ordered lifestyle, others will find it more challenging. For some families, the challenge will come from a lack of experience, perhaps across generations. For others, the
challenge will arise because family members disagree about the relative importance of
implementing a new routine, a phenomenon often seen in maritally distressed couples.
It is for these reasons it is essential to take a careful history of past routine practices and
engage in clinical decision-making before implementing routine and ritual interventions
(Fiese & Wamboldt, 2000).


Family stories, as windows onto the inner workings of the family and how members ascribe
meaning and cope with important events, are often reflective of family health and
wellbeing. Likewise, family practice of routines and the meaning ascribed via rituals are
associated with a host of markers of family and members’ wellbeing. What may appear
to be a simple turn of phrase in a story may reveal the family emotional lineage.
Commonplace meal-time practices may hold the key to the interior workings of complicated family dynamics. It is up to astute clinicians and researchers to capture how the
whole may indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.

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