I was born by myself but carry the spirit and blood of my father, mother and my ancestors. So I am really never alone. My identity is through that line. –Ziggy Marley
Who are you? You are a person on your own. But you are also part of a family. The family is very important for young children. They need their families to survive. And family stays with you all of your life. You might not live together all of your life. But family identify follows you.
People will ask, “Who is your mother?” or “Who is your father?” Sometimes they want to know who your grandparents are or were. They want to connect you to your family. That is really important in some cultures.
Families help to make you who you are. But sometimes it is hard to explain your family. Your family might differ from other families. Maybe your parents got divorced or were separated. Then you didn’t live together. And then maybe you had stepparents. Or maybe you had two mothers or two fathers. That might be confusing to some people.
Other families might be made up of members from different races. So, family members might look very different from each other. Or parents might be far apart in age. That means that some people might not believe that the family belongs together. Family members could come from different countries, cultures, or religions. Or different members could have different beliefs. All of those differences could make people think that those people are not in a single family.
Families can be very diverse! They can be made up of lots of different people. And they can be formed in many different ways. But they can still belong together. Some families are clearly connected. It is helpful for all families to build strong identities. And they need to learn how to talk about themselves to other people. That is true even when they don’t want to belong together.
Studies Show That…
As they grow up, children and youth ask “Who am I?” They also ask, “Who is my family?” Those questions go together in many ways. Part of figuring out who you are is figuring out what groups you belong to. Families are some of the most important groups.
Very young children might see their parents as connected to themselves. That is part of attachment. Babies might not know where they end and their mothers and fathers begin. But then they learn that their parents go away. So, they learn they are separate people. And they start watching their parents and other family members. They start copying what family members do. They start identifying with them. That is early family identity.
Later children go to school or join other groups. Children start talking about their families with other people. They need to explain their families. That can be hard sometimes. They need words to use. And they need help to know how to feel good about their family. That is part of family identity.
Family identity and self-identity are closely linked. Children learn to understand themselves and their families at the same time. And it is easier to believe in yourself if you believe in your family. This also leads to understanding others. Loving yourself and your family leads to loving others. Children who understand themselves and their family culture will be interested in learning about others and their cultures.
There are some things that make it hard to build a strong family identity.
- Members are very different from each other. Maybe family members look very different from each other. This can happen if family members come from different races or ethnic groups. Or maybe some members have very different body types. Looking very different makes it hard to feel like a family. Family members can also have very different interests. Or they can might be good at different things. That makes it hard to feel like a group.
- Members are socially rejected. It is hard to be part of a group that other people do not like. We all would like to be part of a popular group. It is hard to think that other people don’t like some of our family members.
- Families are spread far away from each other. Sometimes family members need to live far away. Sometimes they work in a different place. School can be another reason to move away. Some family members might be in jail. All of those reasons might mean family members live far away from each other. That can make it hard to build strong family identities.
- Family members see no choices. Some family members think they are stuck. Maybe people have certain ideas about their family. The family doesn’t think they can change those ideas. They don’t see a way to define themselves in a new way.
- They learn hate and distrust in the family. Some families have lived with a lot of hurt. They do not trust others. They teach that distrust to other family members. That hate and distrust becomes part of their family identity.
- One single person or event defines a whole family. Sometimes a single event is in the news. Everyone hears about the event. Then the whole community thinks only about that event when they thing about the family. Or they think about only one family member. That family member might be well-known. It could be for good or bad reasons. But the rest of the family is overlooked.
But there is hope. There are some things that help to build a strong family identity.
- Family members like each other. Family members get along well. They know each other. They understand how others are feeling. They give other family members what they need. That is part of a strong attachment. It starts with parent-child attachment. But other family members can be attached to each other, too.
- Family members have a lot in common. Maybe they look alike. Maybe they do many of the same things. Some family members are good at the same activities. Being alike makes it easy to build a family identity. Some families are different in some ways. But they focus on the ways that they are alike.
- Other people like them. They get good feedback from the outside. That makes it easy to feel good about being part of the family. It feels good to be part of this family group. That positive feedback from others builds family pride.
- Family members hang in there with each other. They are committed to being together. They don’t give up. No matter what happens, they are a family. There is a sense of loyalty and belonging. The bad times don’t break them apart. They believe in being a family.
- Strong families make sense out of what happens to them. They figure out how to fit life events together. They make meaning out of what happens. They “take charge of the discourse.” They find the positive outcomes in negative events. They focus on the good things that each family member can bring to the family.
- All family members are included. Family identity is based on the entire family. It looks at the past, the present, and the future. It includes all family members. It also includes the context around them. And a strong family identity sees that each member of the family is also a separate person.
Next Steps For Parents…
What is your family’s identity?
- List some things that are alike for many your family members. They aren’t good or bad. They just make you a family. Maybe you all have blue eyes or brown eyes. Or you all have curly hair. Or all of you hate or love pickles. Or you all love to sing. Make a list of as many things as you can think of.
- List things that make your family special. Think of things that your family can do. Or think of special things that have happened to your family. You might say that everyone in the family likes to cook. Or you have all run a marathon. Or you moved to the United States from Puerto Rico. Or there has been at least one firefighter in the family for six generations. Or…
- Remember times your family has been strong. Think of times when you needed to help each other. Maybe one person had a struggle. Or maybe everyone in the family needed help at the same time. How did you make it through that time? How did you get stronger? It might not have been easy. It probably was not easy. And it might not be over yet. But you are still a family. What did you learn about each other? How did you build on that time?
Answering Other People’s Questions:
- Think of some ways that your family is confusing to other families. When do you need to explain your family to other people? Maybe your family form is not like other families. Maybe you have more parents or fewer parents than expected. Maybe family members live in unusual places. Or maybe you don’t look like other families. Make a list of some of the questions people ask about your family.
- Think of some ways that your family is sometimes seen as wrong. Other people might think you need to fix your family. They might think you need to change how you do things. They might think your family is wrong. Have you ever been told you are wrong? Make a list of ways you have been told you need to change your family. Maybe it is something you could really change. Or maybe it is something that can’t be changed. Maybe you would like to make the change. Or maybe you think other people are the ones who are wrong. Write down what they say and what you think about it.
- Use your strengths to explain your family. Look at your answers to the first questions. What brings your family together? What makes you special? What makes your family strong? How can you give your children those words to explain the things that confuses other people? Maybe in your family Dad stays home and Mom goes out to work. You can say, “We know in some families the Dad does to work and Mom stays home. In our family, it works best this way. Both of our parents love us. And we all love to play baseball together on the weekends.”
- Redefine negative statements to find strengths. It is hard when other people judge your family. It is hard for parents. And it is hard for children. Sometimes family members feel angry. And sometimes they feel ashamed about belonging to that family. But look again at the first questions above. What makes you a family? What brings you together? Some of the negative statements by other people are unfair. All of the negative statements can be balanced with positive statements. What do you love about your family? What brings you together? How can you redefine the negative? Maybe the court decided a family member made a mistake. Maybe that family member is in jail. That doesn’t mean that family member is all bad. That means he or she made a mistake. Or it means a court judged that he or she made a mistake. You can remind other people about that. You can help children learn to say, “My Mom is in jail because she made a mistake. That’s why I live with my grandparents now. But I still love my Mom. I write letters to her every week. And we go to see her every month. She is still part of our family.”
Goals For Parents…
- Answer the above questions with your family. Discuss each one. What does your partner think about each question? What do you children think?
- Make a list of family identity issues for your children. What questions cause problems for them? Where do they need help with finding words to explain their family? Prepare some words for the children to use. Help the children to be ready to talk about the family.
- Create a “Family Crest.” Think about the symbols that knights wore on their armor. Or think about the symbols on the front of a castle. Or think about the symbol on a ranch or a large building. What symbol says who your family is? What colors would you use? What simple pictures would you use? Each family member could come up with ideas alone. Then you could put all the ideas together. Or you could work all together. Use crayons, markers, paintbrushes, chalk, or any other art supplies.
- Make a slogan for your family. A slogan is a short set of words that stands for your family. What is a phrase that says who your family is? Maybe these are words that someone in your family uses a lot. Or maybe you can think of new ideas.
Selected Online Resources:
Numbers and trends about family structure: https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/family-structure
Talking to Children about Their Gay and Lesbian Parents: https://www.reproductivefacts.org/news-and-publications/patient-fact-sheets-and-booklets/documents/fact-sheets-and-info-booklets/talking-to-children-about-their-gay-and-lesbian-parents/
FAQs about Children of Prisoners: https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/training-resources/family/ministry-basics/faqs-about-children-of-prisoners/
Explaining Adoption: https://www.adoptionresources.org/adoption-stories/explaining-adoption/
Parents Magazine: Multiracial child identity: https://www.parents.com/parents-latina-magazine/how-to-help-multiracial-kids-establish-their-identity/
Breshears, D. (2010). Coming out with our children: Turning points facilitating lesbian parent discourse with their children about family identity. Communication Reports. 23(2), 79-90. DOI: 10.1080/08934215.2010.511398.
Galliher, R. V., McLean, K. C., & Syed, M. (2017). An integrated developmental model for studying identity content in context. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2011–2022. 10.1037/dev0000299
Mundoon, O. T., O’Donnell, A. T., & Minescu, A. (2017). Parents’ and children’s understanding of their own and others’ national identity: The importance of including the family in the national group. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 27(5), 347-357. DOI: 10.1002/casp.2308.
Nesdale, D., & Flesser, D. (2001). Social identity and the development of children’s group attitudes. Child Development, 72(2), 506-517.
Reinoso, M, Pereda, N, Van den Dries, L, & Forero, C. G. (2016). Internationally adopted children’s general and adoption-specific stressors, coping strategies and psychological adjustment. Child & Family Social Work, 21(1), 1-13. DOI: 10.1111/cfs.12099.