Parenting Tips on Family Identity Formation

Allow time: Do not rush the formation of family identity. It takes months and years for the changes in each individual, and in the family, to become established. The family is going to exist for more time after the children have grown up than it will while they are still in the home. The identity of the family can continue to form throughout the years.

Recognize that the existing family identity must change with the addition of the child: The identity of the family must change to include the child. This means that his needs, experiences, race/ethnicity, challenges, and charms, merge with those of the new family to create something new. The family must recognize that it each time a new child is added, the identity of the family as a whole must shift, change, and ultimately merge into a entity that reflects what the child has brought to the family.

Develop family rituals: Rituals that define the family will help the child learn who this family is. Simple things such as designating every Friday as pizza and movie night can be helpful. It is important that the whole family help in choosing the movies. If there are different age groups to consider, take everyone to the video store right after school and let them each choose one video. Attending church is helpful as it provides routine as well as ritual. If organized religion is not a part of the family’s life, then substitute the social and communal activities that churches provide by joining some other group such as an environmental organization. The important thing is to say “This is what our family does on Fridays”, or “Our family always goes to church together on Sundays.” The rituals must not only be carried out, they must also be articulated and explained.

Do “feet”: (see tips on attachment for explanation) is helpful in demonstrating the boundaries of the immediate family unit to the child. Feet should only include those who are currently members of the household and considered to be related. The time that the child is being massaged gives him an opportunity to feel that he is the center of the family.

Teach the values of the family: An older child will have had to experience the values of different people in a variety of different living situations and so it is important to articulate, and explain, the values of this family. Do not assume that she will learn, or understand, by osmosis or by observation.

Take lots of pictures: Take pictures of the whole family, various family members, the pets, etc., and be sure the child is in each picture. The older child will enjoy looking at photographs of himself helping to cook, walking the dog, playing with a sibling, cuddling with a parent, eating a meal with the whole family, etc. These pictures present a clear an distinct symbol of the child’s place in the new family. Always have some new or favorite pictures on the refrigerator door and keep the pictures in easy access for the child. Let her pick out a few from every roll to have for herself or to put in her own album. Do this for at least three years.

Water and candle rituals: The water ritual is done by having several small containers of water represent each of the people in the newly created adoptive family. Each member of the family can pour a small container into the larger one. When it is filled, the larger container represents the new family. It is worthwhile to spend some money on attractive and unique containers for this ritual. The candle ritual is done by having every member of the family light a candle and then place it in a container of sand. When they are all lit and placed, the entire family can blow out the candles together, or let them burn down. Again, it is worth spending some money on attractive and unique candles and sand dish.

Find and define a role for the child: The child needs to feel that she has a particular role in the family identity. Find some label that is positive and realistic. For example, one child might be very tidy and so can be called the family tidier, another may know how to play the flute at school, and so can be called the family musician. See what the child responds to. The identified role can change with time and interests and be sure not to use a role that is more suitable to another sibling.

Use a calendar: Let the child be in charge of a large calendar that shows important family events. A large calendar that is kept in full view will help the child recall what has happen in the family recently and what is expected to happen, such as family vacation, or grandpa’s birthday. This creates a visual symbol of the events in the life of the family.

Source: Handout for NYSCCC 2003 conference workshop presented by Brenda McCreight, PhD, May 9, 2003, Albany, NY. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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