“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” — Tyrion Lannister, “Game of Thrones.”
Stories are a universal part of the human experience. The exchange of stories has taken place since human beings first started communicating. Ancient ancestors passed down cultural histories through oral storytelling, and village elders taught children morals and truths about life through myths and fables.
The story of the epic hero — the relatable character who only is able to overcome an external challenge in his life by healing an inner emotional wound (think Simba in “The Lion King” or Tony Stark in “Iron Man”) can be found in every culture, in every language and in every part of the world. It is the common arc in any children’s fairy tale, blockbuster movie or best-selling novel.
Storytelling is an integral part of what makes us human as it gives us hope in our timeless quest to find meaning in the experience of life.
Stories truly are powerful, not just in uniting humanity as a whole but in helping individuals to discover their identities as well as heal from past trauma. There is a reason why people who enter treatment or who seek out therapy for emotional support are asked again and again to tell their life stories. It’s because putting our experiences into words allows us to organize the chaos inside our minds.
When we are impacted by an event, we have emotions connected to what took place. The more traumatic the event, the stronger the emotions.
Emotions cause us to distort facts. Hence, when we look back on an event from our past, our interpretation is skewed because of the emotions we were feeling at the time.
Untangling fact from fiction by retelling our stories to a third party gives us the space to find a clearer perspective on what has transpired in our pasts. With this clarity comes a sense of control and ownership of our lives. Knowing that we are not mere victims of circumstance brings about feelings of optimism and peace.
If we aren’t given the opportunity to talk about events from our past, however, we might be left believing that our emotional reactions to past circumstances are fact. In reality, however, the truth usually is much less scary or overwhelming. When we are able to talk about what we are thinking and feeling, the world becomes a much safer place.
When we are interacting with children, it cannot be emphasized enough how important stories are for their mental development and emotional well-being.
Starting at a very young age, children are working to understand who they are and where they come from. We probably can all remember asking our parents the story of where they met and about the day we were born. Children also delight in hearing tales of when their parents were young and of the escapades they got into with their brothers and sisters. Hearing these stories is a large part of how we begin to piece together our identity when we are young.
Children also enjoy hearing the same stories told over and over again. How many parents have struggled to convince their children to pick a new story at bedtime rather than a beloved tale that is read every night? Children love to hear the words of a story they know by heart. Hearing a familiar tale over and over again from a beloved caregiver brings about a sense of contentment and well-being that allows them to drift off to dreamland that much faster.
There also are cognitive benefits children reap when they repeatedly listen to a familiar tale. The first is that listening to the same words over and over again allows them to fully digest the meaning of new vocabulary. Second, it gives children meaningful opportunities to process and understand logical sequencing. Finally, listening to a well-known story builds up children’s confidence and skills in being able to make predictions about what will happen next in a narrative tale.
Another cognitive benefit to listening to familiar stories, particularly those that rhyme or are set to a rhythmic pattern, is it improves memory retention. Music is particularly effective for this. Studies have shown that we remember information set to the pattern of a catchy beat. How many of you learned the correct spelling of a word by hearing it spelled in a song? Studies show that when we hear a familiar song, even if we haven’t heard the tune in decades, the lyrics will come flooding back, often with crystal clarity, to our minds.
Listening to and telling stories not only helps children’s cognitive development, it helps them to develop healthy emotional regulation and coping mechanism skills, too.
This is because when children learn to use words to express what they are feeling, they have developed the first skill necessary towards processing emotions at a higher level. When they can combine this skill with being able to retell past events, they are learning perspective and cause and effect relationships. This is very powerful in helping children to feel in control over their own lives. This sense of control leads to self-empowerment and self-restraint.
Our brains are divided into two hemispheres — the left and the right. The left side of our brain is very logical and houses our verbal reasoning skills. The right half of our brain is very reactive and is where our most primitive emotional responses are stored.
Very young children act primarily from their right brains. This is why tantrums are very common in young children. As children age and they are cognitively able to tap into the capabilities of their left brains, they can be given the language necessary to articulate their experiences and name their emotions. When children develop these skills, tantrums and strong emotional outbursts (hopefully) begin to abate as emotional maturity starts to kick in.
Being able to integrate the two hemispheres of the brain to use language to work through strong emotions is what therapists are helping adults do when they ask us to tell our stories in therapy.
Learning to use both halves of their brains to tell their stories is a lifelong survival skill that should be nurtured in children from a young age for healthy emotional development. Facing troubling events and emotions head-on leads to strong mental health, rather than detachment and avoidance. Ask your children to tell you their stories as often as possible to help them develop this skill.
When your child is feeling stressed, scared or unsettled, encourage him to talk about what is troubling him. Coax him to tell his story over and over again, adding as many details as possible (even the scary parts), until the emotions begin to subside. Ask clarifying questions and help him sequence the events until a clear picture emerges of what really happened. Work together to tease out fact from emotional fiction. Validate any feelings that arose at the time, while also helping him to understand that he is now in a safe space and back in control.
On calm, uneventful days, you can build up your child’s storytelling skills by encouraging her to journal, scrapbook, blog or simply tell you about the events of her day. The more practiced your child is at being able to verbally recall her past, the easier it will be for her to do so in times of stress when her emotional well-being is at stake.
If your child (as many are, especially the closer they get to the teen years) is reluctant to open up to you, try asking your child to play “Two Truths and a Lie.” This is when your child tells you three statements about her day, two of which really happened and one did not. You have to guess which events are fact and which one is fiction. You might be amazed at all you can learn from this little game.
The ability to tell a story is an important aspect of our humanity. It connects us across time and cultures and plays a large role in our individual cognitive and emotional development. As your children grow and you continue to gather memories as a family, be sure to make the time to pause and tell your stories.
Melissa Hyde has a masters in education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles and more than 10 years experience teaching elementary education. She works for Challenge to Change in Dubuque, teaching children social emotional regulation skills through the practices of yoga and mindfulness.