Can Storytelling Really Help Your Child?

by Sara Garrity, MSW

Twigtale was created as a result of Nishad Chande, our co-founder, being faced with his son’s anxiety about starting school.  A very smart teacher suggested writing a personalized story with pictures to familiarize him with his new routine, teachers and classroom. And you know what?  It worked! His son loved the book and the transition starting school was seamless.

So WHY did creating a personalized story help?

Time recently published an article titled “This Is the Key to Happiness, According to Psychotherapists.” And according to author Eric Barker the key to happiness is (drum roll please)  . . .

“The story you tell yourself about your life.”

We all create a personal narrative, and it starts as young as age two. That includes how we conceptualize our current identity, and the way we interpret past events and obstacles. In other words, we all have a story and we are the ones writing it.  

That doesn’t mean we are in control of everything that happens to us. No one intentionally writes tragic circumstances into their story. Nor do they write the day-to-day challenges that can make us feel sad, anxious or stressed. And those parts of the story must be acknowledged. The feelings they provoke must be revered as much as the uplifting emotions.

Because what we do have control over is the way we make meaning of what happens to us. We can reclaim our story, rather than allowing something outside ourselves define it. In his article, Barker explains that rewriting our life stories “can lead us to not only feel better, but also reinvent ourselves.”

There are some powerful recent examples that we can look to for inspiration:

During her commencement address at Tuskegee University, Michelle Obama recalled her struggle to remain the author of her story during President Obama’s first campaign. The public scrutiny she faced as our inaugural African-American first lady included people critiquing her every move and asking “Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating, or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?" She was “accused of displaying ‘uppity-ism,’ and called one of Obama's ‘cronies of color’ and ‘Obama's baby mama.’” She lost sleep worrying if she would be a detriment to her husband’s campaign and what her daughters’ reaction might be. However, Mrs. Obama decided not let anyone else dictate her story.  "I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about? … And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. “

Bruce Jenner’s gender identity was the subject of intense speculation that included media ridicule and scorn for months. However, Mr. Jenner took back his story during an interview with Diane Sawyer, announcing that he identifies as a woman and was in the midst of a physical gender transition. Not only is Jenner “in seventh heaven” since the public telling of his story, additionally an article in Slate Magazine described the notable positive impact on our collective story as a society, including a much more mindful discussion about gender identity and the transgender community. Mr. Jenner completed the gender transition and has reintroducing herself as Caitlyn Jenner. In an upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, she stated to a reporter, “If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life. You never dealt with yourself,’ and I don’t want that to happen.'” 

We are guessing your child won’t be part of the next presidential campaign or a major network TV interview anytime soon. But young children can still benefit from personalized storytelling. Change is hard for everyone, but it can feel particularly chaotic for toddlers and preschoolers. They have little say over their environment and often rely on a routine to make sense of the world. A major transition, such as moving or welcoming a new sibling, can feel overwhelming. Validating your child’s feelings and encouraging him to make meaning out of a challenge will help him work through it. It also gives him the skills to continue using storytelling as a healthy coping skill.

So go ahead, whether a preschooler, or an adult, a former Olympic athlete, or the First Lady - tell your story.  The good, the bad, the ugly – it is your story. You own it.  And when faced with adversity, it may be helpful to remember Mrs. Obama’s words: “Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name-calling, the doubting -- all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back."

Sources

Barker, Eric. "This Is the Key to Happiness, According to PsychotherapistsTime. Time Inc., 2 May 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.  

France, Lisa Respers. "No more Bruce: Meet Caitlyn JennerCNN. Turner Broadcasting System., 1 June 2015. Web. 1 June 2015   

"Introducing Caitlyn JennerVanity Fair. Conde Nast., 1 June 2015. Web. 1 June 2015  

Levine, Sam. "Michelle Obama: I Faced Certain Questions Because Of 'Fears And Misperceptions' Around My Race." Huffington Post. HuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 9 May 2015. Web. 11 May 2015  

Lowder, Bryan J. "The Many Surprises of Bruce Jenner’s Interview." Slate Magazine. The Slate Group., 30 April 2015. Web. 11 May 2015. 

McAdams, Dan P. "Personal Narratives and the Life Story.Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research. 3rd ed. Eds. Oliver P. John PhD,  Lawrence A. Pervin PhD, and  Richard W. Robins PhD. New York: Guilford Press, 2008. 242-262. Web. 

Nelson, Jeff. "Bruce Jenner ‘Is in Seventh Heaven’ About Sharing His Transition Story.Time. Time Inc., 11 May 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.