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The transformational power of stories for child mental health and wellbeing

Stories are immensely powerful and dwell deeply within our common ancestry as a medium of discovery and learning, of entertainment and exploring meaning. At a time before written word, oral telling helped us to establish our place in the world and even now, there is a moth-like attraction to gathering at night around the warmth of a fire and in gazing into the bright flames while listening to the magical words of the storyteller.

But what value does the storyteller have today in our dazzling technological world of instant images and short sound bites. Very simply, a lot!

To start at the beginning and perhaps at the deepest point, I suppose we all recognise that in order to make sense and meaning of our lives we tend to unconsciously place our experiences within the narrative flow of our own personal life story.  A tale, which like any good story, tends to be filled with both emotional highs and lows. Our personal life story therefore forms the backbone of our perceived place in the world. Astonishingly, however, given its ancient roots and commonality to us all, research on the psychological value of storytelling, is surprisingly sparse.


So, what can we say…?

It has been suggested, for example, that the right story at the right time can encourage both psychological and even physical healing.  Perhaps this sounds a bit crazy and yet a recent study (2021*) which looked at the beneficial effects of storytelling in children admitted to an intensive care unit found that ‘one storytelling session with hospitalized children lead to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain and positive emotional shifts during a free association task.’  In other words, after listening to a story, children were in less discomfort, and felt much more positive, which is fantastic! The study also suggested that story telling could be used as a possible ‘low-cost and humanized intervention that can improve the well-being of hospitalized children.’*

Stories form a great way of connecting with others, in allowing us to see things from another person’s perspective and in developing greater empathy. But how does this happen?  A study at Princeton** rigged both a storyteller and her listeners to an MRI scanner to see what actually happened, physiologically, during story reading.  What was interesting was that as the story unfolded so the storyteller and her listeners brains began to synchronise ‘so when she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.’  Likewise, ‘when her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs.’  Words spun in a story therefore appear to have the potential to create a powerful cognitive and empathetic bridge between individuals by producing matching physiological changes which may then have the potential to be harnessed for positive change. 

Indeed, stories have a long history of being used successfully with children, in a therapeutic context, to help deal with a wide range of issues such as from confidence to bereavement and from nocturnal enuresis(bed wetting) to normalising feelings.

So, what can make an effective therapeutic story? 

  1. Sensory language. The language needs to be clear, engaging, and rich in sensory connections which help to guide the mind away from the busy beta wave lengths of the ‘thinking’ brain and into the much more relaxed and calm alpha rhythms of the ‘sensory’ mind.
  2. Powerful metaphor. The difficulty that a child may be facing such as a tendency towards angry outbursts can be explored using a suitable metaphor and the outcome of unhelpful behaviour strategies, such as physically assaulting another child, played out and explored.
  3. The wise teacher. A character who is wise and understanding may then be introduced, and an alternative, but helpful strategy, discovered and practiced. In Mindfulness for Kits, for example, an Old but wise squirrel called Old Ma teaches the young squirrels (or kits) mindfulness tools that may be helpful at times when they notice heightened emotions such as feeling  anxious or anger thereby introducing important skills in self-regulation.

A story provides a gentle non-invasive medium for approaching challenging behaviours and opens the possibility of discovering new behaviour strategies that enhance self-resilience and care almost without the child being aware that they are being taught. We all have an innate love of stories and indeed tend to view ourselves as characters in our own life story. Research on the role of stories in therapeutic settings remains very limited but clearly the potential of stories in this context is huge.

*Storytelling increases oxytocin and positive emotions and decreases cortisol and pain in hospitalized children Guilherme Brockington,  Ana Paula Gomes Moreira, Maria Stephani Buso, Sérgio Gomes da Silva,  Edgar Altszyler,  Ronald Fischer, and Jorge Moll. PNAS June 1, 2021 118 (22) e2018409118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2018409118 Edited by Emily A. Holmes, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, and accepted by Editorial Board Member Michael S. Gazzaniga April 12, 2021 (received for review August 31, 2020)

**Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, Hasson U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 10;107(32):14425-30.

Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

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