Storytelling as a parenting tool – How to use stories to connect with your children
It has never occurred to me, when I was a new mum, so exhausted after all the white nights and overwhelmed by the thought of raising a tiny human being, that I would ever use storytelling as a parenting tool. In fact, I barely knew that I could raise my child differently. That there was a more gentle, kinder way of parenting, WHICH involved lots of digging and uncovering some nasty inner stories that I had to shift.
The reality is that, yes, we can use storytelling as a parenting tool – and it is so natural, so easy to make it a part of our routine, that we often overlook it.
As a professional storyteller, I have found the most balanced approach, one that has worked amazingly well for me and my family. When it comes to parenting, I truly believe there is no one size fit all recipe. You will read countless books with countless topics and just as many parenting tricks and advice. However, you, as a parent, are the only one who knows what works best for you.
This is why I have written this article and I want you to see it as a guide. Take whatever you need from it, use the tools that serve YOU on YOUR journey to becoming the best parent you know you want to be.
I use stories on a daily basis to connect with my daughter. She is nearly 5 now and God knows there are many tense moments too.
And I want to be completely honest here. Yes, I am a writer. Yes, I have a degree in Storytelling. BUT to be able to really use storytelling as a parenting tool and connect on a deeper level with your children, you don’t need to be a writer, screenwriter, movie director, actor or even a creative person. All you need to do is listen and be present.
Why am I saying this?
Because, more often than we’d like, we miss out on some good stories that could completely change the course of a tantrum, for instance, just because we aren’t mindful.
And when I said that we can use stories in our parent-child relationship, I meant using every tiny bit of idea and turn it into a parenting tool.
Here is a list with a couple of ideas on how to use stories to nourish the relationship you have with your kids
You will be able to better explain difficult concepts of the outside world, put out emotional storms and gently guide your little ones towards cooperation! I bet you’ve used many of these without even knowing their huge potential.
Let’s get into it:
1. Use your childhood memories to build a bridge
I am talking about bits from when you were a child yourself and you’ve experienced the same feelings/challenges your child is going through now.
Let’s say your child is afraid of the dark – go back in time to a moment you were afraid yourself. Doesn’t necessarily have to be the same fear.
Don’t be afraid to look vulnerable in your child’s eyes – children need to understand that mums and dads are also human beings (although they oftentimes see us as superheroes!).
After building that bridge (now the child knows that you experienced fear as well), go into more detail on how you still managed to deal with this fear.
For instance: “I was afraid too, you know? Each time my mum turned off the light, I would imagine all these things. But you know what I did?” -> here is where you insert the solution your child is waiting for. Look at it as a guide, not a MUST DO.
And I also recommend that, no matter what you’re about to say, make it be the truth. Otherwise, you could use a hypothetical solution, „What I would have liked to know back then when I was afraid of (…), is (…)”.
2. Uncover and heal your own inner stories
This is a valuable lesson, one that needs auto-critique and a long time to heal. Basically, you are giving yourself permission to be honest with yourself and shake off all those inner stories that are not bringing any good into your parent-child relationship.
There are countless techniques that help, but one of my favourites is journaling or creative writing. Call it however you want, the goal is the same: to uncover those deep stories that you’ve inherited, that you keep on carrying on with you, although they don’t define who you are now.
Just to give you an example, and I’m going to be super honest with you here, one of the grounding stories, the one that has shaped a big part of my adult life, was that in order to succeed, one has to work really, really hard, up to the edge of exhaustion. “If you’re not tired enough, you haven’t worked hard enough!”
So, when I founded THE STORY STORE I used to work whenever I had a spare moment.
I am not saying working is a bad thing, but working TOO much has made me lose contact with my other essential goal – the one of connecting with my little girl. I hope you understand by now why I believe those inner stories matter SO MUCH in building the much-desired peaceful and loving relationship we have with our children.
It wasn’t until I dug deep and discovered where this story was actually coming from that I was able to write its final line and put an end to it.
3. Find positive stories about your child and share them with others
One of the ways I love to use storytelling as a parenting tool is to talk about my little girl with my friends and relatives. We moved from Romania to the UK when she was only a baby, so the only way I could still keep in touch with my relatives and friends, was usually by video calls or audio messages.
So, I would share tiny snippets of our days and say how much she’s grown and all the incredible things she knows how to do. The tricky thing here is to pay attention to the stories we choose – which is why I put it on the list.
I’m saying this because oftentimes, when I got really, really tired, particularly in my daughter’s toddler years, I would find myself complaining ALL THE TIME. “She doesn’t sleep! She wakes me up three times per night! She drives me crazy sometimes! She doesn’t share her toys! Yesterday she started yelling in the supermarket, everybody was staring at us!” and so on. Then I would catch myself spinning these tales and I would feel so much guilt.
I know we all do it. It feels like if we’re sharing it with somebody else, we lift that burden off our shoulders.
The problem is our children listen.
They watch us. They internalise those words and, in time, they will begin to believe that that is all they do – scream, misbehave, refuse sharing and so on. And we know things are not like that at all.
Plus, it requires us to shift to positive thinking and a grateful attitude, which is another beneficial “side effect”.
4. Teach your children to write or tell their own tales (fantastic to brainstorm solutions and happy endings!)
Children are able to better understand and process a difficult situation and any setback for that matter through stories. For example, it has been proven that open-ended questions improve the ability of children to makes sense of experiences and feelings while encouraging them to come up with their own creative ideas. I will be writing more on the topic in the following weeks, for now, I want to really harness the power of telling their own stories.
Think about the following scenario: Another child pushed your little one and she falls to the ground. Her immediate reaction is to stand up and push back. Luckily, you’re in range and you manage to put out the fire even before it started.
You could spark a story by asking her “How did you feel when that child pushed you? How do you think the other child would have felt if you pushed back? Can you find another way?”
Brainstorm ideas on how to react if something similar happens in the future and even encourage her to come up with a character who is going through something similar and see what that hero comes up with. “Uuuh, I know! Hoppity-Hop was a little bunny who happened to bump into a tiny mouse once a day. The mouse was so angry, that he got up and he nearly knocked the bunny over, even though he was so much smaller. That’s how angry he got. Did you feel that way too? Now, what could Hoppity-Hop do? What about the mouse? Could he maybe wait and really listen to what the hare is trying to mutter? Could he, instead, talk about how much it hurts or how surprised he is that something like that happened?” See what solutions your child comes up with. Even write them down if the place is appropriate.
Here is a tool I absolutely love to encourage your child to come with his own stories and blossom that inner creativity: Flashcards for Little Storytellers. You have different settings, characters and triggers to come up with fun, creative stories. They could easily be the starting point of any conversation you need to be having or challenge you need explaining.
5. Read about real people who have accomplished incredible things despite the odds
It is virtually impossible for us to experience every single one of life’s joys and sorrows, which is why books are such a fabulous tool to learn about them. I love to read inspiring stories about people who have managed to beat the odds and be successful or just really tough experiences that make me more aware and empathic.
For instance, I remember my grandmother talking about how her own mum raised five children after her dad went to war and never got back. I pray I will never experience such sorrow, but listening to her story made me so much more appreciative of my own situation. That was also the first encounter I had with concepts such as “war” or “single parenting”, which was extremely valuable.
So, reading about people who have gone through incredible hardship and have still managed to make it to the other side is extremely inspiring for children. Think about Louis Armstrong, Colonel Harland Sanders (KFC founder) or Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (who rode four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, despite being born with one deformed leg), just to name a few.
6. Breathe life into objects
I looove impersonation. It is actually one of my favourite figures of speech. Whenever I had to write a creative essay back in high school, I would use this technique in abundance.
I invite you to do the same if you want to use storytelling as a parenting tool. Even the most boring objects can become extraordinary!
The toilet paper turns into a soldier who gets really shy when somebody (we know who!) steals his armour and lets him naked. In other words, instead of giving the child a dressing-down for rolling out the toilet paper and/or throwing it in the toilet, we use a funny story about a really timid trooper.
The warm coat your child refuses to wear at -10 because she wants to dress up in a summer dress, turns into an extremely sensitive lady who looks for friendship and lots of hugging. Of course, you can also highlight the consequences of being lightly dressed when it’s freezing outside. Most of the times, the child will ask for a coat anyway, but just in case you need to get your speech ready 😊
You just need a bit of imagination and humour and that’s it.
We actually have a free story guide with 5 little stories you can use with your child to defuse tense moments. You’ll see how to gently “disguise” life lessons into funny, engaging stories. You can download your copy here:
7. Mix up reality with fiction
Unlike the previous situation, we now combine real and imaginary features, to create a helping story.
This does not mean lying, of course! We shall not make this confusion!
Let’s say, for instance, the child is having too much screen time. Depending on the age, we explain the consequences, but here is where the magic comes in: we “wrap them up” beautifully, in a story.
“oh, I know how much you like to watch cartoons, the problem is I know somebody who really does NOT like it. Do you know who it is? Hmm? What did you say? Oh, yes, true, I don’t like it either, but I was actually talking about somebody else. Let’s see if you can guess. Mmm, maybe the flower vase? The sofa? The table (count on objects you see around) Probably! But I was actually talking about your BRAIN! If it could talk, it would say something like oh, nooo, too many images, too much noise! How I wish I could have a rest! Or no, no, even better, you know what? Let’s do that puzzle over there (insert some other creative activity your child enjoys).”
The point is to not be afraid of your imagination!
Acting the ape and doing silly voices will not make your child take you less seriously, don’t be afraid of that.
On the contrary! You have more chances to win your child’s cooperation by being playful and gentle.
So, as you’ve seen by now, it is actually fun and interesting to use storytelling as a parenting tool. Not all good stories start with “once upon a time” and, really, the sky is the limit when it comes to it! Don’t limit yourself to books or cartoons – all you need is a couple of minutes per day to truly connect with your children.
What is your favourite tool so far? Which one will you give a go to?
Until next time,
Keep believing in stories!