Helping Children Regulate Their Emotions Through Storytelling

Both days this past weekend, Keener never fell asleep during his afternoon nap. As a result, he was vulnerable and emotionally fragile when 3:30 pm rolled around on Sunday. While trying to get the crew ready to go to the park, he fell and became rather upset. He typically has a high pain threshold so I knew he was either actually hurt or exhausted. My mom instinct told me it was the latter.

He had a difficult time recovering. His emotional right brain was in high gear and in his mind things were going from bad to worse: Dad, not mom, was going to put his shoes on and get him in the car AND he had to wait for mom to fill up her water bottle … can you imagine?

The optimist in me thought he was going to calm down by the time I got in the car. Wishful thinking. He was still full blown emotional, crying, and in his right brain. “I fell down. I’m sad. I want to go to the park. I don’t want to go to the park. I want a snack. I don’t want a snack.” Got it.

Thankfully, I thought of another strategy that The Whole-Brain Child suggested for moments just like this:

Use storytelling to help calm big emotions.

Me: Keener, tell me about what happened?

Keener: I fell down

Me: I see. You were climbing on the bag of dog food. And then what?

Keener: I slipped and hit my head on the floor.

Me: Was that scary?

Keener: Yes

Me: I see how that would have hurt. What happened next?

Keener: I came running to you

Me: Yes. You came to mommy and she hugged you and kissed your head. Did that make you feel better?

Keener: Yes

Me: And then what happened?

Keener: (silence)

Me: Then Mama looked at your head and didn’t see anything and she gave you another kiss.

While it didn’t completely stop the madness, it certainly calmed him down more than anything else I had tried in the five minutes prior. Retelling what happened helped Keener see that what had just occurred wasn’t as bad as it had initially seemed, which helped to settle the big emotions he was feeling.  It also helped him to see that those big scary emotions and feelings were met with love — something that makes everyone feel better.

According to The Whole-Brain Child, “What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to have someone help them use their left brain to make sense of what’s going on — to put things in order and to name these big and scary right-brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively.” This is the same principle that applies to journaling and talking about difficult experiences — these strategies help us in the healing process. By reliving the experience, we are better able to work through and cope with painful experiences, whether it’s spilling oatmeal on a favorite shirt or dealing with the loss a loved one. “The drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong that the brain will continue to try making sense of an experience until it succeeds. As parents, we can help this process along through storytelling.”

The book also mentions that storytelling is helpful for children as young as 10 months. Of course, we can’t expect them to tell the story but we can narrate what happened:

You were playing with your toys. Your finger got stuck under the door. That was scary when that happened. You didn’t expect it to happen. It hurt when your finger was under the door and you didn’t know what to do. Mommy was here and helped you. And gave your finger a kiss. Your finger will be OK.

By doing this, we are “putting words and order to the experience” so that the child can understand why they are hurting. “When we can give words to our frightening and painful experiences — we literally come to terms with them — they often become much less frightening and painful. When we help our children name their pain and their fears, we help them tame them.”

Whether you need to take a lead role in the storytelling or be more of a facilitator will depend on the verbal abilities of your child. Remember the goal is to help your child verbalize what happened again so that the logic and order of the left brain can help calm the emotions of the right brain.

What not to say:

Don’t be sad.

You’re fine.

It doesn’t hurt.

Don’t do that again and you won’t cry.

Sample language of what to say:

Tell me about what happened.

Do you remember what happened before you ____

I saw you ______ and you fell.

What happened next?

Mommy gave you a hug, kiss, glass of water, etc.

Do you feel better?

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4 thoughts on “Helping Children Regulate Their Emotions Through Storytelling

  1. Molly

    This is such an interesting tactic! Such a great suggestion. I’m sure Keener also appreciates feeling ‘heard’ too. I think I even remember feeling this way when I was young.

  2. Gran Dickey

    Simply excellent! Thank you! “…brain….making sense of an experience until it succeeds” is an incredible concept even for adults!! Storytelling to “aide” is brilliant! Thanks Jenzy!!

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