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How To Use Story Time To Soothe Anxious Kids (And Parents, Too!)

Joseph Sarosy & Silke Rose West
Contributing writers By Joseph Sarosy & Silke Rose West
Contributing writers
Joseph Sarosy and Silke Rose West are the co-authors of the book, How to Tell Stories to Children.
Father Reading To His Child on the Couch
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One of the principal features of storytelling is its ability to capture and redirect a child's attention—or an adult's. We called this the "storytelling loop." If we start with a normal set of circumstances, then introduce a story, we usually return to the same set of circumstances with a new perspective.

For the beginning storyteller, this typically means whimsical stories intended to entertain and foster creative outlets for play. Stories like that will likely remain the bedrock of every storyteller's practice, but as your craft develops, you will begin to see storytelling opportunities in a variety of circumstances.

Put simply, narrative structure is a powerful tool for gaining attention. If you have ever struggled to gain a child's attention (and who hasn't?), you might consider telling a story. It often mitigates the conflict and frustration associated with direct inquiries or demands. Plus, once attention is gained, a skilled storyteller can redirect it toward any object or activity she chooses. This is the essence of the storytelling loop. 

How storytelling soothes anxious kids.

Stories are inherently soothing. No matter the subject, they give attention to a child in distress, and they do so without drawing her focus onto the problem. Children who have been injured, ill, or suffered some emotional trauma can become fixated on the problem.

We see this in behaviors as diverse as a 2-year-old's tantrum and a preteen's despondency. Both can benefit greatly from a story. The emotional intimacy helps them to feel connected, calm, and sometimes a little stronger.

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A personal example.

A student of ours once unwittingly knelt down onto a cactus. It was a cholla cactus, one of the nastiest in New Mexico, because its inch-long needles have barbs at the end, like a fishing hook. It hurts going in, but it's even worse coming out. We occasionally have to deal with one or two needles, but this particular time, the child had landed on a 6-inch-long section that now clung to his shin like a giant thorny lizard.

As the initial bites of pain rolled into his consciousness, this boy, 5 years old, began to freeze. He knew what he had gotten himself into. His teeth clenched, and he stopped breathing altogether. The pain was real, but the thought of what was to come was almost unbearable.

Joe slowly eased toward the child, calmly repeating "Breathe, breathe." Meanwhile, Silke, having surmised the situation, called some friends over. "Josh, Tim, help your friend Michael out by telling a funny story," she said.

Josh and Tim took one look and immediately recognized the severity of the situation. They immediately fell into the most hilarious antics, recounting the best events from the week, waving, shouting, and playing the goof. Michael's face, clenched in a painful expression, began laughing, then clenching, laughing and clenching. You could hear the struggle in his voice.

Finally, as the stories got the best of him, Joe slowly reached for the cactus. With one quick yank, Michael's pant leg went taut and the cactus came out. Michael's face went bright red, then he stood up, doubled over, and finally waved us off. "I'm all right," he said, fighting back tears. "I'm all right." Five minutes later, after a quick checkup, he was back playing with his friends.

Storytelling offers distraction and a sense of safety.

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There are times in life when there's nothing to do but face the pain. If we take it head-on, however, we sometimes multiply the trauma by giving every excruciating ounce of our attention to our despair. Focusing on solutions or alternatives sometimes only feeds the flames because it keeps our energy focused on the problem.

In these moments, stories can be unique medicine. We can sometimes use it in difficult circumstances to reach into a child's consciousness and flick the switch toward safety and intimacy faster than aspirin or ibuprofen might hit their bloodstream.

It might strike some readers as grandiose to claim that storytelling can be this effective. Mostly we think of storytelling as a sort of entertainment. But if we grasp the intimacy at the core of the storytelling relationship, along with the evolutionary arc of the human organism to grasp information and meaning through narrative structure, we begin to see how this uniquely human tool can help us dial in and connect with our kids in rapid and effective ways.

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The intimacy of storytelling is a two-way street: A soothed child is a soothed parent. 

A mother was getting the cake ready. The birthday girl was excitedly passing out party favors, the kind that roll out when you blow into them, then zip back up when you stop. Zip! Pfffft! Wree! All the kids were having fun until the birthday girl realized she had passed out all the favors and none were left for her. As her friends buzzed around, blowing raspberries and giggling, she began to cry.

Her mother, lighting the candles, suddenly took notice and felt uncertain. Kids, mother, parents, birthday child—everyone was feeling something different. Chaos nearly ensued, but then someone shouted, "Hey, have I ever told you about..." 

Stories take the pressure off. They grab attention and then redirect it to something useful. They help synchronize the emotions of the speaker, listener, and everyone gathered. It does not need to be a 20-minute thriller. A one-minute episode is often all it takes.

The takeaway.

The next time a difficult situation arises for your child, try telling a soothing story. It might be a physical pain or a difficult emotion. It might be a nightmare or even a moment of conflict between the two of you.

Whatever it is, make sure it's not something, like a bleeding cut, that can be easily fixed by some other method. The goal is not to use story as an excuse; it is to witness how story is sometimes the only medicine available.

Excerpted from How To Tell Stories to Children by Silke Rose West and Joseph Sarosy. Copyright © 2021 by Silke Rose West and Joseph Sarosy. Available June 22, 2021, from Mariner Books.

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