Writer Joan Didion said “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (Wikipedia, 2020). We also seek out the narratives of others in order to live more fully with both the taking in, and the expression of stories, facilitating healing and leading to a greater sense of well-being.
Storytelling stems from one of our strongest human desires, that is the desire to connect with those around us. This connection is essential for our wellness. Albert Bandura maintains “identity, self-efficacy and self-regulatory systems are all developed by interacting with others” (1999 in Apsche & Blossom, 2013).
As we share our stories, communicating our inner world and unique perspectives, we establish a sense of belonging and the understanding that we are not alone in what we experience but that our thoughts, feelings, and struggles resonate with those around us.
The simple answering of the question, “You too?” on witnessing the reactions and identification of others as we communicate our stories and the resulting relief from any sense of isolation can, in itself, be healing. The taking in of the ideas of others and the finding of oneself in their ideas and explanations – in their very words – excites a feeling of ‘me too’.
Another facet of belonging which the story process supports, is the idea that we are somehow tethered to each other and written into a collective story: that each person is a part of a greater whole. This sense of fellowship acts as a buffer against mental and physical illness. Research shows that childhood loneliness may be a potential risk factor for anxiety and depression (Xerxa et al, 2021), may affect self-esteem, and poses a risk to overall health. Increased levels of cortisol produced when experiencing loneliness is linked to impaired cognitive performance, a compromised immune system, inflammation, and other medical issues (Cleveland Clinic, 2018).
Psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn, an inspiration to John Bowlby, and who played a key role in the development of attachment theory, focused on “the centrality of relationships in the psyche” (Institute of Psychoanalysis, undated). Our stories are formed through and with others, with the quality of our lives not determined only by our individual stories, but also by the collective stories in which we are involved, contribute to, and learn from.
As agents of healing, our role as parents and practitioners is to ensure that every child’s story is told. The educator and writer, Bell Hooks said, “any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged” and that this must be demonstrated in practice through a genuine valuing of individuals and “an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes” (Hooks, 1994). Vivian Gussin Paley said that story is a “shared process…the social art of language” (Paley 1991, p.23 in Lumgair 2021, p.147).
Stories provides children not only with the ability to use their voices but to make their own story choices. Describing examples of play during the pandemic, UCL’s Prof John Potter, explained that what was seen was “’a strong desire from children to control their own spaces, with a huge amount of den-building. Perhaps this is unexpected when children were already being kept inside in limited spaces, but a den under a blanket or a dining table can give a greater feeling of security and power over their own environment” (Thorpe, 2022). Children need to have power over their stories and their play. Relaying what experiences, events and emotions look like and feel like to them allows for understanding and insight and leads to increased personal agency.
Stories hold potential for healing in other ways.
- When we immerse children in stories, it enriches their language. Megan Cox Gurdon in her book, “The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction” explains why the language of stories is so important, saying that it “allows children to occupy the world, their castle, as owners. It means they can understand and describe things with texture and precision. It means that if a girl sees a dog or a squirrel, say, moving with great speed, she can describe what’s happening: is the creature darting or sprinting, racing or feinting, ambling or scampering? When something frightening happens, she can fine-tune her explanation: it was chilling, alarming, macabre, ghastly, daunting, or perhaps just unpleasant” (Cox Gurdon 2019, p.95 in Lumgair 2021, p.21).
- A more extensive vocabulary provides children with a greater number of options in terms of their expression. When their ability to communicate is refined, they are better able to articulate their emotions and explain what it is that they need, and the chances of these needs being met are therefore higher. As Cox Gurdon says, “Gradations of meaning matter, because they bring us closer to the truth” (Cox Gurdon 2019, p.95 in Lumgair 2021, p.21).
- Stories provide children with distance, allowing them to grapple with and solve difficult issues. Through stories, they can access implicit messages, and in the ‘story space’, construct their own learning (Gray, 2014). In this way, the learning is both more meaningful and more memorable than if it were explicit.
- Stories allow for fantasy and fun, with the creative and collaborative processes often involving humour and laughter. Laughter is beneficial to health in that it has been shown to reduce stress hormones, boost the immune system, regulate blood pressure and improve memory (Northwestern Medicine, 2022).
- Stories provide children with options. Indeed, in the ebb and flow of their pretend play, you’ll often witness an astonishing flexibility, with endless possibilities for alternative endings, new beginnings, character reinventions and script overhauls.
To foster healing through storytelling, we can create environments where:
- voice is valued and expression is encouraged
- listening carefully and respectfully is expected
- each child feels that they have an important role to play in a greater story
- fantasy and fun form a part of everyday experience
We can also be mindful of the stories that we tell those around us – family, friends, and colleagues - about ourselves and about others, reflecting on whether our stories hold up in terms of language that is hopeful and healing, and redemptive in nature, i.e. stories that move from bad to good and extract meaning from hardship. The children in our care are assimilating what we model, and our stories will lay down the patterns for their own.
Pay attention to your own stories. Listen carefully to the children’s stories. Ensure that they imbibe the stories of others.
Let children know, at every opportunity, that they’re an essential part of a story greater than their own.
Do this because stories help us, and they heal us.
They are the stuff of life.
About the author:
Helen Lumgair is a Montessori teacher, Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Mediator and Education Consultant. She has worked with families and in settings for over twenty years. Helen created the framework and initial lesson plans of the empathy-focused Think Equal curriculum which was recognised with a 2020 WISE award for innovation and the addressing of global educational challenges. She has lectured globally on its implementation.
She authored a chapter on using the process of narrative to develop empathy in early childhood in the book, “Developing Empathy in the Early Years: A Guide for Practitioners” and then wrote the book “Using Stories to Support Learning and Development in Early Childhood.” She is passionate about developing holistic educational strategies to meet the needs of every learner, and about stories.