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Five Steps to Changing Any Behavior through Storytelling

Better parenting through storytelling is possible

Perhaps, even, probable. “Storytelling. We are wired for it—literally. The neuroscience is conclusive—we use stories to build our realities and make sense of them,” says David Sewell McCann the storyteller and co-creator of

Why Storytelling is Better than Lectures for Discipline
Sewell McCann implores parents, especially fathers for whom storytelling may not come as naturally, to resist the temptation to lecture or reason or explain with children in an article for the Good Men Project. Especially young children who are not developmentally able to change their behavior through explanation. A person may listen and even understand: “But seldom does anything change. This rarely even works with adults, let’s face it. Still afraid of speaking publicly?  Lost the keys again? Responding defensively to constructive criticism? ”

It Also Works with Teens
We create stories to make sense of our world. So, what happens when we share our stories with loved ones: especially our stories about adversity or pain? The result: healing, according to a 2015 study published by Haley Horstman of the University of Missouri that looked at this question in 62 mother-daughter pairs. Horstman said she studied mothers and daughters because women are more likely to tell stories compared to men and because the mother-daughter dynamic is particularly interesting, but that the implications apply to everyone.  The key seemed to be the ability of the child to take anothers’ perspective. “So if I’m telling my mom a story, and I’m actually listening to her, that helps me. If it’s not just a monologue where I’m venting about some problem, but rather a give-and-take conversation, that conversation is more helpful to my well-being.”

Storytelling for Sensitive Children & Difficult Behaviors
Once upon a time, when a child was overly sensitive to the feel of the seams in their socks, the noise and lights in a room, or the emotions of others, we were encouraged to punish them out of it or we told them to “suck it up.” Now we know that “being sensitive” is a real thing. One of my children is quite sensitive. For these kids, the power of storytelling is particularly profound. Interestingly, it was this child, when she was only about three, that said to me: “When I scream like that I just wish you would tell me a story.” It  woke me up. I realized that she wasn’t “losing it” to manipulate or get her way, she was losing it because she was wired to over-respond to much less stimuli than most. Even though I am a writer, it was hard for me to calm myself enough in those moments to turn on my creative, thinking mind. I watched, though, my husband do it and saw how profoundly helpful it was. And, I’ve gone on to read books and listen to other storytellers use their craft to help heal challenging behaviors of all sorts. Slowly, I’ve begun to learn.

Storytelling Works Because it Changes the Brain
Remember, the way storytelling works in the brain, is that as the child listens they create images and lay down neural pathways in their brain. They want to hear stories again and again, because this creation is work, and they are further establishing those pathways with each reiteration. In this way, listening to stories leads to the future capacity to read, reason, and do conceptual math. It also can change behaviors. When they hear a story or a fairytale where a conflict is resolved peacefully or a scary situation is soothed, the listener begins to create the neurological pathways in the brain that make it more likely that they can access the same pathway in real time in their own living. (Just a reminder, that the research says that almost the exact opposite happens with screens where the images turn off the thinking brain and feed only the emotional center of the brain. The result being that children then have experienced what they have seen almost as if they really lived it and will often need to “play out” the experience for a long time after.)

How to Learn the Storytelling Skill for Parenting

1. Just do it.

It’s usually fears that hold us back from storytelling says David Sewell McCann. “To these fears, I say: there was once a man who was afraid to talk. He was worried about what it would sound like—would he growl?  Would he hoot?  Would he squawk?  But then, one day he saw that a child was about to fall into a trap he himself made to catch coyotes. The child was too far away to reach so he finally called out, “Stop”. The child stopped. The child was fine—and this was because of what he had spoken.”   McCann says that it’s not important whether the story is good or thought-out or anything. It’s important that a parent cares enough to try. In other words, it’s okay to be scared, yet you can still do it. Just open your mouth and let the fist story come out.

2. Read fairytales and folktales.

Start with the ones that you remember from your childhood. These are classics for a reason: they work with universal images that speak deeply to our psyche and they had been carried and passed down for generations before they were finally written. Get a collection such as the complete Grimm’s Fairytales and read the ones you love to your child. Or read them to yourself and retell them to your child in times of need or rest.

3. Take stories from you own experiences or from those of others.

This is one of the easiest ways to get started with storytelling. “Once, when I was little, I climbed up on the counter to get the coffee for my Daddy. When I stood up to reach for the coffee, unfortunately, I feel backward, all the way down. My Daddy scooped me up and took me to the hospital. The doctors and nurses…..”

Nancy Mellon, author of Storytelling with Children recommends that for younger children you tell your personal stories in the third person. (That way the young child is less compelled to try climbing up on the counter like Mama did the time she fell off and had to get stitches.) Kids love these stories and will ask for them again and again in my experience.

4. Tell them stories about themselves.

Create stories that about what your child is experiencing in the form of a behavior, or fear, or just what happened in their day. “Start the story with a central character modeled on them. Make it a chipmunk or a baby bear or a bluejay or whatever seems most accurate to the way in which your child is struggling. Then talk about a normal day for that animal.  The chipmunk spends a lot of time hiding because he thinks every movement in the forest is dangerous.  The baby bear can’t sleep because the hard earthen floor is too scratchy.  The bluejay hates loud noises so she tries to yell louder.  Give a rounded picture of the animal and then have the ‘grown’ animals offer some relief. That relief can come in the form of food or comfort or community – whatever you think your child needs.  I would encourage simply sensory relief – like a warm bowl of acorn porridge or a soft bed of cattail down mixed with the softest dried flower petals – or a quiet home inside a thick oak tree.  Give them piece through enrolling imagery – pictures they can empty into and then actually ‘feel’ themselves.  You’ll know you’ve found just the right image because they will smile softly, sigh and say something like “that sounds nice’.” explains master storyteller Sewell McCann.

5. Get these must-have storytelling resources

There are a few resources that will, literally, change your life in regard to storytelling.

Storytelling with Children (and any other book by Nancy Mellon who is an Elder in the storytelling movement and has a particular expertise in using stories to heal.) Learn more about Nancy Mellon’s work at

Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour is a must-have book of stories and storytelling practices that will serve any parent.

The Sparkle Stories Blog will teach you more about how to use storytelling as a parent. Then, listen to the stories. Your children will love them and you will learn the art of storytelling by listening to it done by a master: the aforementioned David Sewell McCann. They have stories available for all sorts of behaviors, stories for seasons and celebrations, and stories just for the fun of it.

—Look for story telling programs near you. Storytellers will often come to libraries, festivals, or a school in your area. A storytelling class or a storytelling circle is a great way to learn more. Or, search for storytellers in your area using National Storytelling Network in the U.S. , Storytellers-Conteurs in Canada, or for much of the world.

Learn from others, after all, is what storytelling is all about.  Storytelling gives us a form of modeling beyond ourselves and beyond the moment. And it creates better selves, better parent-child bonds, and better communities.


Written by Manda Aufochs Gillespie.  Learn more tips for living in our kick-A** newsletter. Sign up now. Learn about the other amazing resources mentioned here by clicking on the links and about what it means to be an Amazon affiliate by reading the fine print.

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