From ancient folklore passed down through generations to modern-day bedtime stories, storytelling has long been a part of human culture. But stories do so much more than simply entertain our children – they also have an incredible influence in shaping their social and emotional development.
Stories help us make sense of the world and create purpose and meaning within it. They help us engage with others and feel connected, and story-telling is a powerful way to foster community and create a sense of belonging.
The bottom line? Storytelling is the bomb! So let’s find out how we can use it to support our children with their social and emotional skills. But first, some science. Because I’m a huge nerd, of course.
The neuroscience of story-telling
The human brain is wired to respond to narratives. When a child listens to a story, a number of regions within the brain light up, processing language, emotions, and sensory experiences. This engagement creates neural connections that support comprehension, empathy, and perspective-taking – all crucial elements of social and emotional intelligence.
Understanding the neuroscience behind storytelling helps us to understand just how important stories are for any kind of learning. The simple act of telling a story can have a huge impact on brain development, and there are several important processes at play when you sit down to read with, or tell a story to, your child.
Here are a few ways story-telling impacts the brain.
1) It encourages neural synchronisation
When a child listens to a story, various parts of the brain synchronise to process the narrative. Language centers activate, deciphering words and sentences. Simultaneously, sensory areas engage, creating vivid mental imagery of the story’s settings and characters. This synchronised activity is crucial for comprehension, as it weaves together different elements of the story into a coherent mental representation.
2) It activates mirror neurons
Mirror neurons fire not only when we perform an action but also when we observe someone else performing that action. Stories, with their vivid descriptions of emotions and actions, activate these mirror neurons in listeners. When a character experiences joy, sadness, or fear, a child’s brain simulates these emotions, fostering a deep sense of empathy towards the character’s experiences.
3) It triggers dopamine release
Engaging stories trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This neurotransmitter plays an important role in motivation, reward, and pleasure. When children are engrossed in a story, their brains receive a dopamine boost, reinforcing the positive experience associated with storytelling. This heightened engagement encourages continued interest and attention, which facilitates learning and emotional connection.
4) It allows for memory consolidation
The brain’s ability to remember information is enhanced when that information is presented in a narrative form. Stories provide context, which makes information more memorable and easier to recall. And when emotions are tied to these narratives, the brain prioritises the retention of this information even more!
5) It stimulates neuroplasticity
Repeated exposure to stories stimulates neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to re-organise and form new connections. This process is vital to learning and skill development. Stories, especially those with rich and complex plots, challenge the brain, encouraging it to create new neural pathways associated with problem-solving, emotional regulation, and social understanding.
6) It impacts the development of executive functions
The process of following a story – keeping track of characters, understanding their motivations, and predicting outcomes – engages executive functions such as attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Regular engagement with stories helps strengthen these cognitive skills, which are essential for academic success and overall cognitive development.
What skills are being learned during storytelling?
By leveraging the brain’s natural responses to narratives, caregivers and educators can harness the power of storytelling to nurture not just literacy but a broad range of social, emotional, and cognitive skills in children.
Empathy and emotional literacy
Stories transport children into different worlds, allowing them to experience diverse emotions through the characters’ journeys. As they empathise with protagonists facing challenges, they learn to identify and understand emotions – both their own and those of others. This emotional literacy forms the bedrock of empathetic relationships and effective communication.
The complexities within stories – plot twists, character motivations, and moral dilemmas – challenge a child’s cognitive abilities. They stimulate critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making, nurturing a child’s capacity to navigate real-life situations.
Resilience and coping skills
Characters overcoming adversity in stories offer valuable lessons in resilience. Children learn that setbacks are a natural part of life and that perseverance and adaptability are essential. These narratives provide a safe space for children to explore emotions linked to challenges and learn healthy coping mechanisms.
Social skills and relationship building
Stories often revolve around relationships, teaching children about friendship, teamwork, and conflict resolution. By observing how characters navigate social situations, children get insights into effective communication, cooperation, and understanding diverse perspectives.
Creativity and imagination
Storytelling sparks creativity and imagination, encouraging children to visualise and conceptualise different scenarios. This imaginative play fosters innovative thinking and problem-solving skills while expanding their creativity.
How to use storytelling to build social-emotional skills
Storytelling serves as a compass that can guide children through various real-life scenarios. It offers insights and tools to navigate challenges that children may come up against in their own lives. Here are some practical tips to help you use storytelling as a tool for building social and emotional skills in your child.
1) Make it interactive:
Engage children in discussions about characters’ emotions or alternative endings, encouraging them to think critically. You might like to ask your child questions that encourage deeper thinking at the end of a story, or while you are reading. But a word of warning here – while you want to open up a conversation and leave room for reflection, you don’t want to force it! After all, the best way for learning to take place is through engagement in the story, and if you are constantly interrupting to ask questions or if your child is not interested in answering your questions, the lesson will be lost – so try to follow their lead.
2) Encourage children to share their own stories:
Encourage children to share their experiences or create their own narratives. This fosters self-expression and confidence, but it also helps children to process and make sense of different situations. When children tell us a story about something that has happened to them, they have to use both sides of their brain to organise and process the information. This process of integration allows children to make sense of what happened and deal with the emotions around it more effectively.
3) Discuss feelings:
Discuss the characters’ feelings and motivations as you read. This builds emotional literacy skills and empathy by encouraging children to step into the characters’ shoes and understand different perspectives. But it can also open up a conversation about a time when your child may have felt a similar way and offers them a less confronting way to discuss something that might feel tricky for them.
4) Share family stories:
Children love to talk about their families and sharing stories with them about their family history can help children develop a strong sense of identity and make sense of their place in the world. Shared stories promote a sense of belonging and provide a strong connection between past and future generations that helps children feel grounded and secure.
5) Introduce diverse narratives:
Introduce stories reflecting various cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, promoting inclusivity and empathy towards diversity. It is important that all children see themselves reflected back in the books they read and the stories they are told. But it is also important for stories to provide a perspective outside of a child’s own life, so they can better understand and empathise with others.
6) Don’t be afraid to use technology:
In today’s digital age, technology offers innovative storytelling platforms, from interactive e-books to educational apps. Storytelling is effective in all forms, and when used mindfully, these tools can enhance storytelling experiences. They offer multimedia elements that captivate and engage children while still preserving the essence of storytelling.
Storytelling is a powerful way to nurture social and emotional skills in children. Its ability to engage, educate, and inspire is unparalleled and helps to shape communities, societies and cultures. By embracing storytelling as a deliberate tool in a child’s developmental journey, caregivers and educators alike can help create a generation of emotionally intelligent young people, equipped with empathy, resilience, and compassion – both for themselves and for others.
Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in children and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modelled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.