‘Tell Me About When You Were Little’. Children and Storytelling – The Stories They Need to Hear

'Tell Me About When You Were Little'. Children and Storytelling - The Stories Your Children Want to Hear

Since the beginning of our time, we humans have told stories. We love hearing them and we love telling them. At the centre of our stories beats the heart of our shared humanity – the potential of us, the vulnerability of us, the fragility, strength and heroism of us. When we share our stories, we become a witness to the lessons, the adventures and the impact of our own lives. We teach, we learn and we make sense of our experiences.

For your children, your stories will unfold a beautiful and personal expansion of their world. You are the most important, most intriguing, most influential person in their lives. They want to know everything about you. They want to know about the person you were when you were little, the life you lived before them, the mistakes you’ve made, the adventures you’ve had, the risks you’ve taken, the people you’ve loved and the fights you’ve fought.

As they get older and move towards their teenage years, they will be looking for the stories you tell that make it safe for them to tell you their own. They will be looking for the stories that help to make sense of their own stumbles, confusion, messiness or chaos. You’ve been where they are before, and even though you would have done it differently, it’s very likely that you made the same mistakes, had the same fears, and wondered about the answers to the same questions. Within your stories is the information that can soothe them, lift them and encourage them. They can learn things from you that they can’t learn from anyone else on the planet.

More than anything else in the world, whatever their age, they want to hear the stories that let them see themselves through your eyes. Never will they feel more loved, more wanted, more extraordinary, braver, stronger and more able to reach full flight, than they will when they look at themselves through the eyes of someone who loves them the way you do.

Children and storytelling. The ones they’ll love you to tell.

The stories that already exist inside you have an extraordinary capacity to guide them and  and widen their world. Here are some of the stories they will want to hear.

The way the world was when you were little.

With every generation, the detail of the world changes but the themes tend to stay the same – families, relationships, friendships, fears, hope, fun. The way you experience these things might be different from the way your children will, but when you tell them the stories, there will be common threads. The most important parts of the human experience don’t change that much from generation to generation. We will be brought undone by the same things our parents and grandparents were, and the same things will still be important. Generally, it revolves around our hopes and fears and who we open our hearts to. What was important in your family? What trouble did you get into? What did you do for fun? What were some of the important rules in your family? How were the rules different to the ones in the family your child is growing up in? How was play different? What was the best thing about your childhood? What wasn’t so great? How was day to day life different? What were you good at? What did you want to be good at? What are some funny memories? What did you want to be when you grew up? Why? What did you do for the holidays? What were some family rituals? What was bedtime like for you? What was your favourite story?

Your misadventures. 

Kids, especially younger ones, see us as responsible, unbreakable, hardworking, compromising – you know how it goes. Of course they see us tired and cranky and chaotic too, but they will also see us as solid and sorted, at least when they are young. By telling your stories of misadventure, you are laying the path for them to tell you about theirs. You are making yourself approachable, and you’re letting them know it’s okay to stumble sometimes. By hearing about your mistakes, your vulnerabilities and your woolly decisions, they will be able to trust that you’ll ‘get it’ when they slip up too – which they will, you know they will.

The places you’ve seen and the things you’ve done.

It might not even have occurred to your little person that you have had a life outside of storybooks, bathtime and bedtime. For them, you have always existed as someone in relation to them.It will fascinate them to hear about the different things you did before you became the most important person in the world. 

The story of how you met their other parent.

The day you met their other parent was the day your child became a possibility. It’s the story of their beginning and they will love every detail. Where did you meet? How did you meet? How did you feel? What was it that made you want to get closer? What were you wearing? Kids love hearing about the world that existed before them. Whether you are still in love, or whether you have never actually been in love doesn’t matter. What’s important is that in this whole world of people, you found that one that would make your little person possible. Now, if that doesn’t show them how much the world needs them. 

The day you found out about them.

Whether it was the day you found out about the pregnancy, the adoption, or that there was someone important who needed a family, they will love hearing about the moment your world started to change because of them.  

The day they were born.

Tell the story of the day they arrived and turned your world upside down and right way up. Talk to them about the conversations, the feelings, the anticipation, the weather that day, the phone calls, the visitors, the people who helped them into the world, the big news of that day, and what happened the moment you first saw them, touched them or held them. They will love hearing about what a big deal their entrance was, and how many people, places and things had to be organised to make sure they made it.

Their firsts – steps, words, tantrums.

They will love hearing how a single step or a one-syllable word made your day, or how a fully charged tantrum in public almost broke it. 

Your own firsts – first day at school, first job, first relationship, first day out of home. 

Because once upon a time there were big beginnings for you too. 

Your clearest memories of them – the good, the bad, and the shockers.

Tell them the stories of the detail of their lives they may not remember.  Children and teens will nurture strong feelings in us every day. Sometimes those feelings will be glorious, sometimes warm and sometimes they will make us tilt with pride. Sometimes those feelings will be forgettable – fury, bewilderment, chaos. It takes all feelings to make a life. The times they pressed against your patience the most are the stories that will be gold one day. Within every struggle you have had with them, there will be ribbons of their personality that you will be proud of, whether it’s their strong will, their sense of adventure, their curiosity, their ‘keen sense of justice’, tenacity, or their capacity to argue the legs of a chair when they believe in something enough.

And finally …

Your own stories will teach them the lessons, in the incidental, beautiful way that only stories can do. Let them be wide-eyed and curious and explore a different side of you, themselves, and your relationship with them.

16 Comments

John

I am somewhat selective to what stories I tell my teenage girl and boy. I was told by a co-worker of mine, “don’t tell them the bad stuff or rule breaking that you may have done, your kids may want to outdo you”. He believed that is what spurned his boys bad behavior…. Thoughts?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s always important to be careful with what we share. It depends on their age and the type of kids they are. Nobody knows your child like you do. One of the best ways to teach kids important lessons is through stories. They will learn the lesson quicker through the stories and lessons we share with them than through preaching or lecturing.

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Kate

Love this article, so many great ideas to tell your own life story to your children, thank you!

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Sara

These are great ideas for grandparents, aunts, and uncles too! My oldest granddaughter loves to hear stories about when her mom was little. Lovely post.

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Mary A

thanks for the great article. It is wonderful to provide these details to your children’s understanding of you. It is even more beneficial for surviving parents to tell these stories about a deceased parent. These details fatten up the children’s memories and provides more threads of connection to their deceased parent. Sadly their time together with their parent who died was cut short so its great to add some memories and details even if they are once removed Another great story is “How we picked your name. “

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Mary. This is so true and beautifully said. And I love your story idea – ‘How we picked your name’ – another great story for them to hear.

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Jo

Your articles always make me smile. Showing kindness to others is the best medicine for living a happy life. I wish I could bottle your wisdom and then fly around like a fairy in a children’s storybook and sprinkle a little on everyone….

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LaTwana

I so remember asking my mother these questions. Or even being in turned when she talked about the past.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Same! Even all these years later I still have such clear memories of the stories my parents told me, and how ‘alive’ they were when they told them.

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Meg

Thank you Karen, this piece reminds me of a simple, fun way to connect with my kids. I love your suggestions and can’t wait to share with my kids. Thank you x

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Thanks Meg. It’s so often the simplest things that they love isn’t it, and anything that gives them special time with you x

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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