Whole-Brain Strategy #2 - Woodmam

Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions

A toddler falls and scrapes an elbow. A kindergartner loses a beloved pet. A fifth-grader faces a bully at school. When a child experiences painful, disappointing, or scary moments, it can be overwhelming, with big emotions and bodily sensations flooding the right brain. When this happens, we as parents can help bring the left hemisphere into the picture so that the child can begin to understand what’s happening. One of the best ways to promote this type of integration is to help retell the story of the frightening or painful experience.

Bella, for instance, was nine years old when the toilet overflowed when she flushed, and the experience of watching the water rise and pour onto the floor left her unwilling (and practically unable) to flush the toilet afterward. When Bella’s father, Doug, learned about the “name it to tame it” technique, he sat down with his daughter and retold the story of the time the toilet overflowed. He allowed her to tell as much of the story as she could and helped to fill in the details, including the lingering fear she had felt about flushing since that experience. After retelling the story several times, Bella’s fears lessened and eventually went away.

Why was retelling the story so effective? Essentially, what Doug did was to help his daughter bring her left brain and her right brain together so she could make sense of what had happened. When she talked through the moment the water had started spilling on the floor and how she’d felt worried and afraid, her two hemispheres were working together in an integrated way. She engaged her left brain by putting the details in order and the experience into words, and then brought in her right brain by revisiting the emotions she felt. In this way, Doug helped his daughter name her fears and emotions so that she could then tame them.

There may be times when our kids won’t want to tell the story when we ask them to. We need to respect their desires about how and when to talk—especially because pressuring them to share will only backfire. (Think about the times you prefer solitude and don’t feel like talking—does prodding ever entice you to talk and share your inner feelings?) Instead, we can gently encourage them by beginning the story and asking them to fill in the details, and if they’re not interested, we can give them space and talk later.

Your child is more likely to be responsive if you are strategic about when you initiate this type of conversation. Make sure you are both in a good frame of mind. Seasoned parents and child therapists will also tell you that some of the best conversations with children take place while something else is happening. Children are much more apt to share and talk while building something, playing cards, or riding in the car than when you sit down and look them right in the face and ask them to open up. Another approach you can take if your child doesn’t feel like talking is to ask her to draw a picture of the event or, if she’s old enough, write about it. If you sense that she is reluctant to talk to you, encourage her to talk to someone else—a friend, another adult, or even a sibling who will be a good listener.

Parents know how powerful storytelling can be when it comes to distracting their kids or calming them down, but most people don’t realize the science behind this powerful force. The right side of our brain processes our emotions and autobiographical memories, but our left side is what makes sense of these feelings and recollections. Healing from a difficult experience emerges when the left side works with the right to tell our life stories. When children learn to pay attention to and share their own stories, they can respond in healthy ways to everything from a scraped elbow to a major loss or trauma.

What kids often need, especially when they experience strong emotions, is to have someone help them use their left brain to make sense of what’s going on—to put things in order and to name these big and scary right-brain feelings so they can deal with them effectively. This is what storytelling does: it allows us to understand ourselves and our world by using both our left and right hemispheres together. To tell a story that makes sense, the left brain must put things in order, using words and logic. The right brain contributes the bodily sensations, raw emotions, and personal memories, so we can see the whole picture and communicate our experience. This is the scientific explanation behind why journaling and talking about a difficult event can be so powerful in helping us heal. In fact, research shows that merely assigning a name or label to what we feel literally calms down the activity of the emotional circuitry in the right hemisphere.

For this same reason, it’s important for kids of all ages to tell their stories, as it helps them try to understand their emotions and the events that occur in their lives. Sometimes parents avoid talking about upsetting experiences, thinking that doing so will reinforce their children’s pain or make things worse. Actually, telling the story is often exactly what children need, both to make sense of the event and to move on to a place where they can feel better about what happened. (Remember Marianna’s son, Marco, from the “Eea woo woo” story in chapter 1?) The drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong that the brain will continue to try making sense of an experience until it succeeds. As parents, we can help this process along through storytelling.

That’s what Thomas did with Katie, the preschooler who was screaming about dying if her father left her at school. Even though he felt frustrated with the situation, he resisted the urge to dismiss and deny Katie’s experiences. Because of what he had learned, he recognized that his daughter’s brain was linking several events together: being dropped off at school, getting sick, having her father leave, and feeling afraid. As a result, when it came time to pack up and go to school, her brain and body started telling her, “Bad idea: school = feeling sick = Dad gone = afraid.” From that perspective, it made sense that she didn’t want to go to school.

Realizing this, Thomas used his knowledge about the brain’s two hemispheres. He knew that small children like Katie are typically right-hemisphere dominant and haven’t mastered their ability to use logic and words to express feelings. Katie felt the strong emotions, but she wasn’t able to understand and communicate them clearly. As a result, they had become overpowering. He also knew that autobiographical memory is stored in the right side of the brain, and understood that the details of her getting sick had become linked in her memory and caused her right hemisphere to shift into overdrive.

Once Thomas grasped all of this, he knew he needed to help Katie make sense of those emotions by using her left hemisphere—by bringing in logic, putting the events in order, and assigning words to her feelings. The way he did this was by helping her tell a story about what had happened that day so that she could use both sides of her brain together. He told her, “I know you’ve been having a hard time going to school since you got sick. Let’s try to remember the day you felt sick at school. First, we got ready for school, didn’t we? Remember, you wanted to wear your red pants, we had waffles with blueberries, and then you brushed your teeth? We got to school and we hugged and said goodbye. You started to paint at the activity table and I waved bye to you. And then what happened after I left?”

Katie responded that she got sick. Thomas continued, “Right. And I know that didn’t feel good, did it? But then Ms. LaRussa took really good care of you and knew you needed Daddy, so she called me and I came right away. Aren’t you lucky to have a teacher that took care of you until Daddy could come? And then what happened? I took care of you and you felt better.” Thomas then emphasized that he came right away and that everything was OK, and he assured Katie that he would always be there anytime she needed him.

By putting these narrative details in order like this, Thomas allowed his daughter to begin to make sense of what she was experiencing with her emotions and in her body. He then began to help her create some new associations that school is safe and fun, reminding her of various aspects of her school that she loved. They wrote and illustrated a book together that told the story and featured her favorite places in her classroom. As kids often will, Katie wanted to read her homemade book over and over.

Before long, she regained her love of school, and the experience didn’t have such power over her anymore. In fact, she learned that she could overcome fear with the support of the people who love her. As Katie grows, her father will continue to help her make sense of her experiences; this storytelling process will become a natural way for her to deal with difficult situations, giving her a powerful tool for dealing with adversity into adulthood and throughout her life.

Even children much younger than Katie—as young as ten to twelve months—respond well to telling stories. For example, imagine a toddler who’s fallen down and skinned her knee. Her right brain, which is completely in the present moment and in touch with her body and fear, feels pain. On some level, she worries that the pain may never go away. When the mother retells the story of the fall, putting words and order to the experience, she helps her daughter engage and develop her left brain, explaining what happened—she simply fell down—so that she can understand why she’s hurting.

Don’t underestimate the power of a story to hold a child’s attention. Try this if you have a little one—you’ll be amazed at how helpful it can be, and how eager he’ll be to help tell future stories when he’s been hurt or feels afraid.

This “name it to tame it” technique is just as powerful with older kids. One mother we know, Laura, used it with her son, Jack, who had been in a minor (but still scary) biking accident when he was ten and felt nervous anytime he thought about going out on a bicycle. Here’s how she helped him tell the story so that he could begin to understand what was going on inside.

LAURA: Do you remember what happened when you fell?

JACK: I was looking at you when we were crossing the street. And I didn’t see the grate of the sewer.

LAURA: And what happened next?

JACK: My wheel got caught and the bike fell over on me.

LAURA: And that was frightening, wasn’t it?

JACK: Yeah, I didn’t know what to do … I just went down in the street, and I couldn’t even see what was happening.

LAURA: That must have been scary, to have something happen out of nowhere. Do you remember what happened next?

Laura went on to help Jack recount the whole experience. Together they discussed how, in the end, the ordeal was resolved by some tears, comforting, Band-Aids, and bike repairs. Then they talked about watching out for sewer grates and being aware of oncoming traffic, which helped Jack free himself from some of the feelings of helplessness.

The details of a conversation like this will obviously change along with the situation. But notice how Laura drew the story out of her son, letting him take an active role in the storytelling process. She acted primarily as a facilitator, helping get the facts of the event straight. This is how stories empower us to move forward and master the moments when we feel out of control. When we can give words to our frightening and painful experiences—when we literally come to terms with them—they often become much less frightening and painful. When we help our children name their pain and their fears, we help them tame them.
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