Stories That Train Your Brain

The other night Matthew was feeling disappointed. While he tends to have a hard time with this melting pot of emotions that include some sadness, some hopeless despair and some loss, he has a hard time when he expects something then plans change, and he doesn’t get what he set his mind on. I don’t know about you, but this is hard for me as well!

After a difficult day that included too much physical work, my husband’s back was hurting rather severely so he decided to rest and soak in our hot tub. I informed the boys they could enjoy the hot tub with Daddy after dinner as well, but they chose to play outside for a short time first. After playing for a bit I then asked them to clean up their toys so we could have time together to enjoy the hot tub as well. Instead of cleaning up they continued playing. By the time they put away their toys, it was too late for the hot tub. It was now bedtime. Needless to say, they were not happy.

Matthew especially struggles to accept a change in plans and this time was no exception. He begged and pleaded for the hot tub. I acknowledged how frustrating it was to miss the hot tub fun he was hoping for, then I synchronized with his disappointment. I reiterated that, unfortunately, we missed the chance for today, but we could try again tomorrow. Even this assurance did not relieve his frustration and disappointment. Something more was needed.

Ever since the boys were young Chris has been telling stories to help them process the moments big feelings arise. My husband uses stories to give them a picture of what to do in the midst of their big emotions. In some cases Chris tells stories of his life but most of the time he makes up a story about one of their favorite characters and shares how this character handled a similar situation in order to help the boys process their feelings and have an example of how they could respond when they feel this way in the future. While I am not as proficient at storytelling, I do try to help the boys process their feelings by telling stories, sometimes about actual scenarios I was in a similar situation, and sometimes about a favorite character of theirs. I am careful to include how big feelings were calmed while I (or the character) stayed relational in the midst of the feelings.

At this point it was bedtime, and Matthew asked me to tell him a story about “Eli the Elephant” and how Eli handled big disappointment feelings. I knew this was an important moment and then he added, “Mommy, make sure you tell how Eli wasn’t able to get in the hot tub and how he was sad and mad!” While fictional stories can be helpful to give children a picture showing how they might act in a similar situation, the most effective stories are about real-life situations where we express how we handled ourselves in the midst of the upset.

I told Matthew a story about Eli the Elephant then I followed up with a personal story about a time I did not handle my disappointment very well. I included how I hope to better handle the situation next time. Afterwards Matthew settled in peacefully and went to sleep.

When we tell emotional picture stories (also something we call “Four-plus stories” in our THRIVE Training) these provide listeners with an example demonstrating how to act in the midst of distressing emotions. These example stories also give our brain useful training to learn how to return to joy and peace while staying in relationship. Emotional picture stories include words for the emotions we are feeling as well as how our body feels in the midst of the event. We want to include how we are involved in the story and, to be ideal for training, each story should be one we have told before so they are not too intense. When told well, these personal reflection stories give an example how we are to act in emotions and similar circumstances. The brain, when hearing and watching these stories, will respond as if we actually went through the moment. These stories are internalized and stored in our brain’s identity center that we can rely on in the future when it comes to searching for examples of how to be ourselves when big emotions strike. This interaction gives us a chance to learn a new way of handling our emotions and expressing our values during big emotions. Can you think of a story to share with your family or a friend today?

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3 comments

  1. Chloe says:

    I so appreciate this. We adopted our youngest child through foster care and he was neglected and experienced trauma. Returning to a place of joy after disappointment is always a challenge for us. I would love you to write out or share an example of a story that you tell form beginning to end. A written example would be very helpful. Thank you for your blog. It is a wonderful source of encouragement and inspiration to me.

    • Jen Coursey says:

      Thank you Chloe, what a great idea! I will work on writing up a story and feature it on the blog in the next week or two, so stay tuned!

  2. Karen Boland says:

    Absolutely love, love, the way you tell stories to your little ones. I agree with Chloe, I’d love to hear the story. I have 4 small grandchildren that would benefit greatly from your stories + my heart as well.

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