How Storytelling Builds Attachment And The Science Behind It

Any parent, grandparent, or teacher who has told stories to their children will recognize that at the end of a good story, you don’t just walk away with a good story – the two of you feel closer. Why?

Doctors call this attachment. And to understand how it works we have to shift our perspective for a moment from the story itself to the relationship that arises between speaker and listener during a story.

There is a lot of research available on the subject of storytelling today. It helps people focus, remember information, develop empathy, and navigate difficult life events. It also happens to be a lot of fun.

These subjects are so well studied that a quick Google search will bring up hundreds of articles, both for the lay person and the academic. In fact, there are so many good books, factoids, and articles out on storytelling now that it’s easy to get lost in all the good news.

We say “lost,” because what’s interesting is that almost all of this research is focused on the impact of the story on the listener. In other words, it neglects the social value of the relationship between storyteller and the listener, and particularly the relationship that forms after multiple tellings.

The Storytelling Relationship

As parents and teachers who use storytelling daily, we believe this is an error. We have experienced the storytelling relationship so frequently that we recognize it, not the narrative, at the heart of good storytelling. It is through the intimacy and trust of that relationship that the real value (not just the words) is passed from human to human, parent to child. It’s also why every parent and caregiver is uniquely poised to become a masterful storyteller – because nobody knows your child better than you.

What scientists have pieced together over the last seventy years is that storytelling is a principle component of how we think, speak, and make meaning of our lives. It saturates our social life and extends deep into our human ancestry. And it’s as alive today as ever.

But to fill in the gap in the science of storytelling (the impact of the relationship) we need to look elsewhere – at one of the principle theories of human development: attachment theory.

The main principle of attachment theory is that a healthy attachment to one or more parental figures in a child’s early years helps a child to form healthy relationships later in life. Since relationships are vital to social creatures like you and I, this leads to all sorts of desirable outcomes, like academic and career success, mental health, and positive self-esteem.

On the other hand, children who lack healthy attachment in childhood tend to form poor relationships as adults and therefore struggle with school, career, and a variety of behavior disorders ranging from anxiety to anger to avoidance.

Psychology Today reports that 40% of U.S. children lack a healthy attachment with their parents and are therefore likely to struggle forming healthy relationships as adults. That’s four out of ten people. However, it’s important not to equate attachment with love. It’s quite possible, and even likely, for a mother and father to love their child yet not have adequate attachment.

Building Blocks Of Attachment

So, what builds attachment? Here are six ground rules from Dr. Holly Ruhl, writing in Motherly

  1. Recognizing and responding to a child’s cues for attention
  2. Following a child’s interests
  3. Being in sync with a child
  4. Remaining positive
  5. Varying a child’s activities
  6. Giving emotional support

If you have ever heard a child say, “Tell me a story,” you may have thought she merely wanted a good story. But once we grasp that relationship is at the crux of storytelling, we begin to see that this is a child’s way of asking for attention. This corresponds directly with rule 1 for building attachment. Recognizing this cue as what it is – a bid for your attention – can help a lot of parents let go of the stress of coming up with a good story. It’s you she wants, not the story.

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In our book we refer to the concept of the storytelling loop – you take one or two elements from a child’s life, tell an imaginative story about it, and end up with a new perspective on those real things. This correlates with ground rules 2 and 3. Engaging in the storytelling relationship is not so much about telling a story offhand. It begins with paying attention to your child’s environment and then incorporating something recognizable into your stories. This makes a child feel seen.

Remaining positive (ground rule 4) is essential to any children’s story. We might include some conflicts and drama, especially as a child ages, but a good story should have a positive outcome and leave a child with a good feeling. This helps build a child’s sense of safety and resolve, and connects that good feeling with you. It’s one of the principle features of storytelling. By allowing a child to encounter a difficult situation in a story, then providing resolution, he has a chance to practice for real life.

If we have followed a child’s interests and responded to their cues for attention (rules 1 and 2), a good story often leads to play. If you have ever encountered a bored child, it’s often because there is not enough diversity in his activities. Storytelling can be a great way not just to connect, but to stimulate a child’s interest in new and diverse activities (rule 5).

Finally, storytelling is one of the principle ways people share, resolve, and simulate emotional experiences (ground rule 6). There’s a great quote from Marco Iacaboni, a pioneering neuroscientist at UCLA who studies mirror neurons, “We have empathy for fictional characters…because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves.” If a child is experiencing a difficult emotion, a story about a mouse or a superhero that feels something similar, and then resolves it, can give a child some love and attention while simultaneously giving them a sense of direction.

In short, storytelling is a great way to build attachment. And healthy attachment leads to excellent storytelling. When we stop thinking of storytelling as the telling of a story and embrace it as the relationship that arises between speaker and listener (parent and child), we open our eyes to the real value of storytelling.

It starts to make sense why people have been honing this skill for tens of thousands of years. It builds relationships. Relationships build successful and emotionally grounded people. There is a reason why storytelling is so effective at helping people moderate emotions, remember information, and focus their attention. It is one of the primary tools we have as human beings, like opposable thumbs and walking on two feet.

The best part is that it belongs to each of us, and no one in particular. Each of us is uniquely suited for this storytelling relationship with our own children. There just simply isn’t anyone who could do it better.

Caribu is a great tool to nurture a storytelling relationship with your children or grandchildren! Download the app to explore thousands of books, activities, and puzzles that you can complete together in a video call. Perfect for bedtime stories, virtual playdates, and when mom needs a #CaribuBreak.

You can read the original article on the blog How To Tell Stories To Children.

Joseph Sarosy, How Storytelling Builds Attachment And The Science Behind It, February 9th, 2020,