Connecting With Your Children Through Stories
As a mother to two teenage girls I’ve made efforts to prioritise connection and communication, although I’ve not always got this right. I became conscious of the need for this during a period in our lives when there was lots of change with my career, as well as my husband’s, and the girls were starting school and nursery, aged five and three years old. Most importantly, and something I continue to be thankful to God for, is this period of change and uncertainty was when my faith and trust in Jesus took a deeper turn.
Taking time out
I decided to carve out some time each day that purposefully provided a safe space and time for me to ‘be’ with the girls. A time of calm before bed where I would leave my mobile phone downstairs, close the curtains in their bedroom, have low lighting on, a blanket at the ready and offer up the intentional invitation of, ‘I would love you to join me for a story.’ It was my way of saying, this is 'our time', where they had complete assurance that my focus was given entirely over to them until lights out. No distractions.
It took commitment and often required me to compromise other demands on my time, but reflecting on those early years I believe it significantly contributed to their sense of self, their emotional intelligence, their ability to empathise, their confidence in understanding and communicating their own feelings, and their resilience.
I began to realise that our story times together gave me access, without resistance, into their internal worlds - their thinking, their emotions, their reason. It not only created time to connect, care and listen but provided a valuable time to pray together about anything that the story brought to light. It was the most wonderful and natural way of showing my girls how to talk with God in a conversational way, helping them to share their thoughts and worries with Him and learn to trust that He is listening, He cares and He can help.
I've found reading with my children has helped to:
1. Explore emotions
2. Learn about empathy
3. Get meaningful conversations started
Children can sense when we are available for them or not. Even if our words do not say it, our facial expressions and body language do. One of the most important things we can do to have a positive impact on our child's development and their emotional well-being is to spend time with them.
When we purposefully schedule a time of calm into a child’s daily routine, to read a story aloud together, it helps create a bond and builds trust. We must not underestimate how important this time is, however short it may feel to us. It boosts the feeling of intimacy, helps your child feel close to you, promotes feelings of love and attention, and encourages positive growth and development.
Pick a book and as you start your story time together invite your child to tell you what they notice about it such as the look, the feel, the cover, the end papers and the characters. I find this is a helpful way of preparing children for the story and setting the mood and pace for the time ahead.
Page by page be mindful to ask your child open-ended questions about what the content and the illustrations are telling them. The more you ask questions that allow for possible and varied answers the more you will hear and learn about your child's own thoughts, reasoning, rationale and resilience. Open-ended questions can start with what, how, when, why, tell me about and describe. For example, ‘I wonder how Olive is feeling here?’ Try to avoid asking closed questions that require yes or no answers.
Many young children struggle to articulate their feelings, often describing them through a physical discomfort (sore tummy) or avoidance behaviour (refusing to go somewhere). So, sharing these stories together gives you and your child a resource, amidst some valuable connection time, to talk about their real-life experiences and worries. When spending time reading together you can regularly stop and talk objectively about how the main character is feeling and then move to a more subjective perspective asking your child about how they feel. For example, “Have you ever felt like Olive?”
Learning about empathy
Reading a book together is one of the best ways to help your young child understand something without necessarily having experienced it themselves. Evidence strongly suggests that reading helps children build emotional intelligence, develops an emotional vocabulary and increases empathy to better understand others.
Empathy is learnable, so my aim is to help young children see how others may feel in certain situations and how they might be able to offer support and friendship in different situations. Being empathetic can help our children engage in small acts of kindness, which in turn is excellent for their own emotional well-being.
Children also can learn about empathy from both watching us as their parent, as well as demonstrating how we emphasise with them. When we empathise with our young child, it builds connection and trust by acknowledging their feelings. This can be done in a number of ways such as letting them know we are thankful for them telling us how they feel through the story and showing an interest in what they are saying.
Reading stories is a great way to provide a platform to encourage conversations with your child from an early age about their thoughts and feelings in a relaxed and informal way. It is important they understand there are no good or bad emotions, that feelings are part of everyday life, and different children have different reactions or responses to certain situations. Providing time for you and your child to connect, explore, empathise and talk together is an invaluable way to support your child’s mental health and well-being.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know how to start a conversation with your child. Reasons I’ve heard over the years from various adults are
i) they didn't want to label their child and make them worry further
ii) they didn't want to upset them
iii) they didn't know how to start the conversation
iv) there was never a right time
v) they thought their child was not old enough to talk about feelings
vi) they didn’t feel they had the skills to deal with the issue
vii) their child just had to get on with it and be a ‘big boy’
It is usual to have these thoughts and concerns and please be reassured that perfect parenting does not exist. Often the answer is not as complex as you think, and offering some of your undivided attention to sit with your child and help them process and regulate their emotions is what your child needs the most. It is in this precious calm space, through the use of a story, that we can sit with them side by side to talk with them, acknowledge their feelings, validate their experiences and help normalise them.
Reading a story aloud together also gives you an opportunity to model to your child how your feelings can affect you too. You can talk with your child about when you have felt like the main character. It is a hugely positive and reassuring experience for your child to hear you name your feelings and also what you do to help work through your feelings.
I have been writing children's books for the last 12 years and inspiration for The Little Paws Hotel stories came from various roles and experiences: being a Christian, being a parent, previous careers as an Occupational Therapist and Life Coach and running my dog hotel, The Little Paws Hotel, which offers day care to dachshunds. All these different experiences have shown me that when you give people time they feel cared for and listened to, valued and connected.
This has had a huge influence on my writing. Behind each story there is drive, purpose to foster connection and time with your child. All of my manuscripts are crafted alongside a variety of professionals and focus groups that include psychologists (clinical and educational), bereavement counsellors, teachers, parents, care-givers and the children themselves.
Visit www.head2heartbooks.com to find out more about The Little Paws Hotel children’s book series.
Clare Luther, 23/09/2021