Storytelling to Process Emotions


“Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.” – Tim O’Brien

Storytelling over the course of the last eight months has morphed from Jibbajoo the alien stories to biographical “life stories”. Often it is the children who ask me to tell them stories from my life – usually my childhood. They know how I learned to ride a bike, that I wasn’t allowed to celebrate Halloween, that I hid my favorite toys in the unfinished walls of the attic in my old house before moving to a new state. My classroom of children probably know more about me than most of my friends.

After some time, they started to tell their own life stories.


The appeal of life stories is largely the connection we feel to one another when sharing a personal story. Sometimes there are elements in the story others relate to: stories about sibling arguments, not being “big” enough to do something, feeling afraid of nightmares, shadows, or spiders. Other times it is the emotion itself we empathize with. I don’t know what it’s like to be bit by a younger brother but I understand pain, frustration, anger, sadness.

Stories are vital in many ways, even more so than for the social connection.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” – The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human By Jonathan Gottschall

Telling a story about something that happened to us helps us process it. After all, dreams are merely our brain processing information. We can do the same thing emotionally by telling our story – typically over and over again.

Often if a child is upset I sportscast why. I repeat what they say and each time they add more to the explanation and their body calms down. They often repeat their account of what happened, and each aspect of the situation until something clicks and they stop. Often at that point they move on and go back to playing. This can take less than a minute or twenty minutes, often depending on the specifics of what happened.

Very often, they want to talk about it again later. Sometimes more than once. Then again on the way home with their families.

When children are reacting from their emotions, we must first speak to those emotions. Acknowledgement and empathy are the first steps to helping a child work through something emotional. As they calm down, and begin to process what happened, they are able to make sense of what actually occured by telling the story repetitively.

“Demanding our kids be rational when they are operating under the influence of their irrational right brains is a mis-attuned effort often made in vain.” – Lisa Firestone


One of our enduring understanding in the Storytelling Project Group is the ability to process emotions through storytelling.

For our Question of the Day I asked the classroom what their saddest memory is.


I then brought their answers to the Studio with the storytelling group where we worked on drawing and then painting our saddest memories.

Me and My Mommy Having a Fight By: E

“This (points to darkest line on the drawing) is my mommy and me fighting. This (traces lines to the opposite side) is my mommy and me at the snack place so we would stop fighting.”


Duck Duck Goose By: P

“Um, well, this is me. And this is Mo-Mo. And this is the camera we were fighting over. We both wanted the camera. And then he, um, well, and then he bit me. Mo-Mo did. And these (black dots on yellow paint) are all my friends. I have lots of friends. More friends than Mo-Mo. Mo-Mo has almost no friends, see. (points to orange paint with no black dots).”


My Mommy and Daddy By: J

“This my daddy, this my mommy, this me. And this my babysitter (all the way to the right). My babysitter was hungry and cried.”


Me Trying to Climb a Tree By: O

“One time, I went outside with L and there were pink and purple trees and I tried to climb them. But I couldn’t climb them because I’m not big enough yet. So L showed me how to climb them because she’s bigger than me. Then I tried to climb the trees again. And then…and then I could climb the trees.”


Stuff that will be Sad and Happy By: S

“The saddest is when the flowers don’t grow and the weeds grow. And the flowers are under the weeds like this (puts palms flat against each other). It’s sad. But it will be happy when the flowers go like this (starts to open palms outward, showing flowers blooming) and then the weeds will  be on the bottom. And the sun will come out. They are just sleeping right now. Then they wake up and the weeds go to sleep.”


While drawing each child told their story in bits and pieces. When it came time to title their piece, every one of them instead started by telling me the entire back story before settling on a singular sentence or phrase as the title. No matter how many times they had already stated what happened, they still wanted to tell the tale again and again.

The group will get a chance to bring their artwork to the rest of the classroom to tell their stories to the group.

What I Wonder

  • How will these memories form their next bout of storytelling? Later that day they asked me to tell a story about their beloved Jibbaboo. P:”Say Jibbajoo’s saddest memory!”
  • What other mediums can we use to express emotions through storytelling? Could we act out these or other stories? Would dance be seen as a method of expressing these tales?
  • Do they recognize this as a form of storytelling and how do they relate it to imaginative story telling?
  • Would other emotion memories such as happy or silly feel as necessary to them to illustrate and repetitively tell?
  • Could we in turn somehow use this to help us ask others for their life stories?

“Story is the life line of a person’s life. We need to sing it and we need someone to hear the singing. Story told. Story heard. Story written. Story read creates the web of life in words.” – Christina Baldwin


3 thoughts on “Storytelling to Process Emotions

  1. I love this! Thank you. It reminded me of when my daughter fell and scraped her knee when she was 3. We were visiting a farm when she fell. She cried and immediately asked for pen and paper which we always carried because drawing was her “thing” wherever she was. She drew herself with a scraped knee, crying. She then told me the story while referring to her drawing. Then she felt better and ran off. Drawing and storytelling was her way of coping and still is at age 12. She is diagnosed with anxiety and it can be helpful.


    1. It’s incredible how much storytelling and art can help process difficulties. I also suffer from anxiety and use both regularly. Thanks for sharing!


Leave a Reply to Ms.Cynthia Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s