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Why is Storytelling Important for Building Healthy Attachments?

Today I'm delighted to introduce a special guest writer to share their insights and expertise. Please welcome SOMA, a talented visual artist and play therapist. SOMA's work beautifully bridges the worlds of art and psychology, and in this blog they shed light on the connection between storytelling and attachment. You can find more of their work by clicking here or check them out on Instagram! Why is watching a film alone so different to when we watch it with others? Would you have the same experience of a play if you were the only person in the audience?

Probably not, right?

Storytelling, by its very nature, is a shared social activity; an engagement between the storyteller and the listener where there is constant attunement, synchronicity, and emotional resonance. Part of the enjoyment is sharing the experience of the story at the same time and in the same place as someone else. It is this connection that can enhance our relationships, that feeling of going through something together.

In my view, this dance is a mirror to the dance of attachment whereby caregivers and children engage in a reciprocal, shared activity, which serves to bring them closer and deepen the relationship.

There is a plethora of resources available online and in books about attachment theory so I will not go into great detail here. But briefly, attachments are the emotional bonds that we form with people close to us. John Bowlby, one of the pioneers of attachment theory maintained that the early bonds which we form in infancy with our caregivers have a significant impact on later relationships throughout our lifespan.

Not only do these early relationships impact on who we go on to be, we are also pre-programmed to seek security in attachment figures. It is a survival mechanism that we cannot live without, given how vulnerable we are when we are born!

It is worth noting that attachment theory focusses on the quality of the social engagement and not simply the amount of time spent together. Thus, it is key that the caregiver and child are interacting positively, and are able to focus on one another in joint activity. This then provides opportunity for the caregiver to soothe, nurture, cuddle, play, and all the other lovely stuff that enhances the relationship with the child. I would contend that storytelling is a prime way to achieve this.

Take, for example, the importance of attunement in a parent-child attachment relationship. Like having an inner eye and ear to the child’s thoughts, feelings, needs and desires, the attuned caregiver is able to read and interpret the child’s cues, make sense of their cries, and respond warmly to their calls for attention. This sensitivity to the child’s needs goes a long way towards helping the child to feel valued and contained.

The caregiver meeting the child’s calls for attachment helps to enhance their social-emotional development and self-image. The child learns that they are accepted and understood.

Now, consider how attunement can manifest in storytelling; how the storyteller may be mindful of their tone of voice, the speed in which they tell the story, and their alertness to the child’s cues. You can begin to see how the social activity of telling a story provides ample opportunity to attune to the needs of the listener. In telling a story, the caregiver may be lively and energetic, or comforting and soft, all working to deepen the experience for the child and the relationship.

One consequence of a healthy attachment is the child developing the capacity to empathise and mentalise the other. Bowlby talks about the development of an internal working model, whereby a child attributes meaning to their attachment experiences. These meanings can be about themselves and others. For example, a child whose early experiences are characterised by consistent warm and nurturing interactions with their attachment figures is likely to see themselves as loveable, and others as trustworthy and reliable.

Stories are a great teacher of empathy. Through storytelling, children can experience the inner world of the characters. We are able to empathise with the characters in stories because we experience the same feelings ourselves. Through a story, the child can develop the ability to mentalise (i.e., the ability to understand the mental state of themselves and others). If a child is struggling with a tricky emotion, a story about a fictional character that feels something similar and then resolves it, can give the child a window into themselves, and to do this in relationship with an attachment figure, pure gold!

There is so much more to storytelling than the story itself which prime it as a fruitful attachment experience:

  • How do you tell the story?

  • How do you respond to the child’s cues as they listen to the story?

  • Do you use voices or incorporate props like puppets?

  • Are you sat cuddled up together?

  • Does it become a warm and comforting ritual at bed time?

  • How do you convey the emotional messages of the characters?

  • How do you include the child in telling the story? Is there space to ask questions? Do you read certain lines together?

All of these ideas and more give depth to the experience and have the capacity to enhance the attachment experience for both the storyteller and the listener. They are things that I often ask caregivers that I work with to consider when using storytelling as a tool to build healthy attachment.

Attachment relationships and storytelling are two areas of particular interest for me in both my play therapy and my artistic practice. My paintings are heavily process driven and take much influence from my play therapy training and the toolkit that I utilise when working with families.

My Carrier series of paintings are influenced by attachment relationships, both my own and those of the families that I have worked with, and I want the audience to hold in mind the importance of these close relationships in shaping who we go on to become.

I used African fabrics that my mum (my primary attachment figure) gave to me as part of this series, as I was connecting with the weight of the role of caregiver, and the role of cultural upbringing in shaping our sense of self.

Carrier VI: Bedtime Story was based on a gorgeous book called Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae which is one of my favourite books about a giraffe that wants to join the other animals at the Jungle Dance, and gets some help from an unexpected companion to find the right music to dance to. I read this book to my nieces the first time that they came to my house for a sleepover so it will forever hold a special memory for me.

SOMA's artwork based on a therapeutic story book

Carrier X: Soft Face was born from a story that a young person shared with me about how his foster carer had a soft face which allowed him to feel safe and comfortable around her after multiple moves and very little reason to trust others (now if that doesn’t show the importance of attunement, I don’t know what does).

Soma's artwork based on attachment and safety in relationships

So go forth, open the doors to curiosity about how you share stories, and use these ideas as an avenue to connecting with your little ones.

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