Once Upon a Time

Since they were very young, my children have loved listening to stories we tell them about “the old days.” And one of my favorite things to do with them is to sit, all cuddled together, and read stories before bed. What is it about the magic of stories?


Hans Christian Andersen, the bard of Copenhagen, was immortalized as a master storyteller, played by Danny Kaye, in my wife’s favorite movie of all time. I’d like to think we’ve all been mesmerized from time to time by storytellers. Stories are a way many of us pass on tales of our past, our culture, and moral lessons to our children. Native American storytelling, an integral part of American history, teaches children about the ways we interact with nature and about the importance of ancient wisdom.

There are modern-day storytellers as well. Jim Weiss is one – I heard him a few years ago at a children’s health fair I organized. He had the kids in the palm of his hand after 2 minutes. I recently had privilege of meeting Vered Hankin at the Pangea Conference. If you think there’s no one around today weaving tales “like they used to” – you’ve got to listen to Vered’s work. Her stories come alive – they’re almost 3D. The power to me is the hypnotizing transportation to other places. This is truly mind-body therapy. And a very useful as a tool to help young children (and us old kids too!) cope with pain and stress.

In fact, I use storytelling with young kids all the time as a distraction from procedural anxiety and pain. I do this in my primary care practice, while giving shots or drawing blood, and I tell stories to hospitalized children with cancer, having IV’s placed. Stories can be told anywhere. While guided imagery is wonderful for some children with the ability to imagine a bit more abstractly, little ones are often more comfortable with stories and can participate. I encourage my patients to get involved in the stories – they tell me their favorite characters, places, animals and away we go. You can tell “real” stories – ones they already know – or make up new ones with their help. Families can get involved, and can tell stories from their past. And, of course, reading books to our kids is a time-honored tradition in almost every culture.

There is actually published research supporting the use of storytelling as a mind-body technique. To me, it’s common sense, but if you’re skeptical, I encourage you to check out psychologist Leora Kuttner’s work (see “Favorite stories: a hypnotic pain-reduction technique for children in acute pain.” Amer J Clin Hypnosis 30: 289-295, 1988). Better yet, spend your time listening to, reading and telling stories.

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