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Telling stories is one playful way to help children address important themes in their lives, particularly those that children might prefer not to talk about. Discharging powerful feelings connected to memories and experiences is important, though, so residual feelings are not left to bubble up later in life. Stress over family changes and other fears and worries all come to mind as generators of powerful feelings.

Stories work best when they are close to the truth but different enough to make the storytelling feel safe. An analogy is playtime. For example, when parents play a physical game with children, as with a game of hide-and-seek, a safe distance between parent and child is tangible. A child will often let a parent know just how close to stay or how far away to be so the child still feels safe during the game. When telling a story, this distance is more symbolic. Talking directly about a troubling topic may be too hard for a child, but addressing it in a creative, fictional version may make the distance just right.

Let’s say a child has a new sibling. Often, a new little sister or brother arrives without the request or consent of the firstborn. The result may be a few situations that prompt parents to say things like “be gentle with the new baby” or “it’s normal to feel jealous, but . . .” Rather than give the same lectures and directives over and over, it can be helpful to symbolically move the child away from the situation just a bit. One way is with a fun, colorful, picture storybook about an animal character who has a new sibling. Often in stories, the main character finds several solutions to a problem, and these can be transported to real life. Children then often want to hear the same story again and again.

You can also tell your own stories together by asking a child for ideas about what should happen next. Doing this allows the child some control over whether the story gets too far off the mark or too painful. Some children will really get into being directive while telling stories together. Perhaps they will want to tell the part of the story that creates danger, and you will need to figure out the solutions. That’s just fine, and quite likely allows your child to feel protected and safe while working through the trouble spots.

Storytelling—whether a story of pictures and words or a story invented and acted out—is one good way to help your child learn to deal with life’s adversities.