How Can Storytelling Support Your Child's Emotional Literacy?
Updated: Feb 11
This has been such a nice blog to put together during Children's Mental Health Week. Everything you'll read is from my perspective as an educator. For decades, it was my pleasure to support the children in my care with their emotional well-being. As teachers we are trained to deliver a personal, social and emotional curriculum and make it come to life in ways that children remember and resonate with. When working in schools and leading curriculums I always found the best way to have impact was to make everything as creative, personally appealing and memorable as possible. Storytelling is just one way to develop emotional literacy in children, there are of course many more ways and many more people with deeper psycological expertise than me so read on for ideas from my research, perspective as a teacher, as a parent and someone who designs creative learning tools for children.
What is Emotional Literacy?
Emotional literacy is our range of ability to effectively communicate varied emotions and feelings. It's a key skill that children benefit greatly from when developed gradually from a young age to help understand and manage their relationship with their emotions.
Emotional literacy is a major component of emotional intelligence, which means our overall ability to deal with emotions. Emotional literacy focuses on the communication of our own feelings and how well we can read the emotions of others. Without emotional literacy, children will struggle to express their feelings appropriately and might become confused or alarmed by the emotions of others.
There are three key elements to emotional literacy: self-awareness; self-management and social-awareness.
A child with a vivid imagination can often find their thoughts turn into large feelings that are hard to cope with just as a child who is very empathetic may struggle to control thoughts that quickly turn into worries. Without a set of tools to either rationalise these kinds of thoughts or verbalise them to a friend or adult, a child's mental health can suffer.
We live in a challenging world with increasingly fast paced lifestyles therefore nurturing emotional literacy has never been more important than it is today. Through the right, timely interactions we can support children's ability to self-regulate their feelings and emotions, become resilient to change or failure and form positive relationships.
Research carried out by the National Literacy Trust shows children who are the most engaged with literacy are three times more likely to have high levels of mental wellbeing than children who are the least engaged which is largely down to children being able to effectively express their thoughts and feelings.
How can storytelling develop emotional literacy?
Bedtime or anytime, stories provide an opportunity for children to practice problem-solving and learn healthy coping skills.
“Bedtime is a time when children’s heads are full of fears, and those don’t go away by just ignoring them. They go away by talking about them, externalising them and dealing with them.” Matt Haig - The Guardian ( This is a great article, give it a read)
Storytelling allows children to explore real life events in a safe environment. Through storytelling we can teach children about what to expect when things go wrong and how to deal with unexplored feelings. Storytelling with your child is the perfect opportunity to model language skills and explore new ideas in a safe way giving children a varied vocabulary with a deeper understanding of the meaning behind words that are new to them and a chance to explore life’s trickier themes such as loss, disappointment, worry and anger.
What could this look like in practice? If you're new here, take a look at past blogs on how to get started with storytelling , our creative learning page and our Instagram Account to get a feel for storytelling without a book either using our Enchanting Learning Cards or other means.
Developing Self- Awareness
As you start to build your story, you may ask questions about the characters you and your child chooses in relation to their feelings. Do you think the queen ever worries? Opening up a conversation about a fictional character could make it much easier for your child to voice their opinions about feelings and gives you a chance to ask them the same questions about themselves.
Do you ever worry? Can you feel worry in your body? Opening up this conversation paves the way for development of self-awareness.
Once a child starts to develop their emotional self-awareness, they can then be supported with self-management strategies.
Developing Self- Management
As your story develops and your characters start to come to life you will find moments to build in slightly different questions: Let's say the queen is worried about her dragon... How do you think the queen will be able to cope with her worries? Do you think she can feel worry in her body too? What do you do when you feel worried? This can be really tricky for a child to know, so now is the time to make some suggestions for the queen based on how you would like your child to self-manage when they worry. This is also a great time to talk about how you self-manage different emotions.
Encouraging empathy is a key aspect of developing social awareness and can easily be developed through a story using discussion around the characters' actions and interactions with other characters. We also want to be promoting active listening and commentary on opinions so that children learn to consider other perspectives.
Let's say the tiger and the skunk can't agree on which way to go and end up heading off in different directions, they are both now upset, alone and lost! At this point, you could ask questions about their argument and how it could have been handled differently. I wonder why the animals couldn't agree? Do people always have an argument when they disagree? How does it feel when people don't listen to you? How do you think people feel when you don't listen to them? Helping children understand how their actions impact others and how to interact effectively with others will boost their social awareness and support their ability to build positive relationships.
Promoting active listening and encouraging children to listen to other people's ideas perspectives helps build social awareness and emotional intelligence. Children learn best by example so positive modelling is very important to consider. Showing compassion, kindness, and empathy allows your child to internalise these positive behaviours rather than ones that won't serve them well as they head towards adulthood.
Developing emotional literacy is a gradual process, and it requires consistent effort and patience. Hopefully this has given you an idea of how you can lace these teachings and learnings into your storytelling practice in a way that gently introduces emotional literacy to your child in a safe and relatable way.
Zoe Duff - Founder of The Phive