- Storytelling has always been a “common sense” intervention for kids who are in pain or stressed out.
- New research demonstrates storytelling has an objectively measurable effect on the salivary cortisol, a marker of stress, in pediatric patients.
- Storytelling also lowered subjective measures of stress, and helped children make more positive associations with their hospital stay.
- This has implications for parenting all children, especially children stressed out by a global pandemic.
We’re in an era of endless entertainment for kids, from the rich fantasies of Pixar to endless hours of YouTube and every permutation of video games out there. Yet something is lost when a child listens to a story from their LeapFrog or finds it on Netflix. I call reading books to kids a lost art, because let’s face it – Netflix is easier, parents are busy, and there’s so much else going on.
Something is lost, though, when our kids watch the movie version of the Cat in the Hat, or even watch a read-aloud video of a story book. There’s nothing like sitting down, reading a story, and then using that story to help little humans makes sense of the big challenges and big emotions they deal with every day. This is something I’ve intuitively felt for years, and it’s why I use picture books as a mainstay in my parenting classes. Now, new research has documented just how powerful reading books to children can be.
Analgesic Effect of Reading to Children
Researchers in Brazil investigated whether storytelling has an analgesic effect on children in an ICU. They found that storytelling lowers salivary cortisol levels, raises oxytocin levels, and has a strong effect on patient’s self-reported pain scores. In addition, children exposed to the storytelling intervention spoke more positively about the hospital experience.
We’ve always known that stories are helpful, and that they can provide a distraction for children undergoing uncomfortable procedures. Any parent who has made up a story about a train entering a tunnel to get a child to taste spinach for the first time knows that stories can work. But conventional wisdom sees stories as merely a distraction from discomfort and pain, not an intervention in and of themselves.
This research documented the effects of stories on 81 children in an ICU. Half of the children received a riddle/game-based intervention, in which they were presumably distracted, but not exposed to a story. The other half were provided a storytelling intervention – 30 minutes of stories read by a trained volunteer.
Cortisol and oxytocin are hormones we can use to measure stress levels. High salivary cortisol and low salivary oxytocin indicates stress. Low cortisol and high oxytocin indicate calm. This study was the first of its kind to directly measure cortisol and oxytocin levels as a way of documenting exactly what effect storytelling has on stress levels.