Your Assignment: Heal a Parent/Child Relationship with Good Storytelling

Your Assignment: Heal a Parent/Child Relationship with Good Storytelling

Illustration Credit: Toy by Japneet Kaur

We tried talk therapy and it didn’t work. Our attempts at reconciliation always ended in recrimination and competition. The guilt of a father for deserting the family and the pain of a son who was abandoned remained too raw. In spite of our mutual love, we did not like each other.

But storytelling transformed our troubled relationship. We discovered that a good story well told bypasses defenses. It sneaks into an ancient part of the psyche where disbelief is suspended and the listener identifies with the protagonist. An important story told from the heart exposes truth that admits of no negotiation and renders equivocation impossible; it must be heard. And then the only natural response is for the listener to tell a story in return.

To invoke the transformative power of storytelling for your own troubled relationship, the teller must step into the primeval role of storyteller and invoke the sacred acceptance of the listener. Here are some practical tips for how to do this:

  • Pick a specific scene/incident/memory related to your parent/child that has a strong emotional charge, something you can tell from the heart.
  • Set the scene: How old were you; where did it take place; what was the overall context—the family circumstances—surrounding the event.
  • Include sensory detail: What did you see, smell, hear, feel during the event. Not only do these details draw the listener into the story, but they are powerful tools for retrieving the story from the teller’s memory.
  • Never confuse fact with truth: This is a critical distinction. Don’t ignore facts, but don’t be limited by them. Often traumatic childhood events are hazy. Feel free to make up dialogue, fill in the specifics from your imagination. If you can’t remember exactly what did happen, create the scene as it feels most true to you. The truth of the story is more important than the accuracy of facts.
  • Practice: If you are a writer, commit the story to paper. If you don’t write, practice the story, make sure it has a beginning, middle, and end, make it something that will draw the listener in.

Use these guidelines to unearth the stories of old trauma and alienation: the funny stories, any stories you think your parent/child needs to know about you to understand who you are. Everyone has a thousand stories and a voice to tell them. Tell them to each other. See what happens. Perhaps the results will be as remarkable for you as they were for us.

Adapted from Prodigal Father, Wayward Son: A Roadmap to Reconciliation by Sam Keen and Gifford Keen, Divine Arts, 2015.

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