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Why We Retell Stories

Stories form the foundation of human cultures, they’re passed down through generations, and they connect us across space and time.

Stories shape our understanding of the world.

The stories we hear, create, share, and repeat can have a profound impact on the way we view ourselves and others.

A book drawing on a yellow blob.

As a therapist, it’s easy for me to see the important role that stories have in helping us language – and ultimately understand – our own experiences. I also appreciate how the stories we heard growing up shaped our understanding of other people and the world around us.

Nowhere is the importance of story quite as evident as it is in the stage of childhood in which kids request the same bedtime story over and over (and over and over) again.

While many parents find this frustrating, for kids, repetition is key. Not so unlike adults who need to tell important stories over and over again in order to grow and develop into their next stage of development, kids ask for the same story in order to better understand it.

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The Value of Repeating Stories

Retelling, rehearing, and revisiting helps us organize and integrate information. Over time and many visits, the story can become an integrated part of our life.

Why do kids reread and rewatch stories?

Kids, even more so than adults, practice this behavior. Nearly every child goes through a phase of reading the same bedtime story, watching the same cartoon episodes, or rewatching the same movie over and over again. Here’s why kids like to rewatch or listen to the same thing over and over again:

  • Repeat viewings/hearings allow space to fully feel and process the story,
  • With repeat returns, kids can understand the emotions present, and
  • Over time, this helps kids practice empathy through understanding each of the characters.
  • Research suggests that hearing the same story a few times can also help kids learn and remember new words, growing their vocabulary. 1

While most of us likely thought we had grown out of the need to hear the same story over and over, this behavior actually remains with all of us throughout a lifetime, showing up in new ways.

For adults, this behavior might look like:

  • Rewatching our favorite sitcom episodes over and over
  • Re-reading a favorite novel every year or two,
  • Recalling together, with a romantic partner, key stories from your relationship
  • Telling your kids or grandkids important stories from your life, many times over their lifetime.
  • Needing to tell and retell a trauma narrative many times in order to organize and integrate the experience.

Remaining present to share important stories and to listen to them – even if we’ve heard the story 1000 times, is an important way of showing up for each other emotionally.

A drawing of a child listing to a story in bed

Bedtime Stories From Childhood

When children ask for a beloved bedtime tale night after night, it may seem like a simple ritual of comfort. However, there is a deeper psychological process at work.

One developmental theory proposes that each time they hear the story, children are able to process a little more of their emotions and experiences. By revisiting the narrative, they gain mastery of these emotions, finding reassurance in the familiar arc of the tale. Adults, too, share this innate need to retell stories.

Retelling stories allow us to reprocess and reorganize our experiences within our minds. It is a form of mental digestion, where we break down complex emotions and events, seeking clarity and closure. When we retell a story, we become both the narrator and the listener, inspecting the layers of emotion and working to discover their significance. This process can facilitate emotional healing and promote a sense of resilience.

The Art of Listening

A drawing of a person listening to their partner repeat a story.

Listening intently to someone’s retelling of their story can be the kindest and most compassionate thing we can do. When someone shares a difficult or traumatic experience, their act of narration becomes an essential step in their healing process. By giving them our full attention and being willing to hear the same story they’ve told before, we validate their emotions and experiences. This validation empowers them to reconstruct their narrative with a stronger sense of agency and self-awareness.

Furthermore, retelling stories fosters a sense of connection and community. Sharing our stories with others opens up channels of empathy and understanding. It allows us to realize that we are not alone in our struggles and that our shared human experiences bind us together. The collective wisdom of shared narratives creates a safe space for healing and growth.

In Conclusion + Keys to Making Stories Count:

The School Library Journal, which offers suggestions for how parents can help kids engage and interact with their children as they retell stories 2 offers advice for engaging stories that, in my opinion, extend far beyond reading comprehension. They suggest:

  • asking questions,
  • participating in the telling, and
  • engaging themes (including acting out- such as mirroring key emotions int he story with our face and body).

Just like children who revisit stories to master their emotions, adults find comfort and growth through revisiting important life narratives.

Through this process of telling and retelling, we reprocess and reorganize our experiences, communicate meaning to others, and perhaps even find closure. When we listen attentively to others’ stories, we offer them a space to heal and feel heard.

References:
  1. Flack, Z., & Horst, J. (2017). Why do little kids ask to hear the same story over and over?Frontiers for Young Minds5(30). []
  2. Arnold, R., & Colburn, N. (2005). Encore! Encore! There’s a Good Reason Why Kids Love to Hear the Same Story over and OverSchool Library Journal51(4), 35. []