Family Storytelling Helps Prevent "Distracted Parenting"

Melissa Mendez, LCSW, IMH-E
Director of Early Childhood Programs


In this age of distraction, how can parents and caregivers of young children ensure that their children have the best experiences for growth and development?

You do not have to look very far to see how smartphones permeate our culture and became an integral part of our lives. As much as we try to put down the phone, the lure of the notification is so difficult to resist. The problem of “distracted parenting” has been highlighted recently by the media and child development experts, making us take note that our own screen time is as impactful, if not more so, than the amount of screen time we allow young children. Balancing the needs of our busy lives and the needs of our children is indeed a challenge.

The expectations placed on us to respond immediately to every request that lights up our phone are overwhelming, coming from all directions: responding to that email from your boss/your sister needs your RSVP to her husband’s birthday dinner/your friend wants to schedule an evening out/your spouse is at the store and wants to know if you need mayonnaise…all important things.

But, collectively, they limit our ability to be present with young children during a time when our presence is exponentially more critical for their development.


For young children, ages birth to 5, development is happening at a wildly rapid pace. Three decades of brain research tells us that the first five years are the most optimal time to build lifelong cognitive, social, and emotional capacities that bring a happy and healthy life. We know that parents and caregivers are critical for this stage of development. We have brain imaging that shows when children are engaged with their parent/caregiver’s eyes and facial expressions their brain’s neural activity is at its height—firing off 700-1,000 neural connections per second.

These neural connections, the positive ones and the negative ones, build the structure of the brain and create the template with which the child experiences and relates to the world and others. We don’t see this same level of neural activity when young children are engaged with inanimate objects like toys, books, and screens. Because of this explosive brain growth, this is the optimal time for building those lifelong capacities; this is the most critical time to engage young children in ways that promote healthy development of those capacities.


One simple strategy that can help buffer the impact of “distracted parenting” is storytelling. When we engage young children in storytelling experiences, we can give them undivided and uninterrupted attention that meets the highest threshold of quality interaction and can be uniquely crafted to meet children’s individual needs. Eye contact and physical proximity with a fully attentive caregiver are part of the storytelling experience and vital for young children’s development.

Children search for and use social referencing with caregivers to understand and internalize how to feel about experiences. Social referencing is when a child looks to the adult’s reaction to a specific person or experience to know how to feel about that specific person or experience. If the adult is describing a particularly sad moment in a story, the adult might exaggerate a facial expression of sadness to help the child internalize that sense of empathy and compassion.

Storytelling also allows the adult to use intonation to help the child understand emotions and feelings in a story and intonation also helps build language skills. Certainly, adults can use storytelling to expose children to a wide range of descriptive vocabulary to build language and cognitive skills. Because we know that language is the single best predictor of academic achievement, we can use stories to expand and broaden this area of growth for children that can lead to future success.


One of the most wonderful aspects of storytelling is that it allows families to create and maintain their own unique stories that reflect their own family, community and cultural values. One of my children’s favorite stories when they were young was a sort of “historical fiction” story I created about my grandmother who made the most amazing, soft and yummy flour tortillas; this part of the story was true. Every day she walked to a fresh water spring to collect the water she used for her dough, also true.

The story centered on the water itself, how it was magical, and how when she came to collect the water, she met and had lovely conversations with three little frogs that lived there in the stream next to the water spring. Not true, but such is the beauty of stories!

The frogs always gave my grandmother good and important advice each day that focused on kindness and generosity and she always followed their advice. My children loved this story and they would sometimes want to decide themselves what the advice would be each time or they would give the frogs names. They never met my grandmother, but allowing them to be present in the story, present with me, present in our family’s past helped me introduce them to these important family values in a way that reflects my own experience of my grandmother and our family culture.


The demands placed on adults, the demands that we place on each other, will not likely change. The notifications will still keep coming at a very intensive pace. The smartphones are getting smarter; every day they create new mechanisms for keeping us fully engaged and we will probably not be able to function in work and life without them at this point. But if we can build 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time for young children where we put away the phone (and the watch if it is synced with your phone) and allow that time for physical closeness, eye contact, quality language experience, and engagement, we will certainly be giving them the best of what we have to offer—ourselves.

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