Father talking to his daughter


June 21, 2021

The Power of Storytelling: Shaping Future Generations with Our Past

Rodrigo Riveros discusses the importance of life stories in promoting brain development and meaning-making in adolescents.

Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, or mentor, you have a life story that is worth sharing with children and teens. For example, you probably have seen loved ones arrive and depart from your life. Perhaps, you have had to sit in classrooms as an adult. Maybe you have had to cross physical or metaphorical borders during your childhood. As common as those life experiences might seem to you, these life stories can be inspiring and transformative for younger ones.

This post celebrates parental and mentor figures by explaining the psychological power of reflecting on life stories. Life stories are full of much-needed motivating social emotions, such as admiration and compassion. The process of sharing and reflecting on life stories, as well as the interaction that children and adolescents might have with those stories, can prompt the development of the minds, hearts, and brains of those engaged.

Narrating an Inspiring Life Story

You might feel inclined to think that inspirational stories need to be heroic or otherworldly. However, life stories are not inspiring merely because of what was achieved or the narrow odds of success. Nor are they inspiring because of the endured circumstances, like living through scarcity or wars. Your life story can inspire children and adolescents because you, as an adult, are developmentally-equipped to build meanings, and in so doing, you are equipped to help youth develop the meanings that support youth’s thriving. Because you can reflect on and give significance to details and facts of your life, you can go beyond what was directly observable, and focus on the story’s emotions, values, and meanings.

As the adult storyteller, you are entrusted with moving the audience’s attention from the events of the story to the values and emotionally-rich pieces that the story conveys. In doing so, children and adolescents in the audience can make sense of the story, and understand the beliefs that motivated you then and now. More importantly, they can see the values that make who you are and aspire to be.

Building meaning from daily social experiences does not come easily to youth. The neural underpinnings that enable meaning-making are still maturing, and environments to learn how to build meanings are needed.

The meaning-making process ignited by sharing life stories can help children and teens to connect daily events with their underlying values, broader explanations, and belief systems. Drawing connections between concrete events and transcendental ideas can elicit powerful emotions such as moral elevation and gratitude.

This allows children and teens to start building their own meanings, and accordingly, enrich their identity by infusing their social experiences with moral qualities and motivating emotions that these social situations invoke. Moreover, youth’s disposition for this values-based thinking shapes their neuropsychological development, and arguably, their spiritual growth.

For teens and children, learning to build meanings is not that different from learning to read, doing math, or playing sports. As they develop the complex socio-emotional and cognitive capacities needed for building the transcendental meanings that orient a thriving life, they yearn for social relationships in which they can practice it. Opportunities for meaning-making can be found in stable and secure relationships between adults and youth. These opportunities promote the type of ethical thinking and brain development that keeps us all thriving. Sadly, as much as storytelling is ingrained in our cultures, children and teens from modern urban cities have limited opportunities for practicing it.

Supporting Children and Teens’ Meaning-Making

Youth-oriented and children-oriented groups, organizations, and institutions have supported them by providing relationships to foster and practice values-based thinking. For example, Sages and Seekers is a non-profit organization that has dedicated the last 10 years to engaging teens and adults in meaningful conversations around life stories. The conversations that adolescents have with older adults in their program help teens to connect small actions, perceptions, and decisions with big ideas. This is what a Latinx adolescent said to the older adult partner at the end of these conversations:

“One of the first topics we talked about was school. You mentioned going back to school when you were 41 years of age. To me that shows persistence. It gives me the message to never give up regardless of the circumstances. It really helps me build my motivation especially when it comes to school. I want to have better grades than what I do now, and hearing you went back to school at such an age motivates me to keep pushing and working hard. […]”
“When you were raising your kids and working two jobs, that made me think about two things. The first was that hard work really is the key to keep pushing through tough times. It as well made me realize my father is in a similar situation. It made me appreciate him more than I did before. This is because of the complaints your kids have told you after a long day of working two jobs.”

At home, although conversations about family stories happen inadvertently, adults can also be more intentional about them. If you are interested, a good piece of advice would be to offer, along with the story and the feelings experienced, your interpretation of the underlying values and of your feelings experienced. For example, let’s say you are telling about a time when you put a lot of effort on something very hard. Make sure you tell them how that made you feel and what you learned from that time. Hearing your meaning-making process and how it has changed over time will nurture this type of interpretation in them, as well as will promote a sense of connectedness and belonging among you.  

Your reflections around life stories will offer children and teens ways of understanding complex social situations and identifying the underlying values. However, that does not mean that they will take your way of meaning-making “as is”. When they interact with your story, they will think of their own narratives and incorporate in it the values from your story that resonate with them. Using what they learned from your story, they will be able to form their own meanings. In turn, they might show you other ways of interpreting your own story.


Throughout these life stories, children and teens can practice a deeper way of thinking and feeling, as well as forming values and beliefs that will keep guiding them as they transition to adolescence and adulthood. As they become adults and revisit the stories that you shared with them, their reflections will grow with them. One day, they might even retell them to their families.

Recommended videos that disseminate research reviewed in writing this post:


[1] Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Knecht, D. (2020). Building meaning builds teens’ brains. Educational Leadership, 77(8), 36–43 

[2] Riveros, R., & Immordino-Yang, M. H. (2021). Towards a neuropsychological approach of adolescents’ spiritual development. Adolescent Research Review, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-021-00158-1

[3] King, P. E., Mangan, S., & Riveros, R. (In press). Religion, spirituality, and youth thriving: Investigating the roles of the developing mind and meaning-making. In Davis, E., Worthington, E., Schnitker, S. (Eds.) Handbook of Positive Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality. New York: Springer Publishing.

Rodrigo Riveras Rodrigo Riveros is a postdoctoral researcher at the USC Center of Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education. He holds a Ph.D. in brain and cognitive science from USC. His research interest focuses on how adolescents construct abstract, generative, and moral visions for their adulthood, and how these general capabilities are expressed in life goals and civic participation, among other pursuits of self-transcendence. Rodrigo uses interdisciplinary research on life narratives and goal setting to uncover the neuropsychological mechanisms contributing to identity, intrinsic motivation, and purposeful thinking.


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Meaning Making (Part 2): What Does Spirituality Have to do with Meaning-Making?


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