Toula Gordilla works with youth, particularly indigenous youth, and volunteers her time to and families.
Toula Gordilla works with youth, particularly indigenous youth, and volunteers her time to and families. Che Chapman

Get your message to teens by using stories

GROWING up in Katherine in the Northern Territory, Toula Gordillo has been exposed to indigenous culture and the use of Dreamtime stories since she was a teenager.

Ms Gordillo believes storytelling has helped shape who she is today.

The clinical psychologist and school guidance officer of 20 years said there was so much we could learn from the indigenous art of storytelling to get life-changing messages through to teenagers.

With three teens of her own, Ms Gordillo knows how challenging it can be to get them to listen.

"Lecturing doesn't work. They just switch off," she said.

"Telling them what to do can bring about resistance, so we have to find other ways.

"The best way I have found to deliver important messages to teens and pre-teens is through a story, which can be oral, written with pictures or digital.

"Stories can help you to build a relationship, communicate and deliver important information without resistance."

As part of her PhD studies and informal research, Ms Gordillo has found that stories and images are what our youth relate to.

"They are growing up online, and when you think about it, digital media like Facebook and Instagram tells a story through pictures and images," she said.

Ms Gordillo said while many families read to their children, they tended to stop as they got older.

"We should not stop telling stories. I believe it is the most effective way to instil important lessons in life," she said.

"The indigenous culture never stops telling stories.

"It is something they have learnt over thousands of years, because it works. We can all learn from that."

A tale Ms Gordillo uses with her clients is an adapted version of Aesop's Fable.

It is the story of the Frog and the Scorpion, which Ms Gordillo uses to highlight certain behaviours to individuals of all ages.

While the frog internalises everything and cares too much about what other people think and how the world "should" be, the scorpion is an externaliser who is particularly clever at getting its own needs met and is more self-interested.

"I use the story to teach the importance of The Balance of 80 - learning to care for ourselves and others 80% and keeping the other 20% in reserve," Ms Gordillo said.

"This is more sustainable than caring far too much or far too little."

The extreme type of scorpion behaviour, categorised as Adolescents Without Limits (AWOL), may develop substance abuse, self-harm

or eating disorders.

"In a way they are stinging themselves or others," Ms Gordillo said.

On the other hand, the extreme type of frog behaviour, categorised as Adolescents with Narrow/Negative Opinions in Life (ANOL), could show signs of perfectionism, anxiety, depression and problems with self-esteem.

Ms Gordillo said she had now used the story with more than 200 clients, and her preliminary research showed they had found the story useful to understand both their own and other people's behaviours and the importance of finding "The Balance".

"I believe with all my heart that people who work with teens and pre-teens should use stories as much as possible," Ms Gordillo said.

"We all remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare to teach the message that slow and steady wins the race.

"We remember it 20 or 30 years later, because it builds a picture in our mind and we remember it. We remember the story, the picture and the message.

"Every parent, every teacher and every person who works with young people should become a master storyteller."

For more information, see

Teen communication tips

Remember, young people have to actually create a picture to remember a story.

Recognise the power of telling stories to create behavioural change.

Identify whether your child is a frog in general or a scorpion in general in terms of their behaviour.

Then you can think about the most appropriate stories to help them.

Stories might be from your own childhood, Facebook or ancient fables with new twists.

As you are telling the story, stop and talk about it.

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