Posted on: August 28, 2020
By Pia Jones and Sarah Pimenta, authors of Therapeutic Fairy Tales
This short article provides guidance and support for therapists, counsellors, teachers and care-workers that could be useful when speaking with children and families who are going through troubling times, particularly those who have experienced loss.
Growing up, we all experience loss in different forms. This could be separation, bereavement, limitations of parents or illness - be it physical and/or mental health related. Whereas childhood inevitably shapes us, equally important to what happens, is how we experience difficult life events. Do children feel alone or supported? Do they learn to trust their feelings or hide them? If feelings are dismissed, criticised or ignored, children will believe they are not important or unacceptable. The pressure to hide strong feelings can create an internal conflict, taking away valuable energy that could be used for dealing with a difficult situation.
Supporting children to process their feelings
If children can be supported to voice and process real feelings, they are more likely to grow inner resources that can serve them both in the present and the future.
For most children (as for adults), it’s not easy to sit with intense feelings and express them directly. Strong emotions naturally feel too huge and messy to handle. Direct questions by mental health practitioners, however well-meaning, can often send a child’s real feelings bolting back underground. In order to help build safe spaces with children, it can be useful for mental health practitioners and caregivers to draw upon creative vehicles as alternative forms of expression.
Helping children to express their feelings through storytelling
Children live so close to the world of metaphor and story. Fairy tales, super-hero characters, magical animals form a natural part of their understanding of the world. At the foundation of our culture, we have a rich oral tradition of myth, folklore, legend. With the invention of the printing press, stories have turned into storybooks, offering us beautiful images as well as words. We only need to think of reading bedtime stories, or story-time in nurseries, to see the role of story in a child’s growing self and education. Storybooks are familiar to most children. Storybooks tell us of a journey, where a character encounters some experience, event or obstacle and is helped to overcome it, often changing through the process. Most importantly, a storybook isn’t told just through words. Through images and pictures, a child can see a character’s story come to life. Pictures cry out, ‘look at me!’
In doing so, story can serve as a bridge to reach and enter a child’s inner world, while providing some much-needed distance to explore difficult themes. A child can project their own feelings onto different characters - “it’s not me, but I can recognise what’s going on.” A well-chosen story not only can help coax out a child’s feelings, it also offers an opportunity to reflect on a character’s journey and relationships. Thinking about a characters’ feelings can help children start to make sense of their own. Hearing a character’s story can help children tell their own. In doing so, storybooks can help build empathy and compassion, both inside a child, and towards others.
Key benefits of working with story and therapeutic fairy tales with children.
- Provides a sense of distance/safety as children access feelings through characters
- Can open up ‘difficult’ conversations as children talk about characters journeys
- Helps to normalise difficult feelings as characters show their emotions
- Can help children reflect on their own life experiences indirectly
- Helps children think about feelings and make sense of their own
- Can provide some containment for feelings that feel too big
Importantly, storybooks can lay the foundations for a child to create their own images and artwork around their own personal life themes. Ideally, storybooks can be a springboard, for further creative and therapeutic art making, as children are encouraged to bring their own inner world to life. In doing so, children are taught to value their own experiences, and can engage with their won personal growth.
Discover more tools and techniques to help children cope
If you enjoyed reading this article, Therapeutic Fairy Tales are a series of short, modern tales, dedicated to supporting young children through challenging situations of life and loss, covering diverse themes such as family breakdown, untreatable illness, and parental depression.