Creating and sharing therapeutic stories with a child can feel like you have some real magic in your parenting pocket! Stories reach the subtle depths of a child’s soul where new understanding, feelings or intentions are born. Stories can help children heal from troubling experiences, cross new thresholds of development, or learn new attitudes, feelings and behaviors.
The power that a therapeutic story gives to your parenting can be very reinforcing. You just have to get over the hump of your resistance and doubt that even you could make a therapeutic story for your child! It is not that hard. A therapeutic story doesn’t have to be super elaborate or long.
Interested? Let’s look at the steps one by one.
The first step is to become clear about what you want your child to understand or feel or do that he or she is not able to at the moment—what is the basic message for the story?
FINDING THE MESSAGE: Here are some questions that you might ask yourself to help in finding the essential message for a therapeutic story for your child:
Is there something you think the child needs to understand?
Is there a feeling you would like the child to feel, e.g. in a particular situation?
Is there an attitude or value you would like the child to develop that s/he does not have?
Is there a behavior you would like the child to show or develop, e.g. in a particular situation?
Is there a negative behavior of the child’s that you would like him or her to transform?
Is there something you or someone else has said or done that has hurt the child, that needs to be healed?
After you have clarified your intention for the story, see if you can distill it down to one basic “truth.” Some examples are:
(1) I want this child to know that she is loved.
(2) I want this child to know that it is better to be loving than hurtful to other children.
(3) I want this child to know that I understand her anger and that it is okay that she feels angry sometimes.
AN IMPORTANT TIP in storymaking for children up to about age ten: Stories which involve emotional realities will reach the child more deeply if you depict the feelings through actions rather than through reference to the feelings themselves. For example, a story about sadness might show a bunny with big soft tears rolling down her cheeks rather than reporting that the bunny was sad.
BASIC FORMULA: The basic story formula you might want to use for a therapeutic story is as follows:
1) Picture the negative behavior or problem
2) Picture the negative result of this behavior or problem
3) Picture an alternative, more positive choice or behavior that leads to a positive outcome
4) Picture the positive outcome
ANOTHER TIP: Stories are most effective for the child if you can include some interesting details about the characters in the story and the setting before picturing the negative behavior or problem. Keeping your story simple and also including enough details to interest the child pictorially will make the story more engaging.
MAKING THE STORY: So now you are ready to construct a simple series of events that depict your message in picture and action language. For children it is likely to be useful if you make a story about fictional animals or children. Think about what story characters and plot line will convey the message, using the basic formula.
ACCESSING YOUR IMAGINATION: Once you are clear about the truth you want your story to embody, you can begin a dialogue with your own imagination. Start by asking yourself: ‘What setting, characters and plot line would convey the message of the story?” Close your eyes and see if your imagination might answer you—even giving you an inner movie. You may be surprised to discover that your imagination is an undeveloped inner resource, a source of inner knowing you are not so familiar with. You may find that you work quickly or slowly. Some people find they need to incubate ideas for a day or two or more, looking for clues as they go through their days, holding their questions, and letting intuitions surface.
Once you have a sense for the metaphor you want to use to convey the basic truth in the story, then see if you can play with the setting, plot and details. Be sure to look at your language and keep it action-imbued. It may take a little while to develop your first few stories, but the more you try thinking in the language of metaphor and action, the easier it will become.
Here is a very simple example. Imagine a couple with a toddler-aged child going through a difficult time in their marriage and having some very angry exchanges in front of their child. The child begins to hit the mother unexpectedly after witnessing these marital outbursts. What is the truth that this child needs to know? Perhaps the child’s feeling of safety and security has been shaken by witnessing the anger between her parents. A story could help to re-establish the picture of security, love and caring that is holding the family together. The following story about a bunny family might be told to this child, using small stuffed animals for props. (Children under the age of 5 cannot yet create inner pictures from the stories we tell them, so it can be helpful for them if we act the stories out with props. It is not important to have the exact figure that is in the story–acorns or shells or hankies will do.)
A mama, papa and baby bunny were sleeping in their home. [Demonstrate.] Papa Bunny woke up first: “It’s morning time!” he called. They all came out to have their breakfast, and they started munching their carrots and lettuces together, munch, munch! [Demonstrate with appropriate gestures.] But then Mama and Papa started growling at each other and Papa jumped on Mama’s tail and Mama jumped on Papa’s nose! [Demonstrate this with the props.] Baby Bunny ran to hide under the bed. [Show this.] A little bit later, Baby Bunny was outside playing in the garden and he started jumping on all the beautiful flowers, smashing them down to the ground. [Demonstrate through movement.] Mama Bunny went out to the garden, scooped the little bunny up into her arms, gave him a great big hug, and sang his favorite song. [Sing a lullaby while demonstrating the Mama rocking the Baby.]
The story could end here. Or it could go further:
That night when it was time for bed, Mama, Papa and Baby Bunny went outside into the garden and looked up at the twinkling stars. They said goodnight to their favorite stars. Papa said goodnight to the silver star, Mama said goodnight to the golden star, and Baby said goodnight to the rosy star. Then they went back inside and tucked Baby Bunny into his bed, and first Mama and then Papa kissed both of their baby’s ears and said goodnight. Soon Baby Bunny was fast asleep. Then Mama and Papa kissed and hugged and went to sleep too.
This story is appropriate for very young children—ages two to six. Of course, environmental factors often are the source of problematic behaviors in children, as in the situation described above. In such cases, working to improve the environment will be as important as helping the child through sharing a therapeutic story.
There is an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Even stories as simple as this can have a profound effect on a child. Why? Stories are thoughts that the heart can hear and internalize as a source of inner knowing and strength to face life’s challenges.
Creating a therapeutic story for a child can be deeply meaningful for the child because it is such an act of understanding and caring. Children’s thinking is pictorial until they develop abstract reasoning (about age 12). The thoughtfulness and interest you show in creating a therapeutic story may be as healing for the child as the story content. In addition, through making up a story for the child you are modeling creativity and artfulness in living, a significant gift in and of itself.
Creating therapeutic stories for children will likely be therapeutic for you too. You may be surprised and delighted at what a precious experience it is to communicate with a child so purely, spirit to spirit and heart to heart.
Cindy Brooks is a Marriage and Family Therapist who combines the insights of Rudolf Steiner, psychologists and neuroscientists. She consults with parents in any part of California, in person or by phone, and is co-author of Discovering Joy in Parenting, with Joya Birns. See www.inspiredfamilylife.com.