I grew up in the land of C.S. Lewis, not far from where he was born in Belfast. I was the only child in a family with a dad who was an avid reader and a dyslexic mum who loved telling stories, so I grew up with both the written and oral story tradition as an integral part of life. Therapy wasn’t a thing in those days so I grew, changed, learned and understood solutions through the stories I was exposed to and heard.
As a counsellor I'm often approached by parents who're worried or concerned about a child or young person because something has happened to them. It might be a bereavement, or a trauma, or some life-changing adjustment, like a family break up. Parents often become hypervigilant as their own anxieties flood their thinking and are transferred on to their child. I understand that. I’m a parent and a grandparent and I've engaged in that very thinking myself. When my mum died, I remember my 11-year old daughter telling me kindly, but assertively, that she would talk about things when she was ready – not when I needed her to. The subtext was that it was my grief not hers that was the issue and I needed to deal with my own stuff. We still laugh about that nearly 30 years later. Factually, despite parental fears children have wisdom that is entirely theirs and that centres on their intimate knowledge of their own processes and autonomy.
When children are small we read and share stories with them to help them understand the world and their lives, and it’s the most natural, casual, non-threatening experience for them. We tell them traditional stories that cover themes like being lost in the world (Hansel and Gretel), overcoming powerful enemies by outwitting them (Rumpelstiltskin) or great problem-solving stories despite enormous challenges (Anansi). They're exposed to their fears, thoughts or worries in a distanced way in an environment that feels safe for them. Many of these stories explore the archetypal themes of life in the form of the hero’s journey.
Modern stories also have a phenomenal place in helping children, and those stories give them ways to think about themselves, overcome problems and take control of their own lives. I've worked with a number of children where stories have achieved what my words could not. I’m reminded of someone who had grappled with and was grieved about why they'd not fought back during a vicious attack. It was the story of The Gruffalo that unlocked their understanding that their big protective brain had behaved in a way that protected their life and that freezing during the attack had actually saved their life. That helped deal with the guilt and shame that were then reframed as wisdom. I'm also reminded of a bullied child who could not talk about the bullying. They conducted their therapy through story-writing about a race on a planet who were invaded and had to live undergound. The child unlocked their power to heal themselves when they discovered a powerful machine at the core of their planet, hidden for such a time as this. It was the power from the core that flooded into the planet people that finally dealt with the invaders. These clients transformed their lives when they unlocked their own stories for themselves.
Does it work for everyone – no. But for the child who struggles with talking, stories provide a gateway for them to do the work that they need to do. Stories work with children because metaphor lights up more parts of our brain than simply talking about an experience does. If you're struggling and worried about your child who won’t talk about something there are some simple things that will help, you can:
- reassure them that you're here for them and that you're ready to talk when they're ready and able to do so
- encourage them to talk to other family and friends where there may be less anxiety or fear driving the process
- offer a range of stories for them via books, cartoons, comics, TV, video and talk about the stories and their themes
- talk to your GP or another professional if you're still concerned and ask for their help
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Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer and not necessarily the views of BACP. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.