Crafting a healing story to ease anxiety in children
Stories are a fantastic way to help ease anxiety in children of all ages. There are various reasons why a tale has so much power when handling difficult emotions or transitions, but we are going to focus on HOW to craft such a tale.
When we moved to England, a couple of years ago, the transition has been very stressful and, as our daughter grew older, her anxiety grew too. She began to understand that grandma and grandpa and other people we cared for dearly are never going to move to our new adoptive country.
We looked for solutions together, we made new friends, we moved houses. All these transitions have made her feel shy in social situations and we felt, as parents, that there is so much more we could do to help her out.
Now, I am a writer and I know that personalised stories are a great way to encourage, empower and guide children towards a positive outcome. So, I thought I could use my super-powers to come up with a story for this particular transition. My goal was to ease this transition and put her own feelings into words, giving them meaning and provide a solution on how to best be dealt with.
Therapeutic stories have the power to validate feelings, so they are really valuable when dealing with anxiety in children
Stories have the power of validating one’s feelings and struggles. And, for children, in particular, this is extremely important. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of what I like to call “extreme positivity”, where we tend to deny negative feelings and shut them down, cover them with positive mantras, so children begin to believe there’s something wrong with feelings like anger or sadness.
The opposite is true, actually. Validating their feelings is the first step towards acceptance and healing.
1. First, we need to identify the problem
So, when we craft a personalised story to ease anxiety in children, the first thing we want to do is to be really clear on the purpose. What is the theme about? What is the problem more exactly? What’s causing anxiety in children? Is it the fear of separation? Or coping with loss or maybe divorce or illness? Any of these challenges can make a child become anxious. So, keep an eye on your child’s thoughts and feelings in regards to this particular challenge, as they will have the leading role in the story.
For example, my little girl would have burst into tears whenever she saw a doctor back when she was little. No matter how smiling and sweet the doctor was, the experience was extremely stressful for her. It took us a lot of investigation to figure out what was at the root of the problem. The white coat turned out to be the trigger.
When Ilinca was only a baby, we went through a horrible experience. We had to be hospitalised for two weeks because of a very aggressive bacteria. She had to be pinned to the table by three nurses so they could take her blood for tests. I hadn’t realised how traumatic that experience would be for her, she was 2 months old back then.
But she remembered.
At the root of everything was that particular experience, so we had to deal with that instead of constantly migrating from one doctor to another, thinking that doctors were the problem. Identifying what’s at the core of it is going to make the story so much more effective.
2. The second thing we want to do is choose the characters
Every single great healing story I have ever read (and any other story for that matter) has had a fantastically built main character.
I remember one in particular from “Using Stories to Build Bridges with Traumatized Children” by Kim S. Golding, about fear and resisting mother’s love. To deal with the child’s rejecting behaviour and anxiety towards receiving love, the story “Millie and her Mother” has portrayed Millie standing at a cliff, protected by Fear, who keeps her from crossing the bridge with her mother. Feelings (fear, sadness and hope) are being given a voice and they all reflect the reality of the relationship between Millie and her mum.
So, this is a fantastic example of a great theme, with well-identified feelings and a solution (Hope eventually helps the little girl let go of Fear and embrace her mum’s full love and attention, and they both cross the bridge together).
Most of the times, the main character is your child. Children love seeing themselves as heroes of their own story, and there is really no reason to overcomplicate this process. Actually, when dealing with anxiety in children, it’s preferable to keep things as uncomplicated as possible.
It can be something as simple as “There once was a boy called Jack who didn’t want to go to sleep. But, one night, Jack was called to save Sleep, who was stuck in a box hidden somewhere on the unseen face of the Moon. What was he to do? If he didn’t rescue Sleep, no child could ever go to bed. Imagine all of your friends being grumpy and tired tomorrow morning, Jack. That wouldn’t be nice, would it?” Then encourage your child to work some ways out of this entangled scenario. More than often, children will guide us towards the solution they need in that particular time, with little to no intervention from adults.
3. Thirdly, think about the villain. Basically, this is the obstacle, the “inconvenience” that has caused the child to feel bad or has started a crisis of some sort
And I’ll go back to my family’s experience of moving abroad. The “villain” would be the new country. In the eyes of my child, this is keeping her away from her friends and family members she loves.
Tip: there is no need to retell the same situation exactly as it is. You can always use resembling situations, as long as it serves the main purpose. For example, you may use the story of a lion who had a really bad stomach ache but was afraid of going to a vet, to illustrate the child’s own reluctance of visiting a doctor.
4. The next step in crafting your own story to ease anxiety in children is to think about the lesson
What is that the child is going to learn more exactly? Is he going to learn to be more patient with her little sister or more carrying and less jealous? Is she going to learn how to accept her own uniqueness and ignore the bullies? Or maybe the child learns how to embrace change or accept the loss of somebody he/she cares for dearly.
5. Now it’s time to sketch the storyline
Imagine how do you want it to be, considering what would work best for your child in that particular moment. I have watched my little girl being super excited about a random healing story I invented with little to no effort at all while showing no interest whatsoever in a tale that I put so much energy into. So, be curious and watch how your children react to long stories vs. short stories or fantasy vs. real-life tales. It could be anything from an adventure to an intriguing dialogue, so make sure you also pay attention to your child’s mood when doing this.
Do you need a story for a quick-fix? Then don’t make it long. Or, on the contrary, is it an ongoing situation and you need something heart-warming, a story to strengthen your parent-child relationship? Then it’s worth making it longer.
Tip: think about including a hero in the story. Oftentimes, the hero is the child himself, but we might just use other creatures with magical powers (with the exact trait or strengths that your child needs to overcome the anxiety) or even impersonated feelings, such as in “Millie and her mother” for instance.
Very important aspect: When writing a story with therapeutic use for anxiety in children, it’s really important to first assess and acknowledge the issue. If it is a really sensitive matter, like losing somebody they love or parents getting a divorce, take your time to really dig deep into this. This should take up to half of the process of crafting the story. And once you have a clear picture of what the problem is specifically, it will get way easier to tackle it.
The actual act of writing/telling the story takes only a quarter of the whole process. It is far more important to correctly identify the challenge and find appropriate symbolism to better explain it.
So, let’s have another short look at what we’ve discussed:
- Identify the issue/challenge/transition that has caused anxious feelings;
- Choose the characters. It might sound counterintuitive, but with healing stories, we usually have an idea on who the characters will be (usually the child is the main character), so it’s easier to craft a story with that clear picture in mind. We are basically building up around the character.
- Highlight the villain, the obstacle.
- Think about the lesson
- Sketch the storyline
I believe the most important thing to remember is to be natural and let your child guide you. Watch for his/her reactions, look for cues on whether it’s the right time to tell such an important story.
When we launched the personalised bedtime story, we knew we did a great job at writing a good, effective story to ease the bedtime struggle. Yet we still had parents who said it “doesn’t work for them.” So, we investigated and we found that kids were just too tired to listen to ANY story, let alone a healing one. Hence, the timing matters too!
I hope you found these leads useful and I would really be grateful if you could share your biggest takeaway!
Meanwhile, you may read a couple of healing stories I wrote, they’re in the guide below.
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Until next time,
Keep believing in stories,