As parents and caregivers, we need to keep our children safe, but we can also strive to help them...
- Feel their strong emotions
- Stay open and curious so they can learn about current reality
- Imagine a less scary future
- Find their voice so they can feel agency in building that future
One way is through story.
I recently received the following message from a mom:
Last night my 5 year old asked us if, when he starts kindergarten in the fall, he’ll be able to hold his friends’ hands again. He was pretty upset about it. Then he had a nightmare last night that he started kindergarten and the teacher told all the kids they had to stay away from each other.
After learning that this child loves drawing and making books, here is what I suggested she say to her son:
Would you like to make a book with me that has a sad part about kids not getting to hold hands because everyone is trying to stay safe from a virus? But then in the end of the book there’s also a really happy part when no one is afraid anymore and they can hold hands again?
The mom liked the idea, so I gave her the following additional pointers:
- Guide your son to make up the characters (animals or any unusual creatures are fine), the setting (it can be another planet even), and some details about the virus (silly name and features are great).
- The goal is that he use the characters in the story to (1) express his feelings about the current situation and (2) creatively imagine a less scary future.
- The details don’t matter so long as he feels in charge of the story and he’s engaging with the issue he’s concerned about.
The bug was called “Loopeedoo.” If you got the bug, you could laugh so hard, you would pee in your pants. They were sad because the bug was there. They didn’t want to pee in their pants.
They were sad because they couldn’t touch each other.
You might wonder if it’s a problem that some of the details don’t make sense from an adult perspective, like that the siblings are in a car together but not allowed to touch. The answer is no - it is not a problem. The goal of this kind of storytelling is the same as the goal of play therapy might be in this case - to release the child from being stuck in their fear, trapped in their feelings of overwhelm. Getting to be in charge of the imaginary story can free the child to not feel so much tension and helplessness around the topic. For example, this child, the author of Hippo and Lion, is clearly quite aware of his parents’ experience. This book making process empowered him to rewrite the story so that his “parents were happy again.”
These parents were lucky their son directly told them his anxiety; many children find their fear to be so intense that they don't know how to slow down enough to put it into words, and instead just end up exploding in anger, retreating into themselves, or resisting parental expectations in the hopes a parent will notice and figure out how to help them. When feelings are “too hot to handle” in this way, story or play can help a child relate more directly to their feelings because they can engage with the upsetting issues but still keep some distance from them, since they are imaginary in the play or story setting. For many children, having the chance to be silly or distant about something serious and personal can make it easier to think more clearly about the real problem.
Are there ways to get some of these benefits if you don’t have a child who likes to draw and is willing to make a book with you, or you don’t have time and energy for a "project"?
- Tell a story together at bedtime. Ask your child to supply as many details as they can, but you help orient the story as a whole to be about the theme you want to help your child explore.
- Play pretend about it. Let’s play "Annoying Virus!" I’m the Annoying Virus, and you’re a superhero who comes up with lots of creative ways to make me shrivel up and disappear. Or, Let’s play "Best Friends." Pretend at first we can’t hold hands because of the bug, but then later the bug is gone and we can hold hands and hug as much as we want!
- Especially for older kids or teens, tell a story snippet jokingly while hanging out or having a meal together. I was just thinking, imagine we could vaccinate ourselves with sugar. Like as long as you had eaten cookies in the past 12 hours you were immune. But some kinds of sweets were more powerful to protect you. What do you think would be the strongest vaccine?
- Reading books/watching films by others - as read aloud for younger kids, or at the same time as older kids. I recently read the same chapter book on my phone that my eight year old was reading on paper and it sparked a lot of interesting conversation.
- You are the expert on your family. If imagination or playfulness about a serious topic doesn’t feel comfortable to you or your child, then it’s not right for your family for that topic now. In that case, some children find the courage to relate to their strong feelings by writing in a “secret diary,” which can be any notebook kept in a special spot or one with a lock and key marketed for this purpose. Older children may want to write in it themselves, while even toddlers can tell you their thoughts while you write them. My six year old describes his feelings much more easily when I write them down than if we are just talking.