Stories form part of our cultural heritage. They existed verbally before we became literate, passed down from generation to generation. Our traditional fairy stories, packed with symbolism and metaphors, provide us with an outlook on life that is available to children. They are full of wisdom about the world. And children love hearing them, again and again.
Wonderful though these stories are, most precious to me are the stories my father created to tell us when we were children; stories of his childhood, told through the invention of lively characters who had all sorts of adventures in and around the Tyne river. We learnt a lot about him and about ourselves. More importantly, the stories were personal to us, and were told for us.
When stories are personalised for children, they not only carry great meaning but can make the child feel honoured and special; a personalised story is a very powerful gift. They can be used therapeutically for all kinds of difficulties. They can be created for children at different stages of their lives, and with particular issues. What makes them so effective is that they work on children through the metaphor, which is not threatening. If, for example, children have problems with anger, they can hear about and think about a fictional character who also has problems with anger. They can access the emotional experience of the character, which might match their own emotional experience, but they don’t need to put up defences; they are being told about someone else’s problem, and not theirs. The child who empathises with the characters can gain inner strength and confidence from feeling less alone. If such stories are repeated, they can reach the inner world of children without them having to do too much work other than enjoy the story.
Therapeutic stories have taken different forms through the ages. They abound in religious and mythological stories, songs and poetry. Teachers and healers have used them for years. It seems important in our current times that children can benefit from the spoken word. Our communities and extended families are more widespread; increasing numbers of families manage in an isolated way. The sharing of personal family history and anecdotal stories may help build and keep connections. We live in more pressured times, where life might be easier physically but harder emotionally. Children can benefit from stories to help them through difficult situations.
So how do you go about writing a therapeutic story? Think about what you would like to work on with your child. Try to convey the emotions through your fictional characters. Describe the characters’ appearance and the setting to bring the story alive. Try to show some sort of resolution at the end. Simplicity is often the key to a successful story, as well as repetition and resolve. When writing a personalised story for your child or someone known to you, the very writing process can help you come to a greater understanding of the issues to be addressed. This will bring clarity and specific purpose to the story enabling the production of a clear and relevant metaphor.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists