My idea behind doing these 20 days of play therapy is to show you that you can do everyday activities with your little one that also give you insight into some of their inner thoughts. I know for some of you, the temptation is to obsess over knowing these inner thoughts of your child. Carrying a child in your body and nurturing their existence in this world can make it difficult when your child begins to think independently, leaving you clueless to what’s happening in that little head. I watch mothers, well into the child’s adulthood, remain overly attached because they feel they need to know exactly what they are feeling- to the point they want to feel it with them. This is a recipe for disaster for this adult-child’s marriage.
With that being said, on to Day 2! Storytelling…
We had an hour drive to Savannah to run errands, so this was perfect to do in the car. Knowing that we were all staring straight ahead made it easier for vulnerable moments in the discussion and an occasional turning around to comfort little eyes who needed connection.
Here is how it works.
1. The child gets to tell a story that includes characters and any storyline they want- as long as it is not a story they have heard before (no books, movies, video games, etc). Although they could use characters they know (Aidan asked to use Batman) I would encourage the child to come up with an entirely new character.
2. I would normally have older children go last, since their ability for detail can make younger one’s efforts feel minimized or “not as good”.
2. You can ask question during their story to help clarify characters and events (as long as it doesn’t become a barrage of them that interrupts the process). For example, you can help them start off by asking “How does a good story start?” “Is this person a boy or girl?” “How did they feel when that happened?” “Why did they decide to try [that]?”
3. Try to pay attention to characters that sound familiar, sound like the child or family members, or part of the storyline that relates to an experience the child has had (bullies, loss of someone or something, etc).
4. Once their done, use their same characters to re-tell the story that stretches their understanding or coping. If they are younger and need help, you can retell it and have them help you. How would you end it differently? What would that character learn from the new ending? Encourage older children to retell their own story and figure out the morale of the story (3rd grade +) or what the character learned.
I’ll tell you how this played out for us. At first, the boys seemed confused. They asked a lot of questions about telling stories they already knew. Once I gave an example of my own story, interestingly enough, Aidan asked if he could tell a dream he had. This was perfect. Storytelling with dreams, especially bad ones, create a great opportunity to re-write the dream- an effective technique for ending or altering re-occurring nightmares. Jack was a little resistant (being 6, he had a bad attitude already from being tired). That’s okay- Aidan (9) is always game for going first.
Aidan, who is coming out of the stage of using fantasy for coping, told a dream involving zombies that were moving on the cover of a magazine on the stairs. He ran upstairs and looked out his window to find many more zombies coming toward the house. This was the point where he woke up (I remember him coming to get us in tears). When we asked for him to try to come up with a new ending, he played out violent acts on the zombies (even though he’s never seen a zombie movie, this is the new playground hide-and-seek game- UGH!!). We didn’t stop him, even though I didn’t like Jack hearing of zombies getting their limbs ripped off, so as to give him the opportunity to finish. Since he is old enough to cognitively think through fantasy and reality, we asked him afterwards if zombies were real. He said “No”, so instead of us re-telling the story we asked him how he could re-tell the story again without violence considering they were imaginary.
Resist the urge to “do the work” for the child. You will often find their own creativity much more powerful than yours. In fact, self-discovery is always the best way to “catch” new learning.
Believe it or not, Aidan closed his eyes and told himself (in the dream) that “Zombies aren’t real”. He took the magazine to a shredder and shredded it into a million pieces and looked out the window to find they were gone (LOVE IT!!). It was only then that I added, “You know, if it is your dream, you could imagine anything you want outside that window. Pool parties with all of your friends, all eating your favorite ice cream, everyone happy and excited to play with you, and lush green grass all around.” This experience was perfect for him, since he is seeing more of reality and having to figure out what to do with fantasy that is scary. It also teaches him how to take his mind “captive” and control his thoughts, imagination, and fears. AWESOME!!
Now Jack was a different story, literally. I want to unpack for you the dynamics that played out more than his dream because they are just as important. Remember I told you yesterday that resistance is okay to work with where the child is at? He was tired, but he used this as an opportunity to test something very important. When it was his turn he blurted out that he has “lots” of nightmares, and some that would “freak you out” He elaborated slightly by saying that they involved “dying, and blood.”
But for Jack, this has not been happening. I knew he had had some normal “night terrors” in the last year, but none that played out during the day. So when he said this in the car, I took it as testing.
Children often use “shock and awe” to test the adult.
In a sense, it is a way to see if they can trust you. Your reaction to them tells them whether or not you can “handle” them. This is an important moment! If you freak out, then you can send the message that their problems stress you out and scare you. If you beg for more information (which they may or may not have) it gives them extra attention- and we want to give them other kinds of healthy attention. The real test is to see if you can remain calm, let them know that you are safe, not worried, and will be ready to listen when they are ready to talk to you. Sometimes they won’t unpack these scary thoughts until you prove you are safe, other times they may open up. Sometimes you may find that they never had that dream to begin with. I had a child begin telling me about a dream and tried this testing. As I remained calm, her story oddly kept changing to become more “shocking”. Once she realized I was safe, she was finished and probably had a really fun time telling a crazy “out of the box” story. The morale was- I was safe, we had fun, and she could now tell me anything- GAME CHANGER!!!
So, Jack never did tell us about those dreams, but did tell a safer one. These “scary” themes are developmental, so I’m not worried. Even though he still into fantasy coping (yesterday’s painting about the future), he is realizing that there is an end to life. My grandfather passed away in October and that was hard for all of us. There were plenty of questions about that. This boy injures himself on a daily basis, but for him- blood can mean an emergency room visit- not life sustaining cells that keep our extremities alive. He is trying to figure all of that out, and to a 4-6 year old that may play out in dreams where these themes show up in no particular order. But it does give me opportunities to address loss, death, and life at other more opportune times.
His resistance (and age) kept him from retelling his story/dream. So Matt finished with his own story about two boys who went on a journey to find gold or silver to help feed their family. During their journey, they were forced by storms to enter a scary cave. With one flashlight out, they had to reserve the power in the second. After getting lost in the cave and feeling alone, tired, and scared, they turned off their light and faced the darkness. It was only when it was dark did they notice moonlight piercing through some cracks and the walls glittering with twinkling lights. As they took out their little hammers and began to chisel away the cave walls, they found the walls were covered in diamonds. To address the morale, he asked, “So, the boys never expected strong storms, getting lost in a caves, and feeling afraid in the dark. What do you think they learned?”
To which the boys came up with “Good things can come out of bad experiences!” Perhaps Jack will test that theory later by sharing more of his own scary moments.
For more about how you can use storytelling, visit here.