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Grief: How Storytelling Helps Children


Topic Overview

Parents and other caregivers can help children express themselves through telling stories. When children tell stories, they often use other people or animals to represent their feelings, concerns, or fears. This is called symbolic language, and it lets the child express these emotions without talking directly about himself or herself. Any character in the story could represent the child's feelings.

A child telling a story may not be aware that he or she is using symbolic language. But the adult may recognize this and can then use the story to talk about the child's feelings. For example, a child may not be able to talk about being angry because of separation from one or both parents, but the child may be able to tell a story about an animal that was very upset when left behind by its family. In this way, the child can talk about his or her anger without feeling guilty or ashamed.

Use the situations and characters in the child's story to help him or her deal with feelings, fears, and concerns:

  • Ask the child to give more details in the story. This helps a child express his or her emotions.
  • Retell the story with different endings. This helps a child draw different conclusions from the ones he or she could have drawn independently.

Follow these steps when using storytelling to help a child deal with loss:

  • Tell the child that you want to make up a story with his or her help. Ask the child to start the story. If the child seems unwilling, you start.
  • Explain that you will take turns telling the story.
  • If you start the story, you can say, “Once upon a time, long ago, a little boy (girl, rabbit, dog, cat) was...," then point to the child and ask the child to continue the story.
  • Use the words the child uses to connect another part of the story. Take your time. You can make up a story about almost anything as a way to introduce the child to a storytelling concept. Making up a story of the child's choosing may also help put the child at ease.
  • Continue the story, back and forth, until it reaches a comfortable ending.
  • Praise the child for being able to make up a story with you.
  • Ask if the story has a lesson in it. It is okay if it doesn't.

After you make up a story with a child, spend some time thinking about the activity. What was the story about? What was its theme? Were the characters in the story angry, scared, happy, or sad? Take some notes about the story if you think it will help you.

Now ask yourself if there is a way that you can retell the story to help the child work through his or her feelings. Always use the same situations and characters that the child used. You can use the same plot and sequence of events at first, then change the ending of the story. For example, if the child told a story about an animal who was lost in the woods and could not find its way home, the child may be talking symbolically about feeling alone, unsure, lost, and isolated. You can retell the story, describing how sad the animal was when it was lost. You can then add how the animal was found and invited to a party where it was given a favorite food to eat.

Observe the child's reaction and see if your ending was acceptable to the child. If the child does not like your ending, he or she may not be ready to move on and may need to tell more stories with that same theme.

You and the child can also draw pictures to tell stories. Drawing pictures may reduce the child's discomfort with talking. Drawing pictures may also provide additional information about how the child is feeling.

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