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Storytelling and Trauma: supporting children in times of stress

Written by Jennifer McCormack and Narell Neville, 2019.
Sometimes children are exposed to tragedies. Traumatic events such as natural disasters, illness and accidents won’t wait for children to be tucked away to protect them from worry. Children may be involved directly in traumatic events, or perhaps as onlookers observing the processes of others while emergency preparations occur, feeling the impressions of the fear and concern of the community, or surrounded by conversations about about the progress of events. All of these impressions can quickly become very overwhelming for children as they strive to organise their thoughts and feelings, and work out what it means to them.
Close to home, right now, the Scenic Rim, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Northern NSW communities are currently amidst the tragedy of bushfire which is having devastating effects upon natural bushland, private properties and the loss of many structures. Locals have had to enact emergency plans to protect homes, livestock and evacuate their families. Other families have members from emergency services who are helping to support those in trouble. Children all over these areas have seen and breathed the smoke, dust and hot winds. They have heard the emergency vehicles and seen the water-carrying planes and helicopters that have been working around the clock to settle the fires. Children in rural areas may have a parent who is volunteering their time to help with the crisis, working long hours and coming home tired, dirty and smoky.

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019

We have many families in our local Birdwings community within this area (who are all safe) but who have been on high alert in preparation for the possibility of wild bushfire changing their lives forever. This week, the children will be talking about the fires, they will be sharing experiences, discussing the things they know, and watching each other for shared emotional responses as they talk to understand what has happened in their world.
We plan to allow children the space to talk about it, and we will explore it creatively together if need be through our Ecological Storytelling approach. The sooner the better. We find storytelling the most successful way to help children understand big events in their lives. Storytelling allows children to listen and identify with the parts of the story that makes sense to them. Even the act of listening to a story about their experience is an empathic acknowledgement that this is a thing that happened and that the child was a part of it. Traumatic events presented in the form of a metaphor helps to separate the child from the direct experience but will still tap into the emotions and offer support in the form of courage or some ideas that children could try for themselves outside of the story to find resolution and understanding.

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Photo Credit, Narell Neville, 2018

Storytelling may be presented in various modalities and telling stories through many forms of creative art will offer a range of access points to children’s emotions and understanding. Painting, drawing, clay, dance, drama, even jokes, will help children to find their place and organise their thinking, recognise their emotions. Playing with the elements gives children an open-ended experience to explore their thoughts. In the case of fire, we are fortunate that our Birdwings children have had experience already with fire: they know how to light it, to tend it and keep themselves and the environment safe. They have made fires of their own and enjoyed the big bonfire at our Winter Festival. They know what to watch out for when a fire is lit, and how to care for it and the space around it so that it doesn’t go out of control. We are not going to explore fire again in our current situation, until the crisis is gone (and the fire ban is lifted!) but this background of knowledge can be easily explored in story to remind children they have some power in their experience.

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Photo Credit Jennifer McCormack, 2019

At Birdwings we have faith in children’s abilities to learn and process information. Children are very capable about communicating their knowledge and ideas, given the space, time and trust to do so. Children have so many ideas of their own about how to help in times of crisis, and storytelling may be one way to begin a conversation with children to hear their suggestions about what to do, how to avoid danger, how to create a plan to stay safe.
Through playful and gently therapeutic approaches we know children will take what they need from their experience. We have a story that we like to tell in high fire danger, however the whole experience will be guided by the children, with the children taking control of the situation. After we tell the story, we often invite the children to retell it to each other, and that’s when we hear so many great ideas, solutions and deep thinking about the situation.
We hope your families and homes are safe, and that you might consider asking your child to share their experience and knowledge with you. You may be surprised at the depth of wisdom they hold, and the relief that someone is there to listen. Here are some other useful resources to explore bushfires with children:

For more information about our storytelling approaches at Birdwings, we have upcoming training in Ecological Storytelling and Advanced Forest School Mentoring. For more information about our programs, please visit Forest School Programs

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019