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Help Children by Telling Stories

The point of telling stories about the failure and misfortune of people dear to you, such as your children, your spouse, or your friends, is that they have failed or gotten into trouble – yet you still like them and accept them as they are.

I mention storytelling again because it is such an important technique, especially in dealing with powerful emotions. Children can identify themselves with characters in a story as they would when watching a play or reading a novel. The hope is by identifying with a character, children will be able to deal with some difficult experience or strong feelings of their own.

Most children I’ve worked with, and my own children, too, have asked me at one time or another if I ever failed a test, been rejected by a friend, been called names, received an F on a report card, got sent home from school, got caught doing something bad, and so on.

I’ve told students my daughters have asked, “Will you still love me if I get an F?” I am able to assure them I still love them even when they experience failure.

It’s normal for children who fail to wonder if they are alone in this experience or if they are others to whom this same misfortune has happened. I don’t ever hesitate to describe the kinds of misfortunes I experienced or witnessed as a schoolgirl.

In first grade, a little girl named Marie was too shy to raise her hand when she needed to go the bathroom. Lots of us were shy, since these were the first days of school. Luckily, I never felt the sudden urge to go the bathroom at an unscheduled time as Marie did. She wasn’t a very noticeable child-she was short,thin, and quiet. I hadn’t noticed her at all until she suddenly to cry loudly. The whole class turned to look at her. She blushed harder as she became aware of all eyes focused on her and cried more intensely. The teacher walked toward her and exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness!” as she looked at the floor and realized Marie had wet her pants. A huge puddle had formed under her and was now beginning to make its way along a row of seats. The class was sent outside for an extra recess, for which we were grateful, and Marie’s needs got dealt with.

I think a number of us in class identified with Marie’s embarrassment and were relieved it hadn’t happened to us. We really didn’t view Marie as having done something bad. We went all through the primary grades with her, and it didn’t seem to have scarred her on her relationships at all. Although it was surely a dreadful moment in her life and a strong memory for some of us classmates for a number of years, it did not keep her from being an accepted, valued, successful member of the class.

The children to whom I’ve told this story have no trouble identifying with Marie’s embarrassment, and it often touches off memories for them of friends and classmates with similar embarrassments. They are then able to see misfortunes and failures fall into a moment of time in a longer perspective. Stories like Marie’s can help children get a balanced perspective, even in the midst of strong emotions. Storytelling allows children to empathize and sympathize with another person like them in a similar situation. If they can have caring and concerned feelings (sympathy) plus understanding, acceptance, and support (empathy) for that other person, then maybe they can feel some of that sympathy and empathy for themselves. They can also realize that others like me or their classmates can also have caring and supportive feelings for them.

Furthermore, if they can also view what happened to someone in a story as something humorous, they might be able to view their own situation with a bit of humor, or at least a bit of tolerance. If they can say, “What happened to her wasn’t such a big deal, “ then maybe they can see how their misfortune isn’t such a big deal deal either, at least in the long run.

When I was the character in the misfortune story, as it sometimes happened, the children could be in touch with their current esteeming of me and see I had not only survived a similar misfortune but had gone on to become someone they respected and wanted to befriend.

Self-Esteem Principle: Storytelling allows children to identify with a failure situation and experience it without direct anxiety. It also allows them to get a more realistic perspective.

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