Art Can When Words Can't: Retelling Hard Stories in Safe Places
Updated: May 19
Dax fell the other day and hurt his leg. As I applied the Paw-Patrol bandaid (Rubble, obvi), he yelled at me through angry tears, "MOM! You should have caught me!" And so, right there in that parking lot, I had to break the news to my son that I'm not super-human. I won't always be able to catch him.
This isn't news I need to break to any reader here. We know. We know the pain of wishing we could shield and save, catch and carry, every single time. We know the pain of this “can't.”
One thing we can do is parent conciously in the aftermath, and an incredible tool for this work is story telling. Retelling the story of scary moments in safe places can reshape how our brain processes those events. As we tell a hard story while someone who loves us listens, the experience of being listened to, safe, and cared for becomes incorporated into the memory of the traumatic event along with the event itself. This changes the memory from "a time I was scared" to "a time I was scared and then cared for."
For kids, who may not have access to a full vocabulary, art can be key in this experience and an amazing tool for you, as a parent, to enter into the story your child is trying to tell and help them along the way.
For example, one night Dax woke up from a nightmare. All he could say about it was, "the sun was scary!" over and over. I sensed he was overwhelmed by this image he couldn't quite make sense of. Later that day, he was drawing (I assumed solar systems), and came to me with this drawing, saying "it's my bad dream."
"Oh wow," I said. "Tell me about this."
And suddenly, he had images he could point to as he processed. He was able to sequence the events of the dream after drawing them. I was able to point to each part of the image and ask questions. We worked through his drawing and constructed a story together. After he had a story that made sense to him, he had moved through his uneasy and overwhelming feelings.
Along with keeping paper and markers handy, here's some other tips for helping your child process their difficult experiences and re-telling scary stories in safe spaces with you, their safe person.
Talk about it when they talk about it.
We can make the tools for story telling available and create a safe space for kids to share about their experiences, but if they aren't ready to share, it's best not to push. They may still be experiencing the overwhelming body-feelings of a scary experience. Do your best to provide a calm and safe environment to help their bodies and brains regulate. Look for natural openings. You can ask, "Do you want to talk about _______?" and follow their lead.
Care about what they care about.
Don't assume what part of an experience was scary or hard for your child. Adult concerns are very different than kid concerns. Listen, listen, listen so your child can feel heard.
Fill in gaps appropriately.
Kids often don't have all the information, which can make them feel more out of control. Sometimes it can be helpful to offer more information and round out the story of what or why something happened. It's best for kids to learn difficult details from a safe and trusted person. Be brief and honest, answering their questions without assuming what those questions will be.
Allow all the feelings.
Yesterday, Dax had to get a shot at the doctor. To say he was not about this is an understatement. Two nurses had to help me hold him still as one gave the injection. He was NOT about it and I don't blame him. When we got in the car, I said, "you were so brave, buddy." Immediately he said, "NO I WASN'T." I argued back, "no, you totally were! You did it!" But he came back again with "I DIDN'T DO IT. THEY MADE ME DO IT. I WAS SCARED."
Message recieved. He wasn't brave. Adults made him do something and he didn't want to do it. That was the story he needed to tell and frame. The feeling he experienced and needed words for was "out of control" not "brave." All feelings fit, and we help our kids when we remain open to their feelings and not the feelings we assume or wish they were having.
Care for your own trauma.
The best thing we can do for our children's mental health is to tend to our own. Do you have safe people in your life you can process your own scary moments with? You have to take care of yourself to take care of these little people. Be well, my friends.
Kylee is a wife, mom, maker, and YouTuber! Check out art videos for your preschool and primary-aged kids on her YouTube Channel!
For educator and parent resources, check out KyleeMakesIt.com.