It’s a bit of a harsh reality when you bring home your bundle of joy from the hospital only to discover that instructions were not included. You can read books, ask ‘Dr Google’ (with caution) or go to your trusty Emergency Department to help you navigate your way around managing their ‘physical bodies’, but it’s not so cut and dried when they start speaking and you realise that there is also this whole ‘emotional body’ that no one ever briefed you on the management of!
Where do you find solutions to such things as recurring nightmares (that put an end to your long awaited undisturbed sleep) or separation anxiety? There is more information out there now than ever before, but it’s hard to sift through and find simple strategies that will work for that little person whose anxiety on any level has the ability to rip your heart open.
I experienced my first severe panic attack as a small child, and whilst my mother used her natural instinct to make sure I was physically OK, she knew nothing about (what we later learnt was) ‘Agoraphobia’ and how to live with it. My subsequent panic attacks made me insatiably curious about the mind/body connection and the effect that emotions can physically have on us.
|Original Illustration by Olga Minima (10 Years old ONLY!)|
When I was woken by the screams of my daughter from her first recurring nightmare, managing that situation then actually came very naturally to me from my own experience and learnings. I am certainly no expert but knew what had worked for me so I used similar techniques on her. I listened to and acknowledged the details of her nightmare (because it is very real to them), and then I started retelling her nightmare back to her but with some key changes to the original story…
She dreamt that she was walking through a forest and a monkey jumped on her back. The monkey was big and terrifying to her. In my new story, she was walking through the forest and still felt the impact on her back of something that seemed scary but she easily managed to brush it off. When she turned to look at it on the ground, she was amazed to discover a teeny weeny cute monkey with big wide frightened eyes looking back up at her. The monkey told her that it was just lonely and wanted a friend to play with. She picked it up and put it in her pocket so that it would never feel lonely again.
Not only did this story work in settling her back to sleep, she liked it so much that she wanted me to tell it to her every night before bed. That nightmare never occurred again and was the catalyst for me creating www.feelbrave.com (Characters and Stories to help kids manage tough emotions and Feel Brave!)
What I had used was a simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) technique called ‘Reframing’. CBT is a form of talking therapy that focuses on how you think about the things going on in your life – your thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes (your cognitive processes) and how this impacts on the way you behave and deal with emotional problems. It then looks at how you can change any negative patterns of thinking or behavior that may be causing you difficulties. In turn, this can change the way you feel. Reframing simply involves seeing things from a different perspective. Much like the way we change our response to a work of art by placing it in a frame, we can change our response to emotions by putting them in a different frame.
Humour is a great natural way of reframing a situation like most jokes which involve an unexpected twist of perspective (a ‘reframe’). Children love nothing more than a funny story (especially if they feature in it), or a story about when you were a child. If you can change their scary story into something that involves any of these elements, it becomes relevant to them and can break the spell of a nightmare or things that scare them.
Another great example I have seen work was with a child who was getting increasingly anxious about her father being away from home a lot due to his work. She was told a story about a great chief of a village. This chief had a big responsibility to make sure everyone had food in their tummies so he would go off on wonderful adventures to gather the food and was a much loved and respected hero. This warming story was relevant to her own situation and helped her create parallels with her anxiety by reframing the feelings that she originally had.
Something else that children find curiously delightful is when you role play and act out a scenario that scares them but you play the part of your child and they play the part of another person (e.g. they play mummy leaving them at Kindergarten or a person that is not being very nice to them). This gives them a safe and enjoyable way to try out various scenarios and choose one that feels right for them to use in the future.
Storytelling and role play doesn’t always come easily or obviously to us but with just a little prior planning and practice, you can conjure up some delightful enchanting tales and magically break some nasty spells in the process.