How to Create Stories for Children who Are Having Fears and Nightmares

by Nancy Mellon, September 21, 2001.
Soon after the recent events in New York City, I received from a mother the following story.
The previous morning her six-year old child had told her a dream: “I was on a ship and it crashed. There were a lot of skeletons around and then some people came who were trying to kill us.”

Because the mother had learned about storytelling as a healing art, she said decidedly to her child, “That sounds like a story. It just isn’t finished yet.” They snuggled close together, and then the mother began. . .

Once upon a time there were 1500 people on a big strong ship. It sailed out into the ocean with great hope and courage. It sailed on very well, but one day a storm came. The sky darkened and the ocean swelled higher and higher, then plunged down low. Up and down the sea tossed the boat as the rain rained, and the thunder thundered, and the winds howled. The people on the boat looked out but couldn’t see what was ahead of them, or what was behind them. They were lost and they tossed here and there until they crashed hard into a rock. The boat broke apart. The people swam and tried to hold onto bits and pieces of the boat. They tried to help each to her but the stormy sea kept them going under and coming back up and going under and coming back up until they also crashed into the rock. And there they saw skeletons. And there they saw a band of pirates who came toward them with daggers in their hands. The good people of the ship feared that the pirates would kill them. This was the island of bones. The pirates wanted more people to build their island bigger. They did want to kill those good people and have more and more skeletons.

At last there came another ship, a Ship that needed no water. It sailed right out of the stormy sky. Sailing the Ship was an enormous Angel with tremendous power. With a bolt of lightening he stunned the pirates so they could kill no more. Then he gathered the people of the ship. Some of them he brought to Heaven so that they could be made whole again. And others he brought to different places all over the world. He gave them the power of Peace. And so strongly did they carry it, that when other people saw them, they became peaceful too. They felt it right in the middle of their hearts. It was the peace that can live in heart of hearts and is helpful for all men and all women and all children whenever they are troubled and whenever they are not.

Her child pondered the story and was satisfied and afterwards had a very good day of playing with friends.

You too can be inspired by your child to make a healing story.

First, listen carefully to your child’s fears and troubling dreams with openness and respect. Do not overlook any detail. If your child is experiencing nightmares like the mother in the story above, you might say, “That dream sounds like a story. It just isn’t finished yet.”

Share a cup of clear water. Slow down and relax. Take time to snuggle close together in a comforting place. Perhaps light a candle and hum a simple melody. Strum an open-stringed instrument or play a few notes slowly and thoughtfully on a xylophone to experience a soothing pace and mood.

Listen to your heart and your child’s heart and breathe deeply and completely for a few moments.

Dedicate yourself to offering a healing gift. As you dedicate yourself, you can trust your imagination and intuition will inspire a story to meet the needs of your child(ren), no matter what fears or doubts you may have about your own creativity and abilities as a storyteller.

Let yourself dream into your child’s story with your inner eyes open and accepting of all that your child has said. Think globally and as if you are listening to a great storyteller. Focus on any images that come to you.

Picture a classic plot structure that moves through tests and trials toward greater strength, wisdom and love. See East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire, or ask your children’s librarian for the finest examples of wonder tales.

The mother who made up the story The Ship that Needed No Water accepted her child’s dream-picture of a ship. She chose to emphasize a mood of hope, courage and clear sailing at the beginning of her story. By transforming her own realistic hijacked airplane images into a dream picture, she found that she, herself, was freed from the repetitive images imprinted in her mind by the media.

In clear, straight-forward language, she pictured the ups and downs and turmoil of the storm. She said that the characters in her story wanted to see beyond this storm but could not. This let the child know that her mother was aware of her feelings of fear and helplessness. She did not intensify these feelings by labeling them, but instead met her child’s terror and her own through the flow of images in the story. She did not say that the people were very, very afraid. (When children are already afraid, a calm storyteller’s voice and the images can themselves speak to this fear on a level that does not increase it.) In the swiftly moving images in the mother’s story, the people were lost. They crashed. The boat broke. Fairytales seldom mention emotions but instead describe what happens. As the plot unfolds each happening is powerful and mysterious, like dreams are, and poetry.

The storyteller emphasized the goodness of the people by saying: “The people tried to help each other.”

She accepted her child’s knowledge that murderers have harmed many people. She described the destructive people in a simple matter-of-fact way. She transformed the murderous people in her child’s dream to “pirates with daggers in their hands.” Her child had met pirates in other stories. The mother courageously said in her story that they had an island of bones. This mother trusted the story to hold the terrible truth that these pirates wanted to kill people and have more skeletons for their island.

In the best of fairy tales and wonder tales, help always comes to good people in trouble. Such magical help often comes from mysterious realms. In her story the mother imagined another Ship that needed no water. Her wise dream imagination showed her a picture of a colossal Angel whose power comes from beyond ordinary consciousness. The power of this good Angel is far greater than that of the pirates. The Angel gathers the people of the ship to make them whole or to send them with the power of Peace around the world.

As her story draws to a close, the mother speaks of Peace in the heart of hearts that is “helpful for all men and women and children whenever they are troubled and whenever they are not.” By speaking of a global spiritual principle and of the whole human family, she allows her child to trust that she and her playmates are cared for and loved. She can sense the Peace that can fill our hearts, even during terrible times.

The story accepts the child’s fears. It depicts fearful events in courageously honest images. It acknowledges vastly creative and benevolent spiritual dimensions of life. As it finishes, the story suggests that troubles cease and that horrifying events can be transformed mysteriously into wholeness and goodness.

The mother told her story like a stream of dream images. She guided the story truthfully and simply toward the heart of happiness. The dream became an opportunity for both mother and child to experience the comforting wisdom that is everyone’s birthright.

A tried and true structure for transformational storytelling:

Beginning: A good person or people set out on a journey

First Trial: In this story, the mother pictured a storm

Second Trial: The boat crashes

Third Trial: The pirates’ skeleton island

Magical Help: The heavenly ship

Resolution: Wholeness and increase of Peace and Wisdom

Children need creative imagination because imagination is the language of childhood. When an imaginative story comes to them directly from the loving heart and soul of an adult, they are satisfied as in no other way.

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