Helping Kids Heal from Trauma by Making a Book
Dear Dr. Laura,
My son Josh suffered a major medical trauma. He is angry at me because I held him down for the stitches. I know you recommend making him a story book about it. How should I do this? Thanks!
Yes, I often recommend these books, for any major life event that takes some adjustment. Your goal is to help your child heal from the event. To do that, he needs to rationally understand what happened. Since humans make sense of their experience by telling stories, you're helping him see his story differently. Right now his story is a muddle of upset emotions like terror and pain, mixed up with pictures in his mind of whatever he saw at the time. Making him a storybook gives him a way to see the story differently and attach a "happy ending." How we see the ending is vitally important in how we remember and process events.
Making a book like this helps your child build a neural connection between the implicit memory where the upsetting event is recorded (which is visceral, emotional, nonverbal) and a new explicit memory that you're helping him to create, which is verbal and rational. It also gives him a chance to talk about it, which helps him to heal. Finally, as you read the book to him, offer him the opportunity to give input into the book by drawing pictures for it and giving you words, all of which helps him process his emotions about it.
Start by assembling photos of your child's early life to the present. Then find any specific photos related to the trauma - a photo of your child with a cast on his arm, a photo of the hospital where it happened, a photo of an ambulance. So the first picture is his birth, that made you so happy. Then go fairly quickly through his young, happy life, with photos of the high points, until you get to "But one day, something very scary happened....Josh had an accident...he was bleeding...Mommy rushed him to the hospital...the doctors had to stop the bleeding with stitches, by sewing up Josh's big cut..."
You don't want his medical trauma to "define" his life, so this is not a book called "Josh's Life".....more like "Josh's Accidents" or "The Story of Josh's Operation".
Use construction paper
or white copy paper. Glue on photos and write or print out captions. You can laminate if you want to.
Three-hole punch and put into a notebook. It does not have to be long
or perfect. Assume you will add and revise.
THEN, sit down with your son to read it with him. As you read, listen to and reflect his feelings. Be aware he could go into anger and just keep telling him that he is safe now, and you wish you could have stopped all the pain before. If he reads the book without going into a meltdown, suggest that he make some pictures for the book. Give him the same paper, and markers or crayons, and let him draw or scribble. He will talk, hopefully, and you can write what he says as the caption. Add his pictures to the book.
Use everything he says in the book. If he says "My mommy hurt me" you can use that as "Mommy had to hold Josh tightly so the doctors could stitch the wound so it would stop bleeding...Josh was so scared....He was too little to understand why Mommy help him down...Mommy was crying and Josh was crying....He thought Mommy was trying to hurt him and he was so upset....Finally the doctors finished and told Josh he would be okay...but Josh was still mad and sad at the doctors and at Mommy." Next page: "Sometimes it was hard for Josh to trust Mommy after this....But Mommy loved Josh very much and she understood. She always protected him."
End your story with something happy, like a photo of you and your son hugging, and one of the whole family. Say that Josh is all well now, his body has healed. Say that sometimes he still feels sad when he thinks about the accident, but he knows he can talk to Mommy and she will always understand, and every day he feels better. It's important to acknowledge that the child still has lingering feelings, but show him a path to deal with those feelings, and it's vital that the story has a happy ending.
Be aware that your son will have big feelings during and after reading this book. Let him vent and rage and cry, and stay compassionate. He needs to get all that out of his system to complete his healing.