By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent magazine
What parent of young children hasn’t been implored by their children to, “Tell me a story”?
For Dr. Jacqueline Golding (pictured below), a psychologist in private practice in Northern California, and author of Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big & Small Changes in a Child’s Life, stories are more than just fanciful concoctions to entertain and amuse.
“Even under ordinary circumstances, a child’s world is filled with changes,” she notes. Stories can help kids “expand, adjust, and refine their ways of thinking about different aspects of their lives” and can also help children “understand and resolve their feelings.”
Golding, who is an adjunct professor at the University of California in San Francisco, knows that many parents instinctively turn to stories to comfort their children when fears pop up about being loved or being separated from their parents (are you recalling, “The Runaway Bunny” or “The Kissing Hand”?).
But there are so many picture books out there for children that it can be hard to sort through them and find the ones that are just right for your child. Now parents can use the resource Dr. Golding compiled to target a book to a particular issue their child is facing.
“Healing Stories” briefly summarizes more than 500 books on 34 topics, including bullying, dental care, jealousy, imagination, death of a pet, learning to use the potty, and natural disaster.
Divided into nine main parts—“Everyday Growing: The Basics,” “Feelings,” “Everyday Stress,” “Growing-Up,” “Families and Family Changes,” “Relationships,” Health, Health Problems, and Health Care,” “Loss and Grief,” and “Trauma“—the book also includes indexes by author, illustrator, title, and topic.
Five Tips for Parents, Grandparents, Teachers, and Caregivers
Dr. Golding offers suggestions for making reading with your child as enjoyable and productive as possible:
1. Don’t force books on a child. “It may work better to include the book with other reading that’s less emotionally loaded. …If a child wants to stop reading a story that’s related to a stressful experience, it’s usually most helpful to stop. You can offer the book later.”
2. Keep your expectations realistic. “Reading, by itself, can’t solve all problems. … [Stories] are most likely to be successful when they encourage communication between children and the adults who are important to them.”
3. Choose stories you enjoy. “Kids are perceptive enough to sense your true feelings, and if you read your child a book that you don’t like, this won’t help the child. You’d also miss an opportunity to convey the message that reading is enjoyable.”
4. Choose stories that match your child’s stage of development. “Only you know and will be able to judge whether a book is too simple or boring, or too complex or difficult, for your child.”
5. Choose stories that reflect your child’s perspective on the situation. “For many children, it may be more important to match the feelings than the details of the situation. … If you’re not sure whether to match feelings or specific events, I suggest that you err in the direction of starting with books that match the child’s feelings as well as possible.”
The most important tip for reading with your children? “Join in their journey of discovery,” Dr. Golding says. She was kind enough to share her thoughts with Be Inkandescent on how to help children cope with emotionally challenging experiences.
Be Inkandescent: Why did you write this book?
Jacqueline Golding: For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories and believed in their capacity to help us understand ourselves and the world, so it was a natural progression that led to incorporating them into my practice. Picture books are very accessible, and they’re not only easy for parents to use with children, but also fit easily into the format of child therapy sessions.
I started using stories in clinical practice when I was a post-doctoral fellow at a children’s mental health clinic. My supervisors liked the stories so much that when my fellowship ended, they asked for a list of books that they might want to use with the children they worked with in the future. That list was a little less than a page long.
After that, I updated and expanded the list, first when I happened to run across a picture book that struck me as useful, and then with a growing sense of intention and purpose. I began to share the list with colleagues and with parents in my practice. Once the list was too long to staple together, it seemed to me that it was time for it to be a book.
Be Inkandescent: In what way have you found stories to be healing for children?
Jacqueline Golding: In my experience, stories can be healing in many ways. They can help children understand and resolve the feelings that come with important experiences in their lives—whether they’re changes like starting school for the first time, or more difficult events like the death of a person or pet they love. They can show children new ways to think about things, and this can help kids expand, adjust, and refine their ways of thinking about different aspects of their lives.
Stories let children know that it’s okay to acknowledge distressed feelings. They can function as an extra source of empathy for kids, helping kids realize that they’re not alone—others have similar experiences and feelings. And a story in which the problem is resolved can inspire hopefulness that the child’s problem can be resolved, too.
At the same time, stories can give youngsters enough distance from a stressful experience to allow them to get some perspective on it. After all, in stories, the stressful event happens to someone else. It doesn’t even always happen to a child—in a lot of stories for small children, it happens to an animal character.
Normal processing of trauma includes mentally reliving the experience, with an increasing sense of resolution over the course of many relivings. Stories can give kids opportunities to relive painful or frightening experiences within the safe limits of a book’s covers.
Stories can be useful even when the child hasn’t experienced the challenges that the character faces. Stories that offer general examples of positive coping can be helpful regardless of the child’s own situation, and a child who eventually has the experience described in the story will have the benefit of a familiar story within which to process the experience.
Be Inkandescent: Do you recommend that parents choose just one book in a category that’s relevant to their child’s situation, or read several?
Jacqueline Golding: My suggestion would be that parents preview a few relevant stories, and offer their child whichever one or ones seem best connected to the child’s experience of the situation. Parents who are using “Healing Stories” may want to read the relevant chapter or chapters and then choose books to preview based on the summaries of each book. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong number of stories.
And I wouldn’t suggest that parents insist that a child read a particular book, even if the child really seems to need it. This can require patience from adults who are eager to help! It’s important not to expect miracles overnight. I encourage parents to go at their child’s pace, and enjoy the time they’re sharing together.
Be Inkandescent: Why do children need stories to help them through experiences that are typical of many children’s lives—such as being nervous about starting a new school, or losing a tooth, or having a pet die?
Jacqueline Golding: On the one hand, it’s certainly true that many—even all—children have at least some of these experiences, and many may do fine without reading a story about it.
On the other hand, even though all children in our culture have a first day of school, an individual child doesn’t necessarily benefit from this unless she or he has access to others’ experiences in helpful ways. Stories can give children exactly that.
Be Inkandescent: What would you say to parents whose children don’t see the connection between themselves and a child in a book who learns how to overcome an obstacle or cope with a loss?
Jacqueline Golding: Children may not explicitly see a connection between themselves and a book character. That doesn’t mean that they don’t take in the emotional information, perhaps on a level that they can’t verbalize.
I’d encourage parents not to worry about whether a young child can tell them whether a book is helpful—you can trust your instincts about this and let the books work their magic. And of course, books are only one tool; there are many ways to comfort a child, depending on the situation and the child’s individual needs.
Be Inkandescent: How would you describe the poor children’s literature that’s out there?
Jacqueline Golding: Of course there are poorly written or poorly illustrated books, but honestly, the quality of the writing and illustration were of less concern to me than stories’ emotional content and their messages. Some stories were just not empathic or comforting.
I was also troubled by stories that described children as “good“ or “not good,“ communicated inappropriate expectations for independence or responsibility (for example, kids taking care of their parents), or seemed to dismiss or even encourage unsafe behavior.
Other stories felt to me like they were really more about adults’ experiences than children’s (for example, overemphasizing adults’ sadness when separated from their children). I found a surprising number of stories that seemed to perpetrate stereotypes or that expressed values that felt overly materialistic to me.
Be Inkandescent: What advice do you have for parents whose kids are going through either a transition or a rough patch?
Jacqueline Golding: Each transition, each child, and each family are different. But if parents can help their children feel good about themselves, know how to identify and talk about feelings, and use their imagination, those resources will build children’s resilience for getting through all kinds of challenging times. And of course, stories can help! If parents have done all they can and the child still seems troubled, they could also consider consultation with a child therapist.
Kathleen McCarthy, the senior editor for Be Inkandescent Magazine, also writes the magazine’s Parenting column.
A freelance editor and writer in the mental health field for the last 20 years, in 2012 she became the manager of the new speakers bureau, InkandescentSpeakers.com, an international organization of small business experts that travel around the globe to provide best practices to entrepreneurs. An appreciation for good storytelling is part of the Irish tradition her parents passed down to her, and her artistic mother (shown above with two of her granddaughters) especially enjoyed reading picture books to her children and grandchildren.