I was in New York City this past weekend. I was headed for Grand Central when an ad for the play Matilda caught my eye. In broad letters it proclaimed: “Without stories we would be feeding machines wearing shoes”. Roald Dahl at his best- both clever and profound. He knew our stories define who we are. And attempt in some small way to give meaning to our lives.
The story-telling process starts in infancy. The story our parents or primary caregivers use to tell us who we are marks the beginning of what psychologists refer to as our explanatory narrative – or in more common parlance, our identity or self-definition.
As we continue to grow and develop, our story expands. By school-age it includes an understanding of how the world works. We establish causal links between events based on the experiences of our lives. Our exploration of the world around us expands or constricts based on what has gone before.
These first impressions become a template for evaluating future opportunities. We embrace those that fit our now familiar story. And question or avoid those that threaten the equilibrium we have established.
Great news if a child’s explanatory narrative began in a strong attachment relationship capable of developing a confident and optimistic storyline. Not so great for children with early trauma histories. Their explanatory narratives are often marred by distortions that interfere with their ability to achieve academic and social competence.
Disruptions in their early attachment relationships lead children to believe that the rejection, neglect or abuse they endure stem from their own intrinsic badness. The underlying distortion is that the child, not the caregiver or parent, is responsible for the maltreatment. Some children resort to patterns of behavior that reinforce this storyline by causing problems in school or the community. Others try to rewrite their stories by adopting rigid patterns of perfectionist behavior. Either way their explanatory narratives are riddled with pessimism, frustration, and lack of control. They can’t escape the stories they’ve been told.
Helping children rewrite their stories is hard work. But it can be done. It starts with a willingness to try. Progress will be slow, but the final product will be outstanding. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Provide children with frequent opportunities throughout the day to make choices. Start with simple things like the choice of different color pencils to complete tasks, or choice of where they sit to complete an assignment. Use a bar graph to chart their choices across several days. Repeated use of this strategy helps children expand their self-definition to include a variety of personal preferences.
- Give children specific feedback about times when they helped a friend, said something kind, stood up for someone else. This encourages children to form new causal links between their behavior and positive outcomes for others. Repeated often enough it can counter their distorted self-perception as intrinsically bad.
- Create a photo album that chronicles a child’s kindness, compassion, and capacity to comply with age appropriate rules and responsibilities. Use it to engage the child in a conversation about all the good things you notice about him.