Navigate Emotions Through Storytelling

Child in refugee camp

Navigate Emotions Through Storytelling

CPI always aims to provide tips and sound guidance for team leaders on the ground to facilitate these conversations, ensuring children feel comfortable with their emotions and see hopeful paths forward.

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CPI Supports Team Leaders in Navigating Sensitive Situations


Storytelling can evoke strong emotions in children, and sometimes CPI’s partners need our help to guide children in expressing and navigating negative feelings positively.

One of our storytelling partners (“team leaders”) was conducting a drawing session for young children following a story when a boy expressed deep concern about a passage in the story, hinting at possible troubles at home. The team leader asked the child if he meant something else, but he was steadfast in his statement/interpretation. The team leader sought advice from CPI on handling such situations.

CPI always aims to provide tips and sound guidance for team leaders on the ground to facilitate these conversations, ensuring children feel comfortable with their emotions and see hopeful paths forward.

Displaced boy drawing during a CPI storytelling event

Children's Emotions

It's crucial that children feel their expressions are welcomed and supported, even when they express negative feelings.

CPI consulted Professor Caroline Beauregard from our Advisory Board to discuss best practices in handling such situations. She emphasized the importance of adults being comfortable with children's creative expressions during storytelling sessions. It's crucial that children feel their expressions are welcomed and supported, even when they express negative feelings.

Professor Caroline Beauregard smiling

Children’s expressions in their drawings or stories have meanings, but not always the ones adults might initially assume.

Caroline Beauregard

Professor

Caroline's Most Important Points:

Children's Expression Through Art

Displaced girl talking about death
  • It’s essential to understand how the child feels and why they might be comfortable with certain images or themes in their drawings or stories.

  • Adults need to be comfortable with and accept children’s expressions without projecting their own emotions or concerns onto them.

Adult Reactions & Understanding

Child explaining his drawing to storyteller
  • Adults often struggle with how to react to children’s expressions, particularly when they involve potentially negative or concerning themes.

  • Adults must listen, be interested, and not be overwhelmed by children’s expressions.

Interpreting Children's Drawings

  • It’s important to be careful when interpreting children’s expressions: not all negative imagery, (like a dead tree, animal, blood, etc.) indicates issues in children’s life or other serious problems.
 
  • Children’s drawings and stories can be a way for them to learn and deal with negative emotions in a healthy way.

Educational Approach

Girl in Kenya with drawing made during storytelling session (2024)
  • There’s a need for educating and sensitizing team leaders and adults to understand that children’s expressions in their drawings or stories have meanings, but not always the ones adults might initially assume.
 
  • Encouraging a positive approach when feeling overwhelmed by a child’s drawing can benefit both the child and the adult. This could involve creating new drawings or scenarios that emphasize positive outcomes and problem-solving, such as exploring alternative actions or supportive measures.

Supporting Problem-Solving

children in Uganda attending storytelling, free education outdoor setting
  • Adults should support children in finding solutions to any problems they are working through, providing guidance (by asking questions, for instance) and examples to help them navigate their feelings and challenges.

 

 

 

Interview With Caroline
Beauregard

CPI: How should you respond when a child creates artwork during a storytelling session that may indicate underlying issues?

Caroline Beauregard (CB): My first question is how did the child feel? Why is the child comfortable with that [image]? Okay, for example, the tree is dead. If the child feels comfortable with it, that’s the most important thing. Most of the time, I feel that as adults we are not comfortable with what the children express. But that’s what we have to deal with. 

Most of the time, I feel that as adults we are not comfortable with what the children express. Sometimes we don’t know what to do about it and we don’t know how to react.

I think it’s important for adults to understand and welcome this creative expression.

It’s important to listen and be interested. But it’s difficult not to project our own emotions. “Oh, the tree is dead. Oh, my God!” Maybe for the child, it doesn’t mean anything about what is going on at home.

Of course, maybe that could be related to a form of violence — but it doesn’t have to. Because there’s a dead tree in a drawing doesn’t mean it’s difficult at home. Children learn how to deal with what is good and what is bad every day in their games. I rather think that the adults sometimes need to work a bit on themselves. If we tell the adults “Oh, you just have to listen and welcome,” maybe it will still be hard, if they’re not used to be in that posture. So, it’s about education to sensitize the teachers/team leaders or adults to the idea that what is expressed in the drawings, in the stories, means something — but it doesn’t always mean what we think it means.

Girl in Sri Lanka creating artwork during a Storytelling Workshop conducted by CPI.
Girl in Sri Lanka during a storytelling workshop.

When that person tried to understand “Is it sleeping? No. It’s dead,” maybe I would have gotten them to try to understand what happened, so that tree is dead. This could perhaps have given us some information on what the child wanted to express. But of course, if the person is not comfortable with the child’s expression, they don’t have to go there. I don’t think it would be good for the child to have someone going where they don’t feel comfortable by trying to welcome difficult and charged emotions. That’s not what we want.

So maybe if the person is not comfortable trying to understand why, for example, the tree is dead, and working with loaded emotions, then we could do a second drawing where we could ask the child to draw what is needed for the tree to be alive. So, we work with the positive, and then for the adults it would be easier, and we also give to the child some tools to problem-solve. Sometimes it may be hard though, if it’s an issue that the child is working on, and they are not able to find solutions. Then maybe the adults need to support the child in finding a solution. Then give examples, but I think the general idea is to go in the positive direction.

CPI: How can team leaders manage multiple children while creating drawing activities that encourage emotional expression and problem-solving for the entire group?

CB: So, let’s say some children are more into finding solutions, this may help the child that has more difficulty in finding their own solutions. So, I think that would be interesting. We’ve been trying in the last year to work with what we call “interrupted stories.” It works wonderfully because the children learn how to find solutions, and we see the progress through the different workshops. So that could also be tried to see what results

children in uganda use chairs as desks while drawing after storytelling session
Children in a CPI-Youth Sports Uganda storytelling workshop in Kampala, Uganda, use chairs when drawing the story.

CPI: Could you describe how you conduct an interrupted story? 

CB: Well, it’s simple. We start a story. When one of the characters is confronted with an obstacle or difficulty that needs to be solved, we stop and ask the children to continue the story. And that’s it. It’s no more difficult than that. We also used cards with images, where the images are metaphorical. So, let’s say you have a castle tied to a balloon. This doesn’t exist, but the children had to invent a story about it. It could be a way for children to invent a story when there’s no storyteller. It’s really coming from the children.

Link to CPI posts on “interrupted story” from the previous interview with Caroline Beauregard.

CPI: Do you find that children readily respond to the idea of responding to images?
 

CB: Yes. We don’t use these cards at the beginning. We start with the whole story, and then interrupted stories, and then the cards, and we also use dice. So, let’s say you roll dice and then you have number one, that means you must invent a character, or number two, a place. Then number three, you invent the clothes, for example. So, it’s really to structure the creation of the story.

For me, these could be tools for the teachers if they find that there are loaded emotions that they’re not comfortable dealing with. Then try with the positive. If the child doesn’t know how or where to start, maybe — you don’t need to necessarily use dice — you can simply ask about “Who is the character in your story?” Okay, it’s the tree. Does the tree have friends, family, and then you’re trying to build up a story around it. So, the child can invent his own story.

 

Sometimes a drawing is just a drawing…

CPI: When a team leder feels uncomfortable and suspects something is wrong,  how should they address it without letting their own emotions interfere?

CB: You never know. So, is it an intuition of something going on? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it just struck something in your own life, and then you’re transferring that to the children. But still, you need to do something about it. And if there was something real going on in the child’s life, you need to do something about it. It really depends on what the different steps are, or laws in the different countries where the storytelling project is happening.

But what I’m concerned about is that the Team Leader’s feeling came from deep inside.  I think that what the team leader did was a good first step: to talk about it with another person who has experience with children. If everyone is feeling the same, then maybe you need to act. But sometimes when you talk about it to other people, you just realize that it’s your own background (or feelings) that may be expressing itself. But I think that the support of peers is very important. And what about creating a kind of support group where people can just share about their experience with storytelling?

CPI: How can storytellers manage their emotions and responsibly address uncomfortable expressions from children without worsening the situation?

CB: First thing is to clarify what is your role as a teacher in that kind of project. Just to reinforce and strengthen them. It’s important to listen and welcome, and understand that this is doing something for the child. When people realize that, maybe they don’t feel so helpless.

Another thing that I find interesting is the idea of having a ritual. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a ritual per se, but putting a kind a  frontier, install something to mark an end. For example, you can do a drawing or create something, and then you have a box and you put it in the box. It doesn’t have to be something concrete neither, it could be imaginary and then, “Okay, it’s in the box. I know it’s there. It’s safe. If I want to go back to it, I can just take the box back, but I’m in control.” So, these are some ideas.

displaced children drawing in refugee camp during CPI storytelling event

When you talk about the box, what would they put in the box, a drawing or anything they want?

CB: Even something imaginary — so you feel that the ball in your belly, you put that in an imaginary box. But it can also be a real box. You write one word, you put it in, for example.

CPI: When a storyteller feels uncomfortable and suspects something is wrong, is it a sixth sense, and how should they address it without letting their own emotions interfere?

CB: Totally right, and you never know. So, is it an intuition of something going on? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it just struck something in your own life, and then you’re transferring that to the children. But still, you need to do something about it. And if there was something real going on in the child’s life, you need to do something about it. It really depends on what the different steps are, or laws in the different countries where the storytelling project is happening.

But what I’m concerned about is that the team leader’s feelings came from deep inside. She was stuck with this feeling, so she needed to do something. I think that what she did was a good first step: to talk about it with another person who knows the children and the context of the storytelling project. If everyone is feeling the same, then maybe you need to act. But sometimes when you talk about it to other people, you just realize that it’s your own background that may be expressing itself. But I think that the support of peers is very important. And what about creating a kind of support group where people can just share about their experience with storytelling?

 

CPI: How can Team Leaders & Storytellers manage their emotions and responsibility when uncomfortable with a child’s expression, ensuring appropriate and sensitive responses?

CB: First thing is to clarify what is your role as a Team Leader in that kind of project. Just to reinforce and strengthen them. It’s important to listen and welcome, and understand that this is doing something for the child. When people realize that, maybe they don’t feel so helpless.

Another thing that I find interesting is the idea of having a ritual. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a ritual per se, but putting a kind a  frontier, install something to mark an end. For example, you can do a drawing or create something, and then you have a box and you put it in the box. It doesn’t have to be something concrete neither, it could be imaginary and then, “Okay, it’s in the box. I know it’s there. It’s safe. If I want to go back to it, I can just take the box back, but I’m in control.” So, these are some ideas.

Girl in Uganda drawing on a chair during storytelling session
CPI includes drawing in storytelling to help children express complex emotions and ideas that they might struggle to verbalize. Drawing allows children to communicate their feelings and experiences in a visual format, providing a therapeutic outlet and a means for adults to understand their inner world better.

When you talk about the box, what would they put in the box, a drawing or anything they want?

CB: Even something imaginary — so you feel that the ball in your belly, you put that in an imaginary box. But it can also be a real box. You write one word, you put it in, for example.

 

CPI: Is it effective for teachers to have children talk to each other about their drawings or ideas while the teacher listens in, to help them feel more comfortable and engaged?

CB: It’s very interesting. I’m not sure the younger children would ask questions like “what does it mean?” But they would stay in the metaphor, and in the play, and they would play around it. I think that is wonderful with kids because this is how they could repair things. This is how they could express things without being hurt. So, I wouldn’t encourage the child to really reveal what it means personally. Maybe he or she doesn’t know. But I think it’s nice to share with other children. I think I already said that once, but I think children know what they can share with others. So, they have this feeling, “Okay, I can go there.” Or “I cannot go there” because it is too much for that person. But, it’d be okay to place children in groups or in pairs. If they want to talk about what they did, they will talk about it. So, I think that’s a good way to do it.

Older children – teenagers, for example — may go into more concrete and real-life stories. I remember we had this drama workshop, and a girl shared about domestic violence at home with the class because she felt comfortable. She felt safe in that place, and nobody asked her to talk and about that. So, it was something that she personally wanted to do, and the other kids — the other adolescents — listened and provided support without overreacting. Some went to see her at the end of the workshop, and just supported her.

Sometimes when we are the leader of the group, we lead the workshop, we facilitate the workshop, then it’s harder for us to have confidence that the group will hold and will contain everything

Read our Q & A with Caroline Beauregard

“Creating Safe Spaces Empowers Children to Share Traumatic Experiences”

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Navigate Emotions Through Storytelling

CPI always aims to provide tips and sound guidance for team leaders on the ground to facilitate these conversations, ensuring children feel comfortable with their emotions and see hopeful paths forward.

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