Creating Safe Spaces Empowers Children to Share Traumatic Experiences.

Professor Caroline Beauregard smiling

Creating Safe Spaces Empowers Children to Share Traumatic Experiences.

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Interview With Professor Caroline Beauregard.

CPI’s Storytelling Program is expanding to more countries. Many of our partners on the ground have asked us about methods for establishing “safe spaces” where children feel comfortable discussing and expressing traumatic experiences in their lives. 

In that respect, we recently interviewed Dr. Caroline Beauregard. As an art therapist, she is a CPI Advisory Board member who works with immigrant and refugee children in Canada to help them recover a sense of well-being. We wanted to know how she creates “safe spaces,” so that children feel free to talk about – and illustrate – traumatic episodes in their lives. Here is an edited transcript of our discussion.

"Creating a safe space is about people being comfortable to be themselves -- with what they live and what they like. And other people not laughing or rejecting them...
A key component of the safe space is that children will follow their own rhythm. The child may not even talk about something. But maybe even showing an image to someone that is external will mean something, and the work could get started."

ChildsPlay Intl (CPI) — Does the ability to create a safe space vary depending on kids’ level of trauma, and/or vulnerability? Is it important to group kids together based on their level of trauma because, for example, they may feel better understood?

Dr. Caroline Beauregard (CB) — Well, my first thought is that you create the safe space to be safe for everybody, so it’s not [dependent on] the level of trauma. I’m not sure that it will create a safer space if there are other kids there with the same level of trauma. Creating a safe space is about people being comfortable to be themselves — with what they live and what they like. And other people not laughing or rejecting them. If you have an environment that supports you, then this will help create a safe space. The children will learn that they can talk about anything, that it will be accepted, and that they are loved unconditionally. Then when they’re ready, they will share their trauma. I don’t think it matters if the other people around them have lived trauma for children to feel understood.

Storytelling session at a safe space for street children in Peshawar
In Peshawar, Pakistan, Huma puts a roof over the heads of 200 homeless children. She created a safe space and teaches art and play.

CPI —  In creating safe spaces, would you distinguish those for refugee and immigrant kids from those for vulnerable but not displaced kids?

CB — No, I think my response would be the same. It doesn’t depend on where you live, but maybe on the intervention or activity you do with displaced kids.

Children Use Metaphors and Symbols when Expressing Trauma. 

CPI — How do you prevent kids from becoming disturbed by other kids’ stories, for example, because such stories remind them of their own trauma?

CB — Children know intuitively what they can share with others. That’s also true generally, but as adults, we might be more aware of the possible consequences, so we might be afraid of hurting others. But children use mainly metaphors and symbols. It’s not as direct as using words. But if in the intervention, we have created a safe space and children know that they are safe, then it could be a good thing to recall the trauma in this reassuring context. When you experienced trauma, there’s one part of yourself that is kind of forgetting; the trauma is somewhere in your body, not directly accessible to memory, and you can’t talk about it though it tries to assert itself. That’s really stressful. But if you’re able to make it whole and part of who you are, while feeling safe, then talking about it could be a good thing. So again, it’s all about creating the safe space.

CPI — You differentiate between where you are now in the safe space, and the memory of what you experienced, so that contrast may make you feel even safer right now. So, what are the goals of creating a safe space? To help kids express themselves, feel understood, take risks, develop empathy, create community?

CB –- All of the above. I don’t think something can happen, or change or transformation can happen, if there’s no safe space. Children will shut down, and won’t participate. They will not take advantage of everything that is offered. Or develop empathy. If you don’t feel that your neighbor or your peer understands you, or feel that he or she will laugh at you, you will not develop empathy.  So creating a safe space is the first thing you do before anything else because everything happens as a result of creating the safe space and can’t happen unless you create a safe space.

Opening and Closing Rituals Help Define the Safe Space.

singing is a great ritual for safe space
Girls in Pakistan sing during a storytelling session.

CPI — You suggest opening and closing rituals, that define a safe space. What do these rituals include? And how do you explain them to kids and teachers?

CB — Actually, rituals can be anything. It could be like singing a song or moving to a special room. It can be anything, but something that you repeat from time to time. It creates a routine, something predictable and it marks the beginning (or ending), a different emotional space.

CPI — You tell them that they’re doing something that is intended to mark off the storytelling from the rest of their day?

CB — It helps to clarify. I think it’s especially so with children, so that they understand the objective of it. But with very small, very young children, even if you do explain to them that okay, you do a ritual to mark the beginning, it’s abstract. It’s more like they understand that there is something different, that their teacher is still their teacher, but that he or she takes more of a welcoming stance rather than being in a transmission of knowledge mode.

CPI – Children get the general idea of ritual, in that it’s something that introduces the session.

CB — Yes, they get the idea. But I also think that if you tell them when they are older, this can make things easier.

Culture and Age Appropriate Stories.

CPI — Do you try to accommodate storytelling sessions to different age groups, even if only to help kids feel safe, and not intimidated by older kids? Do you limit types of stories to those that are age appropriate?

CB — Rather that saying “age appropriate,” I would say “culture and age appropriate,” because in certain cultures some types of stories are not for young children while in others they’re used to x, y, and z – it’s what they know as stories. So, I would rather go with that.

CPI — The first part of the question was: how do you organize these sessions? Do you put kids closest in age together?

CB — It’s more about interest — what interests them? If the story is about a little bunny that wants to make friends, I’m not sure it gets to be appealing to a 16-year-old. If a teacher can find a story that could appeal to all ages, then of course I would rather go with that.

CPI — Now, here’s a related question. Kids’ verbal and cognitive abilities change with age. So, what role does age play in forming a storytelling group?

CB — Oh, I’m just thinking about watching this movie Shrek. Your understanding is different as an adult than when you’re a kid. A different level of understanding could make a difference. It all depends on the objective of your activity.

CPI — So how do you accommodate kids to the idea that their stories may be posted online, and their drawings may be displayed outside the safe space? Do kids like hearing themselves, or seeing their work?

CB — It depends on the person. But I think you must create a safe space beforehand. Before they create, before they invent a story. Even if you ask them afterward before posting online, you put them in a position in which they might want to please you because they like you and enjoy the activity, so how can they say no? I would perhaps have certain protections so that the work stays in the same space. “This will stay here among ourselves. But now, if you want to, we could do something else that would be posted.” Some children will be thrilled with that other idea, but I think they should have a choice.

The Benefit of Discussion Following a Storytelling Session.

storytelling in the classroom Kenya
Children in Kenya eagerly participate in the group discussion following a storytelling session.

CPI — What is the value of group discussion? After you have the storytelling, what do you think is the value added?

CB — Kids hear different things and understand different things even if it’s the same story. So, sharing your fears and listening to others talking about the same story you heard, may make you understand it differently. The discussion could be a sort of scaffolding. So, some children may be puzzling over what this story is all about. Other children talk; okay, now I understand. If the others can talk about it, I am able to talk about it. So, it could be very helpful. The group is also good for containing. If you put your experience into somebody’s hands, that person will take care of it. Contain it for a while. When you see that the people in the group are not destroyed, then you can take it back. Rather, there is a kind of mirroring inside the group. You may feel better now that you’ve talked about it.

CPI — We generally say that what happens in discussion, stays in discussion and is not made public. Do you agree with that? Do you ever have any exceptions to that?

CB — The only exception is when someone’s safety is in danger.

CPI — During the discussion do some kids feel that they are on display, rather than welcoming the group interaction? How do you overcome self-consciousness? How do you control a discussion so that questions do not seem intrusive, or comments judgmental?

CB — Well, I’m not sure about “controlling” the discussion. It depends. If you have just one event, and people know themselves just for this one event, it’s not the same as if they participate in a recurring event, where they will try to push the limits, and learn from one workshop to the next how it works and what they can say. They can grow. They see that others are serious, and are not so self-conscious. So, it’s kind of practicing, you know?

CPI — So you’re saying that self-assurance, which I use opposite to self-consciousness, builds over time. That it’s good, therefore, to have some follow-up sessions where the kids eventually build up a certain confidence and lose that self-consciousness that they might have if they just suddenly jumped into a one-time thing that they had to figure out all at once.

CB — Yes, because it’s all part of the safe space that needs to be built. You don’t know at the beginning what is expected of you. So, you create a ritual, a routine, so it’s done regularly and children are expecting to meet a specific day at a specific time. Okay, so the workshop is ending, but “I know there will be another.” It’s a work in progress.

A ritual can be as simple as walking in a circle and clapping or singing.
Children in Nepal playing during a CPI Storytelling Event.

CPI — You’re saying the ritual is very important to the kids, and helps to build a sense of the entire process. So how far is it safe, to encourage kids to recall traumatic events, to discuss them and even interpret them in drawing?

CB — As I said at the beginning, children know somewhere in themselves what they can say, what they can share. The danger is that someone will push the children to recall it or talk about it. A key component of the safe space is that children will follow their own rhythm. The child may not even talk about something. But maybe even showing an image to someone that is external will mean something, and the work could get started. But I would not push for disclosure. This is very important.

CPI — You might have a group where kids are moving on their own timetable, and those timetables don’t necessarily coincide.

CB — So you put aside your teacher’s hat. You should think “It’s not me that controls that group, but it’s the group and the children that control me and follow them” This is the most important thing. But it’s also very difficult because it’s hard to change your position as a teacher — it’s who you are, and it’s what you do as a teacher. But I think it’s an important first step for creating a safe space. With that, you have a very good basis for creating things.

CPI — Nothing happens all at once. It doesn’t happen with the kids. It doesn’t happen with the teachers. Everybody learns as they do it. There’s a constant feedback. You don’t just go in and do it. Okay, so, what is achieved through multimedia storytelling, for example through stories, videos, drawings? Is this especially helpful when kids have trouble articulating what they feel?

CB — Well, of course, because let’s say younger children may not possess the words, or they may not possess the fine motor skills to draw what they want to draw. So, adding tools, and multimedia video could help. But then you must support multiple technical aspects of it. And I think that in an ideal world, people should be offered a range of different ways to express themselves. It’s not always possible, but if you have this range, then the children will try different things. Maybe pick up something and then just put it away and then try something else. But they will find their medium of choice. They will learn how to express themselves, but to its full potential.

CPI — There’s an element of experimentation involved.

CB — Of course, so I think what I’ve been saying throughout is that everything takes time.

CPI —  What are the long-term goals of storytelling? For example, to help kids form a forward-facing outlook that gets past the trauma and begins to show kids their own agency?

CB — We’re talking about agency. What we’ve been using in workshops we do in school is interrupted stories. The story stops when the main character is faced with a challenge. Then the kids must invent the rest of the story. So, being creative about what happens next in the story — finding solutions to problems — gives kids in the long term a sense of agency, of controlling what happens to them. When you have experienced trauma where you didn’t know what was happening to you, felt not in control of your life, then of course, the more agency you develop through storytelling and creativity, the more you will take over that trauma.

CPI — Do the benefits of storytelling carry over into the rest of your life? What you gain through storytelling (a sense of agency, of creativity, of play) carries over? Even when you’re outside the safe space, and in the rest of your life, what you have learned, the skills that you’ve developed, the sense of yourself, carries over into the rest of your life.

CB — Hopefully, yes. But again, it depends. Because if you manage to do it in this safe space, and then you go into this unsafe space, maybe the feeling of being unsafe will be too much for you to exert your creativity and agency. But I think if you if you do it on a repetitive and gradual basis, taking small steps and it’s more integrated, then of course, maybe you would get some assurance and confidence. I mean, when you’re faced with this unsafe space, maybe you will be confident enough to be creative and problem-solve.

The Paradox of the Safe Space

CPI — There is a paradox in creating a safe space, if the kids want to be in the safe space, and they’re afraid when they go outside.

CB – Well . . . you’re in this safe space. When you move out of that space, you will say okay, it’s not too bad. But the more you go out and the more you’re confident and the more you know, then it’s going be okay. You could go and one day you won’t need to go back.

CPI –What about intra-family safe spaces, like between a mother and child, in war-torn areas? This concerns CPI right now.

CB — It’s hard if everyone is traumatized. It’s hard to set up a safe space for your small family, but what I would say is how we can learn to have fun together. To be children and mothers, like we were before. “So, how should we play together? How could we just draw and take this time to enjoy ourselves and maybe be in a relationship?” It might not be a totally safe space, but this little space between a mother and her children is, I think, valuable. And maybe what could be useful, is they can have a creative journal in which they are able to share – possibly even with a school psychologist.

Drawing After a Storytelling Session is Hugely Important.

CPI – We spoke about the importance of discussion. But what about drawing?

CB — I was talking about mirroring. So, talking involves more conscious processes, whereas drawing and painting may be more unconscious or subconscious. And sometimes you may hear a story and you don’t really know what moved you, but then you choose one part of the story and you draw it and then you see that image that is separate from you, and it’s easier to understand what is going on. You know when you are too immersed in problems, you don’t see clearly, so it’s the same thing. Because it’s apart from you, it helps you make things more conscious. So, I think it does have a value to be added to a discussion. A discussion based on the images.

CPI — For the best outcome for the child, is the sequence storytelling, drawing, and discussion or storytelling, discussion, and drawing?

CB — I would do the drawing before the discussion. It helps the children to make up their minds about ideas and organize them. At least they have something that they will be able to base themselves upon.

CPI — This all happened in one session — they would tell a story, they would draw, and then discuss?

CB — I think it’s easier in one session because it’s fresh. It might be different if you do it over a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months later. But it’s still your drawing that you made in relation to your story. What it reminds you of at that moment could still be interesting. So, I think you could do both.

CPI Deploys  Storytelling Programs Outside of Schools.

CPI — One teacher we work with said that when her group started implementing drawing as part of their storytelling, they started to see another layer to the child. It’s encouraging. How do we deploy our storytelling program outside of school? How do we create safe spaces and have rituals outside of the classroom?

CB — The safe space could be anywhere, but if you are in the open then it might not be as easy to create a safe space. If you have no choice, maybe you could put out furniture or natural elements or it could be anything that creates this kind of little boundary, or at least there’s a symbol. If there are trees, maybe then you find this little place in the forest where you feel in kind of a bubble.

About Professor Caroline Beauregard.

Professor Caroline Beauregard joined CPI as a member of its Advisory Board, where she will help design and put into action programs that use principles of art therapy to help heal traumatized children. She holds numerous degrees, including a Ph.D. from the University of Montreal.

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