Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services

Youth in Mind 

The Use of Storytelling With Grief Reactions in Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mary A. Sullivan, PhD, MA, BSN

Abstract

Children are living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the traumatic changes the virus has had on the structure and schedule of their daily existence. They are struggling to cope with the loss of the normalcy of their lives and the resulting sense of grief. As the loneliness and isolation required by social distancing can worsen grief, it is important to increase communication with children and include strategies to reduce stress and increase resilience. Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching and has multiple benefits, including identifying emotional states, developing a vocabulary to allow self-advocacy, encouraging the use of strategy, and promoting a sense of hope. In addition, models of positive psychological attitude can diminish anxiety and divert attention to a more productive and positive outlook. Stories are powerful tools and convey thoughts, ideas, and values while encouraging purposeful discussion. For children, hearing stories is a rich avenue to gain insight, resources, and approaches to cope with these unprecedented times. It would be helpful to explore the long-term effects on children of COVID-19–related confinement and loss. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 59(2), 13–15.]

Abstract

Children are living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the traumatic changes the virus has had on the structure and schedule of their daily existence. They are struggling to cope with the loss of the normalcy of their lives and the resulting sense of grief. As the loneliness and isolation required by social distancing can worsen grief, it is important to increase communication with children and include strategies to reduce stress and increase resilience. Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching and has multiple benefits, including identifying emotional states, developing a vocabulary to allow self-advocacy, encouraging the use of strategy, and promoting a sense of hope. In addition, models of positive psychological attitude can diminish anxiety and divert attention to a more productive and positive outlook. Stories are powerful tools and convey thoughts, ideas, and values while encouraging purposeful discussion. For children, hearing stories is a rich avenue to gain insight, resources, and approaches to cope with these unprecedented times. It would be helpful to explore the long-term effects on children of COVID-19–related confinement and loss. [Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 59(2), 13–15.]

Addressing psychiatric and psychosocial issues related to children and adolescents

This is a frightening time for all of us, but especially for children. Children are living through the COVID-19 pandemic and the traumatic changes the virus has had on the structure and schedule of their daily existence. Although most adults still have employment and daily tasks to attend to, school is the fundamental source of structure and socialization for youngsters. Children have rich and complex social lives, often experienced entirely in school and extracurricular activities. Since the spread of COVID-19, children's worlds have shifted dramatically. Schools are vacant, sports fields are empty, Sunday dinners with relatives are postponed, and invitations to playdates and sleepovers are no longer being extended. Without these contacts, or even time outside of the home, children are experiencing tremendous change and are struggling to understand their new, highly confined lives. The emotional process involved in coping with this situation is grieving. Grief is a strong, sometimes overwhelming emotion that occurs when we experience either the loss of a loved one, or a change in our life circumstances. The purpose of the current article is to focus on how storytelling can increase engagement with children while helping them cope and thrive during this difficult time.

In addition to keeping children physically safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also vital to care for their emotional health. It is imperative that children's unique experiences of loss and grief are recognized and addressed. To increase stability, children require a sense of safety, security, and consistency about their present and future even though they have lost the normalcy of their lives. We need to provide children with reassurance and psychological resilience, which is the ability to cope with, and recover from, a crisis. According to The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015), children can get through most difficult experiences when they have a supportive adult to offer compassion and comfort. Understanding our children's reactions and feelings is essential to properly addressing their needs and offering sensitivity to their emotional pain. As loneliness and isolation can aggravate grief, decreasing these risks factors is required (Westberg, 2019). To enhance socialization, we need to increase communication. Engaging in collaborative activities is one means of combating solitude. Coping mechanisms, focused on decreasing stress, need to be explored. Creativity allows children to express grief in their own way, as well as recognize their strengths and abilities. Creativity also provides children with a safe, developmentally appropriate way to express emotions that are unfamiliar or painful (Pangborn, 2019). Storytelling is a useful tool to achieve these goals.

Storytelling

Telling narratives to a child allows the storyteller to convey important messages in an entertaining way. Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching and has multiple benefits, including identifying emotional states, developing a feelings vocabulary, encouraging the use of strategy, and promoting resilience and optimism. Storytelling allows children to gain an understanding of emotional reactions. In a tale, a character's response allows children to gather insight into the way others might respond in uncertain times. Using their imagination, children can put themselves in the situation, identify with the character, and come to share their emotions (Green et al., 2004). In this way, children can process the feelings through that character and the difficult emotions can be managed with greater ease. Hearing and recognizing the feelings in a story is the basis of understanding emotions. Storytelling provides children with a safe framework and opportunity to explore their own feelings and new ways to respond to stress. In addition, characters in a story model a positive psychological attitude, which reduces children's stress and diverts attention to a more productive and positive outlook (Pehrsson, 2005). These empathetic aspects of storytelling help children gain an understanding of a wide array of emotions and allows them to imagine and reflect on how they might react in different scenarios. In a 2013 study, “Pretend and Physical Play,” psychologists Lindsey and Colwell found that children not only take on storylines they have been exposed to, but further alter these tales so they fit the scenario the child is currently wrestling with in their own lives. By gaining an understanding of their emotions, children can more readily engage in self-advocacy, avoid or resolve conflict, and more easily move past difficult feelings.

The very act of telling a story uses words to convey feelings. Terms such as sad, lonely, afraid, worried, and nervous are integral to the tale. Children deal with many of the same feelings as adults. They experience anger, sadness, frustration, and anxiety, but they often do not have the words to talk about their turmoil. As children learn different terms to identify emotions, they are building a vocabulary to understand, describe, and express their own feelings more precisely (Cole et al., 2010). This enriched vocabulary enhances a child's ability to accurately describe their own responses. By being able to communicate what they are feeling, children can seek more targeted support. Having the words to relay strong emotions to others is empowering and provides children with a sense of mastery over their feelings.

Optimism is a major part of successful coping. Children who practice optimism are more flexible in their thinking, are less likely to give up in the face of challenge, and they tend to interpret experiences in a way that gives them a sense of control and confidence. Optimism is the ability to motivate oneself, set goals, and find ways to achieve these goals (Snyder, 2005). Stories that focus on how people come together, find creative solutions, and overcome adversity enrich this focus. When characters portray perseverance and achieve a satisfying conclusion, such as overcoming an obstacle, they demonstrate that people can act and change their own situation. In this way, children learn that with skills, tools, and a positive outlook, they can have an influence, making them feel empowered rather than overpowered by the crisis.

Conclusion

In this time of uncertainty and restricted existence, stories are powerful tools to enhance children's emotional health. Stories encourage purposeful and directed conversations to alleviate loneliness, provide role models, and instill a sense that in ways large and small can influence their circumstances. We know that children rely on their imagination to make sense of the world (Caiman & Lundegård, 2017). Stories feed a child's imagination with themes of courage, persistence, and optimism. As we progress through this pandemic, it will be important to examine the long-term effects on children of COVID-19–related confinement and loss.

References

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  • Cole, P. M., Armstrong, L. M. & Pemberton, C. K. (2010). The role of language in the development of emotion regulation. In Calkins, S. D. & Bell, M. A. (Eds.), Human brain development: Child development at the intersection of emotion and cognition (pp. 59–77). American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/12059-004 [CrossRef]
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  • Lindsey, E. W. & Colwell, M. J. (2013). Pretend and physical play: Links to preschoolers' affective social competence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 59(3), 330–360. doi:10.1353/mpq.2013.0015 [CrossRef]
  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/supportive-relationships-and-active-skill-building-strengthen-the-foundations-of-resilience
  • Pangborn, S. M. (2019). Narrative resources amid unspeakable grief: Teens foster connection and resilience in family storytelling. Journal of Family Communication, 19(2), 95–109 doi:10.1080/15267431.2019.1577250 [CrossRef]
  • Pehrsson, D.-E. (2005). Fictive bibliotherapy and therapeutic storytelling with children who hurt. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 1(3–4), 273–286 doi:10.1300/J456v01n03_16 [CrossRef]
  • Snyder, C. R. (2005). Measuring hope in children. In What do children need to flourish? The Search Institute series on developmentally attentive community and society (pp. 61–73). Springer. doi:10.1007/0-387-23823-9_5 [CrossRef]
  • Westberg, G. E. (2019). Good grief: The complete set. Augsburg Fortress. doi:10.2307/j.ctv47w3cp [CrossRef]
Authors

Dr. Sullivan is Chief Nursing Officer, Emma Pendleton Bradley Hospital, East Providence, Rhode Island.

The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Mary A. Sullivan, PhD, MA, BSN, Chief Nursing Officer, Bradley Hospital, 1011 Veterans Memorial Parkway, East Providence, RI 02915; email: Masullivan@lifespan.org.

Received: July 02, 2020
Accepted: July 27, 2020
Posted Online: October 23, 2020

10.3928/02793695-20201015-02

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