Therapeutic Storybooks: Growing through natural disasters

Spines of children's books

Be You team members Sally Hodges and Michelle Woszatka explore the role therapeutic children’s books have in supporting children to understand traumatic incidents. Sally and Michelle are Bushfire Liaison Officers in the Be You team and support the recovery of bushfire-affected communities.

Natural Disasters and Wellbeing

Natural disasters are part of our world. Sometimes we know they are coming, other times they are sudden and unexpected. When these events occur people react with varying emotional responses. It’s inevitable, with the research clear that traumatic events or incidents such as natural disasters or other community trauma have a huge impact on children, families and communities resulting in a risk to mental health, which in turn creates an increased risk of family violence incidence Parkinson & Zara, 2013. The effect of natural disasters in itself can be immense for young children and families, let alone the added trauma of domestic and family violence Department of Communities & Justice, 2019, Molyneaux, Gibbs, Bryant & Humphreys, 2019.

Child Development and wellbeing

Research confirms that infants and young children learn as they explore their world; this learning includes feeling a sense of safety. They can be easily distressed by the experiences and events that happen around them, so when families are stressed children may feel unsafe and unsettled. There may be long-term effects as a result of disaster on their physical and social development as well as emotional wellbeing particularly when support is not put in place when needed. How then does this relate to family violence? Relationships are at the heart of infants and young children managing their feelings hence it is important for parents and carers to look after their own emotional wellbeing, to effectively support their child. Children do not have to directly experience the violence. It’s through the interactions, engagement and relationships that the impact is felt by children and sometimes for years to come. Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, 2017

Early Childhood Educators are well placed to provide experiences and resources to young children and families to support wellbeing. Therapeutic storybooks such as the Birdie stories are one of many resources designed to support the mental health and emotional wellbeing of children and families in relation to severe weather events and natural disasters. They may lessen the impact of these traumatic events or incidents. Stories have been used as a way of making meaning in cultures across the world, since the beginning of time, so let’s use them to help young people make meaning of natural disasters.

Why are Therapeutic Storybooks useful?

Therapeutic storybooks can be used in all phases of a disaster; to ‘prepare’ for and during events, as well as, being part of recovery. Following a traumatic event or incident, it is known that imagination and creativity can be dulled, which is why it is useful to have a resource to provide a catalyst for experiences and conversations with children.

The Birdie’s Tree stories are a series of therapeutic storybooks that help children to work through natural disasters and any associated feelings. The stories contain the traumatic incident between two covers; so it’s up to the reader how long they wish to experience the incident, how often they would like to come back to it, and what parts they would like to revisit, acknowledging that repetition is a useful processing tool. The books also provide a useful narrative structure to the disaster – beginning, middle and end.

There is a sense of safety as children and adults read the books because there is distance between their experience and that of Birdie and Mr Frog. The child gains a perspective of the experience happening to someone else. It may be similar to their experience however it is not their experience. The storybook allows children to make sense and meaning of what’s happened to them. Seeing it happen to other characters can make them feel less alone.

The child is learning to deal with the disaster as well as being assisted in building a relationship with a caring adult. The books can also support adults who are struggling to entertain or engage with the child during a difficult time –which isn’t surprising as we know that trauma can dull one’s imagination. The building of relationships is an important protective factor for children to support resilience growth particularly as being separated from parents or caregivers is a huge fear for children during natural disasters. The story can be ‘read’ by adults and children using only the pictures, thus being a creative resource accessible for the whole community and inclusive for those with low literacy levels and/or English.

The following practical applications will assist you to use therapeutic storybooks with children by using them:

  • as prompts to talk about coping strategies
    • What could you tell Birdie to help him feel better?
    • What could Birdie do when he’s feeling upset?
  • as prompts to talk about feelings and emotions and introduce relevant language. It can be a useful model for adults who have experienced trauma as it provides them with language surrounding emotions generally as well as the disaster.
    • How is Birdie feeling here? How can you tell?
    • How would you feel if you were in Birdie’s position?
    • I think Birdie is feeling… I think this because…
  • to prepare for natural disasters and as a prompt for practical and psychological preparedness
  • as entertainment during evacuations
  • as a way to connect with the child and build your relationship

Additional resources:

The use of therapeutic storybooks following a disaster

Reading ‘healing’ stories with young children

The importance of story and play for young children following a natural disaster

The Be You Bushfire Response Program provides targeted mental health support to schools and early learning services affected by bushfires across Australia. It offers schools and early learning services a package of support comprising four primary elements: Contact Liaison Officers, trauma support and guidance, recovery planning and community support service mapping. The Bushfire Response Program is led by Beyond Blue in partnership with Early Childhood Australia, headspace and Emerging Minds.

Contact Liaison officers, Sally and Michelle provide the role of ‘critical friend’ or ‘expert companion’ to early learning communities.