The Amazing Power of Telling Our Stories
Brooke Randolph, LMHC
The following includes excerpt from The Bully Book (2016).
One day when my nephew Gabriel was approximately eighteen-months old, he and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and take a walk around our historical neighborhood. I was also dog sitting for a Great Dane, something I did frequently at that point. Ben the Great Dane was practically a part of our family as well. Like most Great Danes, Ben is loving and patient and gentle. He has always been more afraid of my nephew than my nephew was ever intimidated by him. Ben also loves to play with other dogs especially at doggy daycare, but he can also be protective of his people and his space.
So I have a toddler holding one hand and a dog that outweighs me on a leash in my other hand. I realize that the setup here is pretty obvious, but this wasn't an unusual situation for us. As I said, Ben is a gentle dog, and while he will pull hard to chase a squirrel, he has never been unmanageable and didn't seem to realize he had ten pounds on me.
Unfortunately on this particular Sunday afternoon, someone else was walking a medium-sized dog that liked to bark and promptly barked at Ben when he came around the corner onto our block. Protecting the small person with us, Ben barked back with his deep Great Dane bark. For whatever reason the person walking the dog did not walk on or go back around the corner; they simply stood and watched me commanding a Great Dane to sit. While they were across the street and almost two houses down, the dog didn't stop barking and Ben had a toddler to protect (at least I am guessing that is what he was thinking). I have a rule with dogs and kids that I am the adult and I will remain in charge and acting like an adult no matter what it costs me. So like the NFL fan that I am, I tackled the Great Dane in my front yard (he wasn’t hurt). But the medium-sized dog hadn't stopped barking and the person walking it continued to watch rather than walking on, so Ben continued to bark and fought against me to get up and get to that dog. It was around this point that Gabriel started crying. So I am fighting with a struggling dog that outweighs me while a frightened toddler watches on crying.
The neighbor came out, shooed the dog and walker across the street to keep walking and helped me get Ben back in the house. Afterwards, Gabriel and I went for our walk without him. Our conversation went something like this:
Gabriel: Benny home?
Brooke: Yes, Ben is too worked up to walk with us.
G: Benny bark.
B: Yes. He is loud, isn't he?
G: Benny loud.
B: Did Benny scare you?
G: Benny loud.
B: Ben wasn't barking at you. He was mad that the other dog for barking at you. Ben thought he needed to protect you.
G: [More slowly] Benny bark.
B: Yes, that is how Ben tries to protect us.
G: [Half question, half complaint] Benny loud?
B: Is it scary when Ben is loud?
B: Ben did not mean to scare you. He wanted to protect you...
Despite his short sentences, we talked through the situation together for about half our walk. When we got back home, Gabriel calmly reported to his father “Benny bark,” and returned to his toys. Not a child prone to dramatics, Gabriel’s tears were a clear indication of his fright in the situation (understandably from the perspective of a toddler), yet by the time we arrived home it was simply a matter of fact, a blip on his consciousness.
Too often in hopes of helping children ‘get over’ minor (or sometimes not so minor) experiences, we try to not talk about it, unintentionally dismissing and minimizing their emotions. We think they will forget, but they do not. We think we are giving it less importance by not talking about it, but our children are confused and frightened or hurt or angry. Those are important emotions for a child, things they do not simply forget. It is important for your child to be able to share his or her perspective on events that impact them. By telling our stories, we are often more able to process our experiences and do so more quickly. It also helps us make more sense of the events in our life. Telling a story allows us to feel a level of control over the situation that has impacted us. I strongly encourage parents to help their children talk through emotional experiences and tell their stories.
Three-years later, my nephew hasn’t mentioned our adventure with Benny barking again. He has also not been bothered by other dogs around him even when they are excited. He regularly is around a lab-chow mix and an Irish Wolfhound mix in addition to Ben. He is happy to tell any of these large, boisterous dogs to “sit” or “go away”. What could have been a traumatic incident creating a life-long fear of dogs was instead only a blip, something he likely will not even remember. As Heather T. Forbes, LCSW, aptly states, “An event is not traumatic for a child based on the event itself; it is the response to the event from the caretaker.”
Another form of narrative therapy can be not just re-telling the story, but writing it down in the form of a short story or a book. Beyond the narrative, writing the story gives the experience more validity. To this end, I have published The Bully Book, a simple tool to help children process a personal experience or experiences with bullying. According to bullyingstatistics.com, approximately 77 percent of students report being the victim of bullying. Numbers suggest that despite programs and policies to reduce bullying, incidences are only increasing. Working through this book can help a child move from feeling like a victim to feeling empowered, capable, and confident.
I hope you will check it out!
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