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My Child Won't Sleep! Heal Trauma with Story

Trae's mother (a made up name) came to November's free Alta class with a problem: "I can't get him to go to sleep." As every parent knows, when your child won't sleep, that usually means you, and sometimes everyone else, can't sleep either. But an even bigger problem is that the brain uses sleep for a lot of its development. When a child can't sleep, they are missing out on important brain functions that occur both during a long sleep at night, and as a result of good sleep during the day.

There are many reasons why sleep doesn't come. When I asked Trae's mom which brain system she thought we were dealing with (whether it could be medical, sensory, a trauma, or performance anxiety), the answer was immediate: “It’s trauma.”

Hypervigilance staves off sleep. Fear and anxiety activate the sympathetic nervous system and cortisol takes over. Cortisol is the hormone that wakes you up in the morning, so having it course through your body at night is annoying at best.

Here’s the suggestion I gave this mom: "Put what his bothering him into a story. Give your story a beginning, before the event occurred, a middle, the occurrence, and a nice, happy ending." What I am adding here is to let your child add to the story when s/he is ready.

I also explained to Trae's mom, "Trauma is three things: the child doesn't understand it, can't control it, and doesn't appreciate it. Stories can shift all three of these problems."

Turning memories into stories gives them coherency, making meaning out of what before felt confusing and disjointed. When children understand their memories, they can begin to master them. Giving them a say about what happens in the memory allows children to revise them. At first, they may not want to contribute ideas to the story. But once they gain coherency around their memory after hearing it several bedtimes in a row, they are not likely able to resist adding their own important twist. From constructing meaning out of their hard times and gaining a sense of mastery from the repetition, children eventually gain appreciation for what they have been through. The camaraderie and intimacy with you and the palpable feelings of comfort and safety that these stories create can be incredibly healing, and would not be possible at this level without those hard experiences making them need the stories so much.

How Do Stories Work to Heal Trauma?

Stories integrate your child’s experiences into their explicit memory. Implicit memories, also called emotional memories, are unconscious and seep out into our behavior in persistent and insidious ways. Want to improve your child's behaviors? Improve the quality of their memories. Explicit memories are out where we can see them, where we can work with them to gain meaning and mastery.

That middle part of the story can be tough, though. In our society, we're often inclined to leave the scariest things unspoken. We're no longer like those cultures who sit around a fire to regale each other with spooky and horrible happenings, weaving them into tribal history. We don't get that kind of built-in support for our woes anymore. These days, we avoid what feels uncomfortable.

The memories are still there, though, and even more threatening for the silence. The more threatening, the worse the behavior, and often, the worse the sleep. That is just one of the many reasons why we still need our stories today.

Telling Stories Together

Below you can find examples of traumas turned to stories. Watch out for that middle part of the story where the threatening occurrence takes place. You may find yourself wanting the story to stop so your difficult or uncomfortable feelings stop. You may even feel yourself shutting down in order to avoid a sense of overwhelm.

Some of the stories below are realities most of us want to avoid thinking about. But they are realities. We don’t do our children favors by ignoring their truths or by teaching them that feelings are dangerous and harmful (they are not). It is the avoidance and denial of feelings that makes them painful and harmful.

Through stories, we can show our children that they do not have to be alone with their feelings. We will walk through their story with them, embracing them with our warmth and protection, helping them understand what they went through better. The child can control the outcomes, with their own ideas to add, and they get the opportunity to appreciate the comfort and safety they have as a result of your presence.

Before telling your child stories like the ones below, note that a child's trauma is most likely your trauma, too. You might find that telling these stories helps you heal from them as well. You may also find it impossible to tell the stories before healing first. If that is the case, I recommend taking your stressful thoughts about what happened to your child through Inquiry, or The Work in 4 Questions. If you feel uncomfortable telling stories, your child will pick up on that. If you work through it first, you will feel the safety and pass that on to your child. ​

New Baby

(Beginning) Before Sissy was born, it was just you and me while Mommy was at work. We did a lot of things together, didn’t we? When we went to the park every day, I played with you on the monkey bars and chased you around the playground. We had so much fun together!

(Middle) And then the baby was born. Everything changed. We still go to the park, but it’s harder for me to play with you the whole time. I have to give Sissy attention, too. And when it’s time for Sissy’s nap, you don’t have me to play with because I have to help her settle. It’s tough when a new baby comes. It’s hard to have things change. Sometimes, it is really, really sad. So on this particular day, you were playing on the monkey bars, and I was stuck sitting on the bench with Sissy on my lap. She was having her snack. You called to me, "Dad! Can you come play when Sissy is done with her bottle?" I told you I couldn't. Boy was I sad. And you were sad. You didn't even feel like playing on the monkey bars anymore. You just sat on top of them, swinging your feet back and forth. Then do you know what happened? (Child either ends the story with his/her own ideas or says, "I don't know." Again, give it many times of hearing the story before the child is ready to take over.)

(End) And then we learned to play just with words when I couldn't go over there and run and jump and hang on the bars with you. We learned to tell each other jokes and stories, and we would talk about other fun times we had played together and what we would be doing together now if we could! Then, one day, Sissy got big! She started walking and talking and playing on monkey bars! Then we could all play together on the monkey bars and we weren't sad anymore. We were all having fun together!


(Beginning) Once upon a time, you were at school hanging out on the playground near the basketball court. You were standing there, waiting your turn to play. You were looking forward to playing because you just knew you were going to make a basket this time. You could feel it!

(Middle) But before it was your turn, you felt someone shove you from behind. You almost fell on the ground! You heart started pounding really fast. And do you know what you did? (Let child answer. If child says, "No," continue.) You didn’t know what to do! You didn’t want to run, but you were scared to stand still. Then a hand knocked your baseball cap off of your head. Your stomach felt weak, and your throat got tight. You were so nervous and scared. You heard his voice in your ear. “Get out of line, now!” What?! This guy was kicking you out of line? No way! That felt so unfair! Now you were getting mad. You were mad and scared at the same time.

(End) You put up a hand and yelled, "Stop!" The kid stepped back. You yelled with a big booming voice, "Move away from me now!" He replied, "You don't tell me what to do!" You said, "Get away from me now, or I will report your behavior!" He looked really mad then. He turned around and left. Whew! It's hard and scary to be brave!

Domestic Violence

(Beginning) One day, everybody was at home watching TV. We were happy because we were watching our favorite show together. You were cuddled up next to me eating your snack, and we were laughing at the funny parts together.

(Middle) Then your dad came home. Oh, he was drunk, and he looked mad. BOY did he look mad! He came in yelling and hollering about who knows what?! He made all that noise, and I went and told him to settle down, and then what did he do? He smacked me right in the head! Ouch, that hurt! He kept hitting me and hitting me until I didn’t know which way was up! And then what do you think happened?" (Allow child to come up with any idea of what could have happened next. Continue if nothing comes.) The police came and took your daddy away! We were scared to have him stay, but we were also sad to see him getting taken away. Sometimes you just don't know what to feel!

(End) That’s why daddy doesn’t live here anymore. It’s not safe for us. We needed a safe place for our family, and now it’s nice and safe. Now we can watch our favorite TV show with no one to bother us. We can still think about daddy, and remember the good things about him. Got any good memories of daddy you want to remember now?

​Sexual Abuse

(Beginning) You were lying in bed, all comfy and warm, waiting for sleep to come.

(Middle) And then, you heard the door creak open. It was Lester, coming into the room. Your heart raced. He got onto the bed and climbed on top of you! He did terrible things! You wanted to scream but you were too scared. It was horrible! But then do you know what you did? (Let the child answer. If the child does not provide an ending, happy or not, provide one that leaves the child feeling safe.)

(End) This kept happening to you, until one day, it stopped. You came to live with me. And I am here to keep you safe from the Lesters in the world. Now you are going to stay with me, and there will be only safe people in this house. (This could be a story to hold and rock the child through that middle part to reinforce his/her sense of safety. See Tip #5.)

Tips On Trauma Healing Through Storytelling

1. You can either get the story straight by asking questions, or get the story wrong and make it a similar story. As long as the main idea is there, the details don’t really matter to most children. They will be fascinated by whatever you make up. After all, they won’t necessarily remember it correctly, either. It’s mainly the feelings that really matter to the child’s ability to connect with the story.

2. Tell the story often until the child seems bored and done with it. After each telling, stay with your child until her/his heart rate is slow and s/he feels calm again.

3. Overwhelm is not helpful. If the child seems to be shutting down, ease off and tell a milder version, veer the story off into a safer direction, or increase cues of safety such as wrapping the child in your arms and rocking. After several times of telling the story, you may try changing the details to turn the child into a hero if your child hadn't thought of that when they had the chance to add to the story. (Your child may not feel ready to be a hero early on, so do not rush this.) Try different scenarios to feel out what works for your child. Just do not stop and leave the child with unresolved feelings. See it through to the end.

4. You can’t get this wrong. You’re there. That’s a big part of what is so healing about doing this. If you say something that is upsetting, good. Be upset together. Go boldly into hard feelings until they feel good, until it feels like splashing around in rain puddles. Stay in the feeling for as long as it takes, until it is spent from your child’s body. People don't have to be professional therapists to heal each other. They just have to be there. If you feel you need coaching or a pep talk, book an Alta session.

5. Keep the most upsetting stories short. Pay attention to what your child can tolerate. If, after introducing the story in small doses, there continues to be resistance, consider introducing your child to a play therapist who can allow the gentle unfolding of your child's healing through play.

Trae's mom emailed me her Peacock Moment two days after the class:

​ Hi Betty,

Just wanted to thank you again for welcoming me into your beautiful home and sharing such wonderful tools and advice. I just wanted to share the little success story I've already had. When I got home after doing some of the regular routine and reading a couple books, I decided to practice storytelling traumatic experiences.

I chose to try it with a meltdown he had today. I started at the beginning of the day, and as soon as we got to the part of the day where he had the meltdown, he again became emotional. We talked about how he felt briefly so as not to get him too worked up, and as soon as we got to the"happy ending" (which wasn't even at the end of the day), he said goodnight, rolled over, and was out instantly and at a relatively "normal" hour. Pretty amazing! :) ​

Thank you again for all you do and for your encouragement.

​(Trae's Mom)

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