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Doris Brett. Picture: Supplied.

Using fictional characters to help kids with real life problems

In an ideal world, if we saw a child who seemed unhappy, anxious, angry or shut-down, we would ask them whether something was upsetting them.

They would respond immediately - telling us how they were feeling, what had happened to make them feel like that and what, if anything, they were planning to do about it.

They would then conclude by asking for our thoughts on the matter and whether we had any advice that they could, appreciatively, take on.

We live on planet Earth, of course, and not on that other, ideal, planet. The reality we live in, is one in which children are often reluctant to talk about issues that upset them.

There are myriad reasons – embarrassment, fear, shame, guilt, to name just a few.

We, who want to help them, are often left stymied and helpless. We want to understand what is upsetting them, we want to talk about it and explore the issue and ways to deal with it, but faced with a brick wall, we are unable to. 

Luckily, there is another language that children are fluent in.

A language that transcends their regular language and allows them to talk about, and explore, issues that might otherwise be too distressing. It is the language of story. 

We understand stories intuitively, because our brains are attuned to metaphor and symbol, and stories speak directly to that.

We are hard-wired to look for meaning in every experience and event, and the meaning we discern, becomes the core of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

We are constantly creating internalised stories about who we are, and some of those may be the stories that are too difficult to talk about, but which upset us deeply.

Without being able to take these stories out into daylight, to explore and understand them, they remain fixed in the meaning we have assigned to them, and we continue to respond accordingly - whether it be with anger, shame, depression or anxiety, and whether our response is appropriate and therapeutic or the reverse.

Imagine then, that we were reading a novel, in a setting that could vary widely, from a space-station, to an enchanted forest, to a secret spy headquarters, or an ordinary school.

The protagonist has had an experience which parallels our own distressing experience. We are immediately interested. And we are not threatened – because it’s a story about ‘someone else’, not us.

That means we are free to explore it, and to use the fictional character as a proxy, to gain insight into our own issues.

There are many children’s novels in which emotional insights are nestled within a thrilling adventure, or magical fantasy. 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, contains lessons about the impact of envy and betrayal, along with themes of self-sacrifice and redemption.

The Wizard of Oz tells us of characters searching for strengths they believe they lack, and their discovery that they had them all along. Harry Potter explores the complexities of friendship, trust, and grief.

In Philomella and the Impossible Forest, my new novel for middle-grade readers, the magical challenges Philomella must face, parallel the emotional challenges in Philomella’s real life.

Philomella has to learn to manage anger and rejection, adjust to unwanted change, cope with failure, and discover the importance of kindness and compassion. 

Reading books like these, allows not only a conversation between the reader and the book, but a conversation between two, or more, readers and the book.

These novels provide a doorway - into a fictional world, in which challenging issues can be discussed and explored, without the need for defensiveness.

Within the magical space that is a book, the reader can join the protagonist’s journey of emotional discovery, without feeling the sense of exposure or vulnerability that talking directly about themselves brings. 

Discussions based around the hero’s experiences, emotions and actions can take many forms and move in many directions.

Being able to discuss the hero’s struggles with an understanding adult might even lead to a child feeling safe enough to share their own experiences.

But even if they are not ready to do that, they can take their insights from the book into their hearts, think about them at their own pace, and when they are ready, use them as needed in their own life. 

Doris Brett - Clinical Psychologist & Author

Doris Brett is an Australian writer and clinical psychologist. Her previous books have ranged across several genres, including poetry, fiction, psychology and memoir.

Her poetry has won a number of Australia’s major literary awards and her books on helping children deal with challenges though therapeutic storytelling have been internationally acclaimed. 

Philomella and the Impossible Forest is her debut novel for young readers. 

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