The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
These are the opening words to Patrick Ness’ 2011 children’s fiction book, A Monster Calls. A recent visit to a book shop ended the way it often does for me – I go in with my thoughts and purse trained towards one particular book or author, and walk out with several books that I never knew existed.
I’m a sucker for a good review, awards, and intriguing artwork, and A Monster Calls had all that. I took it home with me and quickly became enthralled with the story of a young boy called Conor who has experienced the upheavals of his dad moving overseas and starting a new family, and his mum going through treatment for cancer.
At 12:07 one night, the old yew tree in his back yard comes walking. An ancient and wild monster, the tree demands that Conor must listen to three tales and then tell one of his own – the truth. I found the story alone to be very moving, but then there were the ways that it also kept reminding me of the work I do here at SKATTLE with children and young people.
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.
We know that the sort of story that brings people along to SKATTLE is most often a problem story – experiences of change can leave people feeling uncertain about how to move forward, and many people describe their sense of being overwhelmed at these times.
We’re very aware that this can be a vulnerable place from which to start a conversation, and we try to be careful about how we invite people to put words to their experience.
Alongside this intention to demonstrate care in our conversations with young people and families, there are some other key questions that we are asking ourselves as workers:
- How can we invite a sense of self-agency from the person we are working with? Problems can be good at convincing people that they have no skills or strengths. We believe that a person’s identity is more that the problem story so we want to research with the person how they have managed so far – what has got them through?
- How can our work together assist the person or people in reclaiming a sense of connection to others? Problem stories get a lot of attention and like to take up as much space as they can – they can have people feeling isolated and alone. We want to work with people in ways that have them drawing in others to stand alongside them in support.
- How can we “do counselling” in a way that is accessible and familiar to the person? Making the decision to come along to counselling can be a really big step! There remains a bit of stigma around the idea of ‘talking therapy’ – that only ‘messed up people’ go to counselling, or that ‘my problems aren’t big enough to warrant therapy’. Here at SKATTLE, it’s really important to us to invite people into conversations that closely describe their experience and that aren’t filled with jargon.
Conor blinked. Then blinked again. “You’re going to tell me stories?”
Indeed, the monster said.
So, this is where the fiction of Conor and his monster and the real-life questions that inform our work at SKATTLE come together. We use all sorts of tools to assist us in our therapeutic conversations. These tools can take the form of artwork, or toys or symbols, or cards, or the written word. Tools in the therapy room can help to take the pressure off a conversation in a few ways:
- They can redirect the focus from the person to a thing,
- They can invite playfulness, and
- They are a tangible reminder that there other people out there having to deal with similar experiences.
We’ve written previously about how toys have been helpful in counselling with young people (check out the Max & Co blog), and we use cards a lot in the training room, so I thought I’d focus on some of the books that have been helpful resources during sessions. Below is a list of some of the books that keep being taken off the shelf and a brief explanation about how they have been helpful:
- A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret Holmes (suggested for ages 3 to 8) – This illustrated book explores what it can be like for children to witness trauma. Sherman has seen a terrible thing and tries to forget about it, but his sore tummy and angry feelings are signals that the event has affected him. The ‘terrible’ thing is not named in the book which allows children to make it relevant to their own situation, and reading about what helps Sherman to feel better can be a nice conversation starter about what has been helpful to them.
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (suggested for ages 4+) – this book explores the idea that even though we can’t always be with a loved one, they’re always in each other’s hearts. We’ve found this story to be helpful when talking with kids about their experience of loss or separation from loved ones. Our conversations often involve thinking about who the invisible strings are connected to, and how kids can hold this reminder close.
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (suggested for ages 9+) – my reference to this book throughout the blog no doubt indicates that this one is a bit of a favourite of mine. The monster is a poetic and recognisable externalisation of a young boy’s anger, confusion and also his wisdom. The themes of loss, magic, and growing up are utterly familiar. The power of stories – of problems, of hope, of skills, of tales with tales, those that are written, those that are drawn, and those that are spoken – comes off every page. The version that is illustrated by Jim Kay adds another layer of beauty to Conor’s story.
- I Had A Black Dog: His Name Was Depression by Matthew Johnstone (suggested for ages 10+) – Matthew Johnstone takes the metaphor first coined by Winston Churchill to describe the depression he experienced to offer a personal insight into what it can be like to have a Black Dog hanging around. The words and pictures very evocatively tell the story of the effects depression had on Johnstone’s life and how he learned to tame the dog. This book was really inspiring to an 11 year old visitor to SKATTLE and she’s currently working on her own version about ‘the tough tiger’ who brings fear and frustration into her life.
Have you got a book that you’ve found helpful in having a tricky conversation with a young person?
On a suggestion from a family who visited SKATTLE last week, we ordered a copy of Red Chocolate Elephants: For Children Bereaved by Suicide by Diana Sands – this family said it had been a really useful resource in their household.
Let us know your suggestions. We’d love to hear what other books we could add to our shelves…
Written by Peta Ward, SKATTLE Counsellor & Trainer