by Elizabeth Fixmer
The years I spent in private practice as a psychotherapist specializing in work with children propelled me to become a children’s writer. My use of books as a therapy adjunct evolved over time, as did my respect and eventual awe for the power of fiction as a change agent. My young clients introduced me to middle-grade and young-adult novels. But it was a few years into my practice before I started to appreciate what stories had to offer these kids.
It started when a nine-year-old excitedly brought me a middle-grade novel and begged me to read it because, “It says exactly how I feel.” She, like most kids, had been struggling to find words to express her feelings. She was relieved to find the words right there on the page, and to recognize that her feelings were shared by other children. When kids have words to express themselves they can better communicate their own. And when stories show a way for them to appropriately express those feelings, they begin to develop tools for their own expression. But this was only the beginning of what stories could offer.
At first I tried using self-help books that matched the child’s main issue — divorcing parents, bullies, and behavioral problems, to name a few. The child’s eyes would glaze over and her attention would drift. Similarly, when I tried to discuss the issue directly, my young clients would say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
But when I tried using stories, made up, or through published fiction, kids started to make progress. Kids were riveted and they started to make progress. They laughed and cried with the characters. They offered advice to the characters or asked what I would do to help in this, all without revealing how and why they related to the protagonist.
Stories also offer distance between the character’s and child’s struggles. The child lives vicariously through the protagonists’ adventures and struggles, feeling what the character is feeling and, if the story is compelling enough, changing right along with the protagonist. This made perfect sense because, as a therapist I knew that change would not occur through intellect alone. Emotional growth requires engaging the emotions. And I saw that what the fictional child concludes about his or her problem — and how he or she moves forward, can become a road map for the real child.
A great example of this is Katherine Patterson’s novel, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly starts out as an oppositional child who refuses to believe that her mother doesn’t want her and bucks the foster care system with incorrigible behavior. Through the firm hand and loving kindness of her new foster mother, Gilly’s behavior changes and when she finally has a chance to spend time with her birth mother, she comes to understand and accept her mother’s limitations. I would ask my client to do role plays in which we’d act out possible conversations between Gilly and her foster mom, Mrs. Trotter so that my client could express her anger about moving from foster home to foster home giving my young client the opportunity to express her feelings about having so many foster placements. Then we’d role play Gilly conversing with her biological mother. My client would play both roles and when I played the mother I’d make sure “Gilly” was granted permission to go on with life and be happy.
Another story that I found particularly helpful with adoption issues was The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. Adopted children who have lived with their biological parents and/or have had multiple placements will often reject their new parents even though the parents’ have an abundance of love to offer. The Last Battle offered me the opportunity to help kids see that no one could make them, or help them, take in what was offered.
I would share the scene in which Lucy had died and found herself back in Narnia — a perfect Narnia. Everyone was happy except for a little group of gnomes who seemed to be suffering terribly. Lucy begs Aslan (a representation of Christ) to forgive their offenses and let them enjoy this heaven. Aslan takes Lucy to them. He offers them beautiful trays of fruits and nuts and various meats. They reject it, seeing it as dog dung and they continue to starve. They complain of the cold so he offers them furs, but they perceive the furs as porcupine needles. The offers and rejections continue until Aslan turns sadly to Lucy and reminds her that we all have free will and no one can make us take the good we are offered. Time and again, my young clients would, themselves link this to how they were rejecting their adoptive parents. They would sob. They knew that deep inside they longed for the love and discipline their adoptive parents offered. These sessions with Lewis’s book proved to be a turning point for several kids.
I no longer practice psychotherapy. Instead I write. My clinical experience convinced me that what I wanted to do was create of stories with the power to change lives. My two published books include Saint Training and Down from the Mountain. These two, and a third in progress, are about issues of social justice, and the young lives affected by these issues. They help to develop a social conscience.
Because of my professional background, I’ve also been given the opportunity to create and write social/emotional guides for teachers, parents and counselors to use with specific books — picture books through YA — that will foster discussion, identify and label feelings, and will promote pro-social values and cross-cultural appreciation. This is exciting for me because it’s another avenue to help kids grow through fiction.
I’m forever grateful to the young clients who introduced me to the novels they loved and in doing so, placed in my hands powerful and personal agents of change.
What an excellent article, Elizabeth, and a reminder of the power of books for ALL ages, especially children.
Thanks for this wonderful article. It’s fascinating to hear how your career evolved, and your own novels show your sensitivity to children and their emotional journeys. I look forward to the next novel!