Fairy stories can unlock complex feelings and
emotions in children in therapy, say Hessel Willemsen and Elizabeth Anscombe
'Once upon time a stepmother forced her weak husband into abandoning his two children. The children found their way home only to be abandoned again. After failing to retrace their steps a second time, the children found a cottage, the home of a witch, who feigned kindness but planned to kill and cook them. The children were able to kill the witch and escape with the witch's jewels. When they returned home they found their stepmother had died and they lived happily ever after with their father.'
This is, of course, a brief outline of the fairy story Hansel and Gretel, a tale of abandonment, death and murder. Though far removed from the experiences of many young children, such gruesome tales can unlock complex feelings and emotions in children who have suffered loss, separation from parents, and/or bereavement.
We ran therapeutic sessions for children infected and/or affected by HIV/AIDS in the day nursery of Mildmay Hospital, London, in a joint initiative with Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. The group ran for an eight-week period, where sessions lasted for 50 minutes plus a ten-minute preliminary time in an adjacent counselling room.
For the 50-minute group sessions, specific toys - dressing-up clothes, face-paints, puppets and art materials - were laid out. The boundaries for the sessions were based upon principles of play therapy where the children can play, act, draw or paint in any way they choose, as long as they do not harm themselves, the staff, or other children in the group.
At the outset the ten-minute preliminary time was used to focus on specific feelings such as sadness, loneliness and fear, and story boards and puppets were used to help children understand and articulate their emotions. However, this approach failed to bring unconscious material to the surface, and it was the children themselves who introduced the idea of fairy tale themes, when early on in the groups they dressed up in a wedding dress and took turns to kiss and wear it. The wedding dress appeared to be symbolic in their need to be connected to each other and to the facilitators in the group.
The group's structure was such that the two therapists (male and female), a female nursery officer and six children were recreating the children's 'lost' family and providing a safe environment in which the children could express and deal with their distress and anxiety, and so enable them to have the confidence to deal with these same emotions in different environments.
We began to research the idea of using fairy stories and were inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's The uses of enchantment - the meaning and importance of fairy tales. He writes that fairy tales are an apt vehicle for unlocking unconscious feelings in children, as they deal with universal human problems of jealousy, envy, fear of abandonment, love and death. Fairy tales also proceed in a manner which conforms to the way a child experiences the world, which is why they are so convincing for the young child.
On introducing fairy stories during the preliminary time, we began to see a clear difference in response. The children listened more intently, didn't fidget, and often became absorbed into the fairy story, asking the therapist to turn back a page. The children appeared deeply satisfied.
The children's favourite tales were Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella and Hans and Gretel. Three of these stories begin with the death of a parent - a theme recognisable to the children we were working with.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow White both describe periods of depression in the symbolism of 'the long sleep'; Sleeping Beauty after she pricked her finger, and Snow White after she has eaten the apple. As the children entered into their search to find a 'new family' and repair the losses of family members who had died or from whom the child was separated by illness, the group at times entered a period of depression. This was manifested in firstly silent, isolated play and then anxious behaviour, where children refused to leave the group at the end, or had to be held until their anxiety or anger had subsided.
This depression slowly dissipated as the sessions evolved and the strands were brought together for a resolution, acted out in role-play scenarios.
Sylvie, an overweight child, who had at first been a scapegoat in the group, had stood firm during the period in which depression had enveloped the group, showing herself to be a strong member who had stayed in the background but offered comfort to the other children by her presence. Her work in the group led at the end to her becoming the princess. She dressed in a gold dress and then lay on a cushion and two boys took turns to kiss Sylvie as Sleeping Beauty. Being able to role-play the princess gave her a greater sense of confidence, and she was no longer the scapegoat.
We have observed that fairy tales have helped children to understand that threatening characters like the wicked witches, fairies and monsters can magically change to become something less frightening. This helps children to acknowledge that an unpopular child - like Sylvie - or a new foster parent (see case study below) may also be less intimidating than they first imagined. And although these children have to return to their everyday life, the group has provided them with a safe environment.
The horrors and difficulties of their early past is - at least in part - experienced again. The therapists symbolically act as parents, allowing for a new beginning and helping the children to process losses and separations through preparation and creative endings to the group. NW
Hessel Willemsen is a child and adult clinical psychologist, currently at the Tavistock Centre, London, and Elizabeth Anscombe is a child art psychotherapist at the Mildmay Hospital, London