How stories help sick kids get better

  • Article by: SARAH ROSE MILLER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2013 - 2:07 PM

Can a simple tale take away pain? Yes, say those working with children. And they do it with the most basic kind of communication.

 

“Imagine” is a magic word to children. Not only does it catapult them into worlds of long ago and far away, but it also can ease pain and promote healing.

“Just imagine you’re on the beach, and every time you breathe in and out a wave comes in and breaks.” That’s what Dr. Stefan Friedrichsdorf tells his young patients in a soothing voice.

He is responsible for lessening the pain for hundreds of children each day, many of them terminally ill, in his role as director of the Department of Pain Medicine, Palliative Care and Integrative Therapies at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

“When kids are comfortable, they heal faster,” Friedrichsdorf said. An obvious example: A child who has just had open heart surgery might not breathe deeply because it is too painful, which results in a higher risk of developing pneumonia. Take away the pain and that complication is unlikely to arise.

Storytelling techniques, such as guided imagery and hypnosis, are ways to lessen patients’ stress, give them a sense of control and relieve their pain. These and other therapies are typically used in conjunction with pain medication.

“If I go into a room, I may choose to give morphine or I may choose to do hypnosis, or — more often — both, because we find that the combination of the right medication and the right procedures, with integrative modalities such as hypnosis, really provide the best care for children,” said Friedrichsdorf.

A Minnesota connection

The integrative medicine program at Children’s, one of the largest of its kind in the United States, was launched 10 years ago. Its roots stretch back further, to the 1980s, when Golden Valley-based psychologist and storyteller Elaine Wynne developed “The Rainbow Dream,” a story designed to teach young leukemia patients self-hypnosis, or relaxation/mental imagery as Wynne called it at the time. In the story a girl with leukemia runs away into the forest and meets a number of animals — a toad, a bird and a squirrel — who each deliver subtle lessons of relaxation, comfort and hope.

Wynne found that storytelling was particularly effective at reaching children who were defensive about being taught relaxation/mental imagery directly. She told the story to one such patient, a girl who considered the practice “dumb,” and then waited nervously for the girl’s reaction. “I loved it! That was the best story!” the girl told her.

While storytelling might seem like a superficial practice, the potential for a deeper impact is immense. “We’re actually having a physiological effect on the body as we’re walking through these stories,” said Andre Heuer, a local storyteller and psychotherapist.

Heuer has long employed storytelling as a component of his therapeutic practices. It is particularly natural and effective with children because they express and work out their issues through play, most of which involves storytelling — whether playing at dinosaurs or playing house.

A practical exercise

One strategy Heuer uses to help young clients overcome anxiety is to have them tell the story of their day and identify points of stress (such as apprehension as they leave their home to go to school). Then he teaches them how to travel mentally to a place where they feel happy and safe. Finally, he has them retell the story of their day and at each stress point has them pause and travel to their “happy place.”

This strategy affects not just how children feel when they remember the stress point, but how they feel when they approach that potential stress point on a following day. “As soon as you start changing the imagery in the brain, you’re really working on a molecular level of how the brain is working, and it’s actually shifting the level of brain function,” Heuer said.

He has also used storytelling techniques in working with more serious trauma when he trained counselors in Liberia and Thailand in narrative techniques used to counsel victims of torture and war.

A comfort during tragedy

Storytelling can also help children cope with traumatic events from natural disasters to school shootings. When tragedy struck Newtown, Conn., last December, Vermont-based storyteller David Sewell McCann did what came naturally to him and told his two sons a story. He did the same thing again following the Boston Marathon bombing and the Oklahoma tornadoes that flattened two schools.

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