A Shelter for Sadness

A little boy builds a shelter, in which he can look after his Sadness, with all the care, empathy & acceptance that he knows it deserves. Sadness is a soft & scruffy little character, who shifts in shape & size & seems to know what it needs, if the boy looks & listens well. Sadness holds its own beating heart, which is visible, not hidden away & we see the boy treat it gently & without fear. This is a story that honours sadness & invites us to explore our relationship to it.

The beautiful illustrations show us how sadness can alter & elicit different moods, like the different seasons of the year. Whatever the season & however big or small, loud, or quiet sadness becomes, we are shown that it has a right to be there. We see that the boy can shine a light on Sadness or hide it away; visit it as often or as infrequently as feels right, & we are reminded that there will be good reasons for doing both.

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The Worrysaurus

To be fair to this little Worrysaurus, he has a point when it comes to British summertime weather & planning picnics! Putting that to one side, this is a sunshine picture book whose soothing rhymes gently explore anxiety & share coping strategies that warm the heart.

Many children with developmental trauma worry terribly about all sorts of things & struggle, as the Worrysaurus does, with uncertainty. Their parents & carers are well versed in ensuring structure, routine & predictability, to help their child to cope. All children worry, but a traumatised child’s anxiety can be especially big & overwhelming. When you have had bad, sad & scary things happen in the past & from an early age, it shapes the brain & central nervous system & processing of experiences. It sensitises to danger & preoccupies with keeping safe – even when there isn’t any danger there at all. It manifests itself in phobias & obsessive-compulsive behaviours. How important then to help a child recognise what is happening in their body – the physical manifestations of anxiety. To help them stay grounded in the present & not be pulled into the ‘trauma timehole’, responding as thought they are back in those frightening experiences again.

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My Heart

This picture book is a gentle journey with a little girl through different emotional states, honouring them all & highlighting how they come & go, just as day follows night. It is a poem on the heart, providing a multitude of metaphors to help explore our inner worlds. We navigate a path through light & shade, experiencing how it can feel when our hearts are open or closed, broken, or mending & growing. Here is an invitation to listen inward with kindness & to look outwards, with optimism & a sense of belonging.  

We learn that some days, the little girl’s heart is a fence between her & the world & she looks so small & alone. This image reminds me of many of the children that I have worked with in therapy, where the impact of trauma has confused their inner voice & shaken their belief in themselves & the caring adults around them. These are the children who, because they are hurting so much, have lost their capacity to experience comfort, curiosity & joy, as they are in defensive states so much of the time. They are terrified of listening to their minds or hearts, or of being open to the influence of relationships, as this would make them vulnerable to the pain of hurt & rejection again.

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My Two Forever Dads

My Two Forever Dads

Bryony Irving (2019)

This story follows a little girl & her 2 dads through the first 2000 great days of their adoption.  Her new parents are there to comfort her through the sadness of leaving old carers; healing hurts; dealing with tricky behaviour & celebrating successes. The rhyming text creates a playfulness & delight in the journey, highlighting the joys & challenges of family life & the beautiful rainbow of feelings that go with it. Here is wonderful affirmation that parenthood is indeed in the love, not in the blood.

This is just one in Bryony’s series celebrating LGBTQ+ adoption, each written for one of the many children she has worked with over the past 20 years. It’s a sobering thought that this time span is longer than LGBTQ+ adoption has been enshrined in UK law, which only came into force in 2005.

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Grandpa’s Gift

A little boy mourns the old home he has left behind & the world seems very grey. But grandpa walks beside him & holds his hand. They enter a charity shop, with boxes full of old things waiting to be seen with new eyes. Grandpa shows him a dull looking rock, but inside it are crystals that shine with a thousand stars. Together they continue to explore the city & all the while, the boy can feel the rock, safe in his pocket. A reminder that magic can be found in the most ordinary of places, & that life feels lighter when we have hope.

Moving house, feeling sadness for what is left behind & adapting to new places can be hard for any child. How much more so, for a child with developmental trauma, who has had multiple losses in the past? Repeated exposure to trauma in early life can lead to hypersensitivity in the nervous system & brain for signs of danger & this can continue even when a child is safe in a new home. Learning to trust & to be open to relationships & the outside world, is a frightening prospect for a child who has been let down in the past, & who may have had repeated moves in the care system.

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Oh No, George!

George is a bouncy dog, full of good intentions but little self-control.  His owner, Harris, leaves him home alone & hopes for the best, with disastrous results! George encounters all the things that he loves – cake, dirt, & chasing the cat. Later, when George is full of remorse, Harris forgives him & suggests a nice walk together. The colours are bold & the illustrations are witty. Repeating phrases – ‘What will George do?’ & ‘Oh no, George!’ allow for discussion about motives & behaviour in a fun & safe way. A sweet story with themes of messing up, making amends & forgiveness. 

Babies & small children learn self-regulation & pro-social behaviours, through the nurturing & co-regulation provided by their parents & carers. The average toddler is corrected by their parent on average once every 7 minutes. The first socialisation emotion that children learn is guilt, by around 3 years old. We help toddlers with feelings of shame when they are disciplined by re-engaging with them quickly. A securely attached child is motivated to get back into good relationships & to think about how to make things better.

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Golden threads of love weave their way from the front cover, right to the end of this beautiful story.  Tess is a little girl held in the heart of a loving birth family, who experiences the anxiety of separation for the first time when she starts school. Her mum reassures her that even when apart, their love is like a string between them, stretching as far as it needs to. Tess learns how her new friends have strings too, linking them across time and space with those they love.  None of this is enough to prevent her from feeling very sad & lonely, & she unties the string & lets it fall. Only mum wrapping them back together at the end of school brings her comfort. This is a gentle exploration of what love & belonging means, & the emotions we experience when our sense of connection is shaken.

Any child naturally might feel anxious leaving their parents to start school, just like Tess. But how much harder separation can be for a child who has not always had a secure family base. Abuse, neglect & loss leading to developmental trauma, creates a deep fear for a child of whether they are loveable & whether they will be abandoned again. The child is terrified – when we are apart, will you remember me? How can I trust you are on the end of my string? This fear expresses itself in many ways for children with insecure attachment styles – some may become distressed & clingy & others may become avoidant & seem outwardly unaffected. Both strategies developed as self-protection, by little ones who do not believe others will comfort them, or find it too difficult to ask.

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Sophie Spikey has a Very Big Problem

Sophie Spikey learned very early in life that it was best to look after herself. She has a new family now, but it is hard for her to give up old ways, that used to keep her safe. Hard to hold in her heart that she is loveable & will be cared for. Sophie has lost her shoes & is determined to sort it out alone. It takes a kind & patient mum to help her understand why this is so tricky, & to get through the muddle that unfolds. This is a clever story that empathically captures the struggles of many children with developmental trauma, as well as conveying therapeutic parenting ideas in a useful & relatable way.

Adoptive parents & carers of traumatised children with attachment difficulties, face big challenges to helping their child recover from their experiences. A child who fears relationships & is hypervigilant for signs of danger, does not trust in adults’ good intentions. They feel full of shame & look for signs to confirm they are bad kids. They are controlling – to avoid the risk of painful rejection by others. Parents & carers can feel out of their depth & worry about making things worse. Support to make sense of what is going on underneath their child’s behaviour is important. Opportunities to see & practice therapeutic parenting responses can build confidence & resilience. Parents & carers can learn how to stay more open & engaged, in the face of their child’s defensiveness & resistance.

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I’m Sticking with You

This is a playful & bouncy story, that celebrates friendship & sends a ‘better together’ message, in rhyming text & witty illustrations. From the very opening lines, Bear loves Squirrel’s company, ‘Wherever you’re going. I’m going too. Whatever you’re doing. I’m sticking with you’.  It explores how friendships have their challenges, through Bear’s affectionate but clumsy enthusiasm & Squirrel’s more reserved approach to life. When Squirrel decides to take some time out, we learn that it’s fine to be alone, but sometimes being without a friend can become too lonely. As well as being an exploration of friendship, this is a story that has resonance for sibling relationships & for parent & child relationships, too.

It strikes me that there are many aspects of Bear’s personality & approach to the friendship with Squirrel, that fit with the PACE-ful attitude that we seek to hold, in caring for children who have developmental trauma. Playfulness, acceptance, curiosity & empathy. Bear is open & engaged & unwavering in his loyalty. He delights in Squirrel, even when Squirrel is more cautious about displaying affection. Bear models that it is ok to make mistakes & he is comfortable with this – mistakes don’t mean that they don’t like each other. He respects Squirrel’s boundaries & need for time by himself, even when he feels a bit hurt by it. & Bear is there to greet Squirrel with warmth & without reservation, when Squirrel seeks him out again.

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After the Fall

When Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, he was literally shattered. As far as we knew, not even all the king’s men had been able to patch him up. But what would have happened if they had? We see how emotionally broken Humpty is, even when his shell is fixed. As he powerfully says, ‘It was just an accident. But it changed my life’. It makes him too scared to do all the things he used to love. He stays low down, in the shadow of the wall. Eventually, Humpty’s desire to reconnect with the birds in the sky is stronger than his fears & he finds ways to climb into the light again. This is a book that explores trauma in a simple & engaging way. It gives hope that even when terrible things happen, we can build resilience & live happier lives again.

Even in adulthood, a single incident trauma can have a massive psychological impact. Here we learn that Humpty is a famous bird watcher who has a great fall. Despite the tragedy, Humpty is a mature egg who can draw on his happy memories, skills & experiences to motivate himself in the difficult work of recovery. But Humpty can’t face his fears all at once – he learns to make paper aeroplanes, to feel closer to the birds in the sky, whilst his feet stay firmly on the ground. When his plane lands on top of the wall, he grasps the ladder & climbs slowly, one rung at a time.

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