Emotionally Protecting Children Allows Them to Express Who They Really Are

“I thought ‘e was going to hit me”

Children who have been maltreated often find it hard to express who they really are without making themselves more vulnerable. School is a place where they are particularly at risk, but it is also a place where the curriculum may give them opportunities to understand their inner lives and experience the interest and concern of others.

I once worked with a boy who was adopted. At the beginning of his first year in high school, he was asked by his teacher to write about his family. He raised his hand and asked, “Which family?” After that he was bullied by some of his classmates.

On the other hand, much of children’s literature is rich in themes and characters that can provide opportunities for young people to learn about their inner lives, thoughts, emotions, and motivations (1). Heather Geddes (2) writes that, “The task itself can be a bridge which links the teacher and pupil. Across this bridge the pupil experiences reliable interest and concern without feeling threatened by overwhelming feelings” (p. 74). Using stories as that kind of bridge can be especially beneficial for children with attachment difficulties who are resistant to intimacy in relationships.

Harry was ten years old. His mum had died of a drug overdose, and he lived with a family member. He called her “Mum”, but his teachers were concerned that his “mum” leaned on Harry for her emotional needs. Harry had a lot of reasons to be sad and to question if anyone loved him. The only emotion he seemed able to express was anger which was often directed at his teachers.

I thought of Harry as being like one of those pre-renaissance paintings. There was very little perspective, very little depth to his self-expression. He seemed to appear only in two dimensions. Like other children who have suffered maltreatment, he was preoccupied with how others evaluated him (3).

When I arrived at his school, I found Harry sitting in the head teacher’s office. There had been an altercation during break.

As we walked down the corridor I asked, “You were in the head teacher’s office. Was anything wrong?”

“No. She was asking me questions about what some other boys were doing.”

Harry was very guarded about talking about anything he perceived might make him look bad. Each week I tried to catch him a little off guard, “So how are you doing?”


Harry always said, “good,” even when things were obviously not going well.

Occasionally, children like Harry talk about themselves in a way that opens up a depth of insight and emotion. When this happens in school, it can make them vulnerable, especially when they do this in front of their classmates. We need to be prepared so that we can give them a safe way to express themselves.

Harry’s class were reading Goodnight Mister Tom, the story of Willie, a ten-year-old evacuee, who is abused by his mother but finds unconditional love when he moves to live with an older man in the country. Harry and I read sections of dialogue together and recorded them to make an audio book. Harry liked this. He laughed at my attempt at Mister Tom’s accent, and I laughed at his attempt at a London accent. Dialogue seemed to bring us closer together.

We listened to the recording, but I was not happy. “There is too much of my voice,” I said. “I would like to begin the recording with you speaking. You could voice Willie’s thoughts as he thinks about his first day with Mister Tom.”

Harry replied, “I can’t do that. I don’t know what he would think.”

I prompted him, “Do you remember that Willie thought Mister Tom was going to hit him?”

Harry began to talk as if he was Willie. He put on his best London accent. “I thought ‘e was going to hit me, but ‘e didn’t. He just picked up that stick to poke the fire.”

I began to type. Harry looked at the words and said, “No, he doesn’t sound like that.”

“You’re right. I’ll take the ‘h’ off the beginning of the words that begin with ‘h’. How does Mister Tom show he cares for Willie?” I asked Harry.

“He bought him clothes. He took care of him when he fainted.”

Harry read over the script again, and then, without prompting, he added, “I like this place better than my ‘ouse. I’ve got me own bed. I think Mister Tom is going to ‘elp me. Maybe this is what it’s like to be loved.”

Harry said the words with such feeling, I couldn’t help but think he was speaking from a more personal understanding of Willie’s character. He was no longer trying to present an image of himself; there was something more real and more three-dimensional about him.

I commented, “You said that just the way I think Willie would have said it.” Harry smiled.

I didn’t take the conversation any further. My purpose was not to get Harry to talk about his own experience of neglect or abuse. It was enough that he was able to express something of his true self and he experienced my interest and curiosity without feeling I had intruded on his inner world.

“If you want to speak to troubled children you are far more likely to be successful if you do it through ‘their’ language- the language of image, metaphor or story” Margot Sunderland (4)

Keeping it Real: Advice to Parents, Carers, and Teachers

Parents and carers:
• Talk to your child or young person about how to answer questions their peers may ask or questions that may come up in class: “Who was that lady that picked you up from school?” “Why did you move here?” Help them be discerning about who they talk to and what to disclose to their friends and in public.

• Be careful about how you introduce activities. Try to anticipate questions that might make a young person vulnerable. Instead of just saying, “Write about your family,” add, “If you are adopted or have lived with more than one family, you might want to write about the family you live with now. Also, if you live some of the time with your mum and some of the time with your dad, you can choose which family to write about.” In that way you can also normalize young people’s experiences by recognizing the variety of family backgrounds.
• If you are planning class discussion, speak privately, beforehand to a young person who may be more sensitive and reassure them that you won’t call on them to answer unless they volunteer first.
• For the pupil who finds it difficult to even talk about the feelings of characters in a book, allow them to simply listen in to the answers from young people who are more confident.
• Where there is a risk that the content of a lesson may resonate with a young person’s traumatic life experience, build time in to the lesson so there is a chance for a young person to regain their equilibrium before they leave your classroom or move on to another activity.


1. Killick S, Thomas T. Telling Tales: Storytelling as Emotional Literacy. Blackburn, UK: Educational Printing Services Ltd.; 2007.

2. Geddes H. Attachment in the Classroom: The Links Between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-Being and Performance in School. London: Worth Publishing; 2006.

3. Tangney, J.P, Dearing, R. L. Shame and Guilt. New York: The Guilford Press: 2002.

4. Sunderland M. Using Storytelling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children. Milton Keynes: Speechmark Publishing; 2000.

Additional Reading:

Golding K. Using Stories to Build Bridges with Traumatized Children: Creative Ideas for Therapy, Life Story Work, Direct Work and Parenting. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2014.

Killick S, Boffey M. Building Relationships Through Storytelling: A Foster Carer’s Guide to Attachment and Stories. The Fostering Network. Available from:
https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/sites/www.fostering.net/files/content/building-relationships-through-storytelling-31-10-12.pdf [Accessed 11-5-17]

First published in www.saia.org.uk/blog 2018 © 2018 David Woodier, Support Teacher.
Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact

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