- Who is this story for?
- What is the underlying message or theme?
- Are there discussion questions that go with the book?
These are just some of the questions I am frequently asked about therapeutic stories within the Healing Hooves Series.
Designed to be Read to a Child by a Care-taking Adult
Healing Hooves stories are designed to be read to a child by a parent, teacher or helping professional. They are not intended for a child to read by themselves. The stories are all attachment based and informed, aiming to deepen and secure the relationship between a child and adult. Our hope is that the simple act of sitting down and reading with the child will be an important part of achieving that goal. Recent research from the National Children’s Bureau in the UK indicates that reading to a child increases connection between the child and caregiver, increases the child’s self esteem, and creates opportunities for the caregiver to talk with the child.
While the primary target age range is age six to ten, we have shared stories from the series with children as young as three, up to teenagers and adults. Often the message is as important for the caregiver reading the story to hear, as it is for the child. We encourage the adult to adjust the language, perhaps simplifying it at times for a younger child. While our stories can be helpful for children who are struggling, particularly in the areas of focus identified for each story, they also communicate universal messages which can be shared with any child, at any time.
Underlying Attachment Themes
Our children’s books are grounded in attachment theory and specifically in the approach taught by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and the Neufeld Institute The attachment themes you will consistently see woven within all the stories include unconditional love, resilience, grace, relationship repair, emotional expression, and recovery from loss.
Our stories aim to help caregivers communicate to children that they are both significant and loved for who they are, rather than for what they do; that there is nothing they need to do to earn that love and acceptance, and nothing they could ever do that would destroy these things.
While some books have a very specific theme (e.g A Heavy Load explores forgiveness and Maggie’s Yellow Ball explores the emotion of frustration) many attachment themes are woven into all of the stories.
- Space for the feeling and expression of emotion. Each story explores some aspect of emotion, and several specifically explore less comfortable emotions such as frustration and sadness. Most of the stories explore some or all aspects of the “Yes, Yes, Redirect” approach to emotions: Yes to the existence and feeling of the emotion, another yes to the need for that emotion to ‘move’ and be expressed, with support and redirection at times around the form and target of that expression.
- Nobody’s perfect. Our animal protagonists make many mistakes and find lots of mischief. The lessons the animals learn along the way – as they face, accept and grow from – their imperfections, are relevant to both children and their caretakers.
- The long term nature of attachment. Several of our books explore relationships which change due to loss or conflict. The animals find ways to ‘hold on’ to these relationships in new and deeper ways while also expressing the associated feelings of loss, frustration and alarm.
- The hierarchical nature of attachment. Research and neuroscience show that attachment is hierarchical. Facilitating care-taking, attachment allows true maturity and independence to grow out of a secure relationship which invites dependence. There are care-taking characters in our stories – most noticeably the herd leader Skye and an older mare Disa – who provide illustrations of this role.
Specific Themes within One Example Story: The Prodigal Pony
Asking a parent if they love their child unconditionally could be an insulting question. Yet our work with children, and with adults reflecting on their childhood, indicates many do not fully perceive that unconditional love, especially when they feel they have somehow ‘messed up’. Many of us grow up believing we need to earn love, act a certain way, or measure up to some yardstick adjective – ‘well behaved’, ‘nice’, ‘successful’, ‘attractive’ – to feel that we truly matter; to be both loved and love-able.
While exploring the sources of that disparity needs to wait for another article, The Prodigal Pony is an attempt to bridge the mismatch and allow caregivers to deliver messages of grace and unconditional love to their children; messages I believe we all need to hear, and experience, a little more.
The main character in this story, Teddy, is a mischievous Shetland pony who tends to act long before he remembers to think. After one such time Teddy walks away from those who love him in fear of the anticipated consequences and of ‘getting what he deserves’.His friend, Pickle, is also anticipating the carriage of justice, but with much less trepidation.
When Teddy finally finds the courage to come home, both ponies are surprised when Teddy does not get what he deserves, and instead is welcomed home by Skye, the leader of their small herd.
It is surprising and a little outrageous, or at least Pickle thinks so; it is unconditional love and grace.
Does this story intend to teach that anything goes? — Absolutely not!
Teddy is repentant. He knows he made a mistake and he wants to make it right. But he discovers that his membership in his herd – and the love they have for him – is not contingent on anything he can or needs to do; it is a gift he need only accept. Pickle struggles with this counter cultural message, as do many of us, which is why we feel this rewrite of a much older story, needs to be shared.
Why Approach Things Through Stories Anyway?
As discussed in an earlier blog One (Horse) Step Removed: The Value of Sharing Stories, there are many times when addressing something directly or pushing a child to talk about something painful before they are ready, is ineffective and does harm.
I think of the analogy of a scab. When we damage our skin, our body may form a physical scab to protect the area of injury and allow healing to happen slowly, from the inside out. At times it might be tempting to ‘rip off the scab’, and since scabs don’t always look very attractive it may make things look a little better for a while, on the surface.
But doing this usually causes more harm, results in a bigger, uglier scab being formed, and slows down the healing process. A scab is our body’s way of telling us that the injury has not completely healed. It needs time. The end goal is to heal to the place where we no longer need the scab’s protection, but short term it needs to be allowed to serve its purpose.
We also have ‘scabs’ for our emotional hurts; defenses we build to protect ourselves from vulnerability, trauma and emotional pain. Like the physical scab these defenses serve to protect us from further harm in the short term. As with a physical hurt the end goal is to no longer need that protection. But ripping off an emotional scab – by pushing someone to talk too directly too soon – also tends to cause more harm, result in bigger, uglier defenses being formed, and slow down the healing process.
Sometimes all our physical and emotional hurts need to heal is time, and a healthy environment.
Other times they need help.
For a physical hurt this might mean some medicine or perhaps an antiseptic cream. For our emotional hurts the answer may be to find indirect ways to talk about the hurt, and to gently touch the pain, to promote healing from the inside out. At Healing Hooves we draw on our animals’ stories, and our clients’ relationships and interactions with our animals to create these healing moments.
Our therapeutic stories are simply our way of extending these opportunities to more people.
Don’t Overdo It
Sometimes one step removed is not enough.
If a child has lost a parent, reading a story about another child whose Mom dies may be too close, too painful, too soon. Making the story about an animal moves it another step away. But if we then ask too many questions about the story, or draw too many parallels, we risk bringing it in too close again.
In most cases I recommend that the parent, teacher or counsellor selecting and reading the story be well informed about the underlying themes, but then move slowly and cautiously with any interpretation. Waiting for the child to draw parallels rather than making your own, waiting for questions from the child rather than pushing yours, or simply leaving it within the context of the story are usually safer and more effective strategies over the longer term.
Another helpful strategy is to wait until something comes up in the child’s own context – perhaps a moment of frustration or sadness – and then, if the child seems receptive, reflect to the story. “This kind of reminds me of what happened in that story we read, remember when Teddy …” And then you wait. This may open things up to a discussion. Or it may not.
Finally, whenever in doubt I recommend you take the advice of my daughter who, at age seven, told me very clearly:
“Mom, just read the story!”
Specific Therapeutic Themes Underlying Other Stories within the Healing Hooves Series
In subsequent blogs we will share user guides for each book within the series; for now here is a brief overview of the key messages and themes within each story:
- Holding On and One More Day with Penny address themes of grief and loss and the ways in which relationships can last forever. These can be helpful for children who have experienced a loss or are facing any sort of separation from loved ones, be it due to split parenting, starting school, moving home, or struggles at bedtime.
- Molly and Cutie’s Run and Maggie’s Yellow Ball, explore the emotion of frustration and how we sometimes need a time and a place to safely release some of our ‘mad’ before we are able to find and express our ‘sad’.
- The Prodigal Pony and Teddy’s Story address themes of guilt, shame, unconditional love and grace. They help us teach children that while we may not like everything they do, our love for them is unconditional. They can also help a child to learn from their mistakes in a healthy and attachment safe way.
- In From the Storm explores the complicated feelings that children and those who love them can experience after trauma, including feelings of self-blame and fear. This story can also be used by parents of adopted and foster children to explore feelings of abandonment.
- A Heavy Load explores the theme of forgiveness, including when reconciliation and relationship repair is appropriate and safe, and when it is not.
- The Perfect Pony is written for the perfectionists among us. It aims to help children learn that love and acceptance is not something they can or need to ‘earn’ through their deeds, performance or abilities but is something they can find in healthy relationships. This book helps shift our focus from ‘what we do’ to ‘who we are’.
- The Bestest Pony in the World and Amanda’s Animals both explore the unconditional nature of love, to which every child is entitled. These stories help parents to gently address any insecurities in this area.
- Finally, aimed towards parents and caregivers, Skye’s Nap explores the challenge many experience in allowing others to take care of them and in finding true rest. This story can also be drawn upon to address roles and responsibilities with parentified or alpha children.
Several of the above books are available for free download through the Healing Hooves Canada Facebook page and below.
All of them are available for purchase as full colour children’s books. Free download versions are included with every purchase of a paper book.
Contact us for more info.
Free Download Links for this and other Therapeutic Stories:
There is no cost to download these books from Healing Hooves but please share our page and resources with others, and tell us what you think of our stories in the comments below or on our page!