A couple of years ago my wife went on a business trip to London. Our boy was 3 years old, and still an only child. While it was not the first time she went on such a trip, it was different because he was already old enough to understand what was going on and express his feelings.

The trip went fine. He and I had our quality time and thanks to modern technology he could see and talk to his mom at any given moment. We remember one particular event when we had a FaceTime chat and he told his mom that he wants her back already and we were all emotional.

How did we help him go through this separation as smoothly as possible? We prepared him for it. And one of the methods we used was creating a story. In this post, we’ll talk about the power of externalization for managing our emotions and how creating a story for and with your children can help them go through difficult situations.

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Our emotions are important for our survival. Humans have evolved complex emotional systems that help guide our way through the daily struggles of life. When we let ourselves truly feel our emotions, we can better understand ourselves and our environment. We also find an adaptive way to act.

Take Sadness, for example. Sadness is a core emotion that says “Hey, something’s wrong. Something is missing from your life”. When we feel sad we want to slow down, to protect ourselves, to mourn. Humans are social animals, and sadness also prompts us to reach out to someone so we won’t be left alone with our feelings.

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But, feeling our feelings can be hard for us. For many reasons, we tend to suppress our feelings and not express them as we should. One of those reasons is that we learn to not-feel as we grow up. As a child, have you ever been told to not be angry, or that there’s nothing to be sad about? Those messages – usually aimed to calm us down – tell us that feelings are dangerous or unacceptable, and thus we learn to wipe them under the carpet instead of truly feel and express them.

When it comes to our kids, especially our younger ones, there’s also another reason. Even if you are the most emotion-accepting parent in the world, your kids may have a hard time expressing their emotions. That is because they need to learn about their emotions. They need to learn how each emotion feels, what’s it called and what it means. By learning to identify and name their emotions, kids learn to express them in a more regulated way.

Emotions are a whole-body experience. Although there are distinct brain-regions that light-up when we are having emotional experiences, we feel them through our bodies.

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Stop for a second and remember a time when you felt truly afraid. Close your eyes and imagine: What does fear feel like? Fast heartbeats; sweat; muscles trembling – all these are hallmarks of fear.

What about happiness? Feeling light and agile, fast heartbeats (again), and more.

Sometimes, our emotions feel so intense in our bodies, that it’s hard for us to contain them. This is especially true for little children because they don’t know yet how to contain their emotions. This is why kids tend to break down crying for reasons that may seem so small and insignificant to us.

We can help our kids handle their emotions better by using the power of externalization. By externalization, I mean putting the emotional content outside of ourselves and looking at it from a distance.

How do we do it? Obviously, I don’t mean really taking things outside of our bodies and our minds. We can’t do that. But what we can do is use our complex human brains and imagine!

Making a picture of the thing that is scary or sad can help with externalization too

Think about yourself, for example. When you have many things to do, in your job and at home, things can be overwhelming really quick. You may feel stressed, anxious or even angry. Now, what will happen if you take a notepad and write down what you need to do, break it down to simple tasks and make a plan? There may still be a lot of things to do but you may feel less overwhelmed and stress, right? That’s because you externalized the problem and had a fresh look at things.

We can do the same with our emotions and other inner-stressors. I do this a lot with children who come for therapy for anxieties. We can draw their inner demons, for example, and give them a funny name. This externalization can sometimes take the edge off things, opening the way for getting rid of the anxiety.

The following clip from the movie Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is a wonderful and fun example of such an externalization. Although in reality, we can't magic our fears away, we can sure make something funny out of them.

One way to help children externalize their emotions and look at them is by creating a story with them or for them.

How to Write Your Story

Create a little book that describes the situation they are having or going to go through. It doesn’t have to be anything brilliant by literary standards. No one is expecting you to become Dr. Seuss. Just make it fun. You can write it by hand and add some drawings, or you can do as I did and type it up in Word and add some pictures.

Story Ingredients

Your story should have 3 major parts:

  • What’s going on
  • What we may feel
  • What can we do

Let’s look at each part. In the next section, I’ll share with you the story I created for my son when my wife traveled abroad.

What’s going on

In this section, we just describe the situation our children are going through. Starting a new school is a great example. Tell that story.

You can choose to use your child’s name or a made-up name. I prefer using the child’s name, but some children may need a farther externalization by using a different name.

What may we feel

Every situation we go through brings up different emotions. Don’t expect your children to know exactly what they are feeling. Remember that they still don’t have the mental capacities to identify and name their feelings. This is what we’re here for.

In this part of the story, suggest different emotions that may be relevant to the situation. Not sure which are the “right” emotions? Just imagine yourself in that situation and see what’s coming up. Remember, these are suggestions that are supposed to open up a conversation and legitimacy to feel. There’s no right or wrong.

What Can We Do

This is where we offer some coping methods for our kids. This depends on the situation. For example, if we’re dealing with having to go through a medical procedure, we can talk about anxiety-reducing techniques such as mindful breathing, etc.

If you want some good instructions on how to use mindful techniques, download my free guide right here.

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At the beginning of this post, I told about my wife traveling to London when our son was 3 years old. One of the ways we helped him deal with his emotions before, during, and after her trip was creating a story about it.

I wrote the story on my computer, added some pictures and printed it out. We read it a couple of times before she went abroad and then during her stay. I could really feel how he connected to this story and how it helped him feel more secure during that week.

Here are some examples from that story, broken down to the 3 parts I suggested in the previous section.

Part 1 – What’s Going On

Danny’s mom goes to London.

She packs clothes in her suitcase, and leaves some space for the presents she’ll bring Danny.

She’s traveling to a city called London, in a country called England. Here’s England’s flag. How many colors can you spot in it?

There’s a queen that lives in London, and her guards have funny hats.

Part 2 – What Do You Feel

When mommy will be in London, Danny may miss her.

He may be sad. And that’s okay.

He may be angry. And that’s okay.

Maybe he won’t be sad nor angry. That’s also okay.

Whatever he may feel, he can always come to daddy for a hug.

Part 3 – What Can We Do

We can draw a picture for mommy while she’s away.

We can play in our piano or drums.

We can write her a letter.

And we can call her on the phone and see her on video.

Soon, mommy will be back with many many hugs for Danny.


Our children need to cope with many, many things in their daily lives. Their emotional language is something that is learned mainly by communicating with us and other adults in their lives.

Stories can be a powerful tool to help your child cope with his or her life by externalizing the problem and giving them an opportunity to look at things from a fresh point of view and also learn how to emotionally cope.

In this post I showed you how to simply create a short story that will help your child learn to deal and feel, thus bringing you even closer and helping you be his or her secure base.

Featured Image by NeONBRAND

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