When working with children and adolescents, stories can be used as therapeutic tools to help them discuss their difficulties from a safe distance and to strengthen their mental health. Not only do stories serve as a platform for eliciting feelings, thoughts and memories, they validate experiences, offer alternative perspectives and provide hope and inspiration. The following story, written by our psychologist Carolyn Kee, relates the passage of a river as it makes its way through discovery, loss, regret and reconciliation.

Therapists, teachers and parents can share this story with children or teenagers who experience upsetting emotions and act out in ways that hurt or harm themselves or others. When discussing the story, it is more helpful to ask open-ended questions that guide the child to think about his or her own response to the story rather than to explain or interpret the story for him or her. “Wonder” questions such as the following are useful for eliciting reflection:

“I wonder what this story is about?”
“I wonder which part of the story speaks to you the most? In what way?”
“I wonder which part of the story was surprising to you? Tell me more.”
“If you were writing this story, I wonder which part of the story you would change?”

The river started as a tiny stream, bursting forth from the mouth of the spring with a joyful gurgle. It traipsed along merrily, greeting the birds of the air and the flowers along its banks. “I’m heading to the great blue ocean where the waters are deep and where the most amazing fish and sea creatures live!”

“Truly truly!” chirped the birds soaring off into the clouds.

“Stay the course, stay the course,” sang the flowers dancing along the bank.

The river watched the farmers working their fields as it ran along. “How hard they work! How important that field must be to them,” mused the river. It noted how the farmers cut little grooves through the soil so that the river could stretch its fingers through the field to touch the seeds bundled in their little coats and nestled in the soil. The river marveled at the throbbing and pulsing of the seeds, the first signs of life, as they swelled in the arms of its watery caress, until finally, waking from their sleep, they pulled off their coats and began to grow.

Summer drew close and with it came the fullness of life. The heady fragrance of flowers permeated the air, sending the butterflies and bees into a drunken stupor, as they whirled and weaved on a stage exploding with crimson, reds and gold. The river swelled with pride as it watched the seeds that it had ever so gently imbued with life stretch their leaves in the warm glorious sun.

The time had come. The river could sense the flurry of activity as the farmers prepared to reap the rewards of months of toil. Standing tall in the fields, the columns of grain shimmer like beads of pearl, prized treasures carved through sweat and tears.

That night, the river could not sleep. The air was too still, too thick with heat. The crickets had ceased their trilling and the melancholic night owl was nowhere in sight. A distant flash of light and a low rumble heralded the start of the storm. As the lightning drew closer, splitting the darkness, and the winds snarled and howled  across the heaving sky, the river shivered. It felt the cold knot of fear spiral through its length, causing its waters to roll and churn. As the torrential rain beat and pounded against it, the river felt a trembling rise from within and a darkness that once lay buried in its depths erupted unleashed in crashing, boiling, delirious fury. It pushed and shoved, reached and pulled, coiling tighter and tighter, building on the power, and in a single blinding union of force and frenzy, the river surged forth, raging and ravaging in wild, ferocious, indiscriminate abandon.

The dappled sunlight peered timidly through the crisp morning dew which hung lightly in the air. The river woke bewildered from its daze and took in the waste that lay before it. The lifeless heads of once gallant stalks rose limply from a watery grave, skeletal and bare. The ragged corpse of a sparrow, its clenched feet stiffened in the throes of death, drifted silently on the stagnant water.

“Bully, bully,” the birds beat their wings in flight.

“Stay away, stay away,” cried the broken stems on the river side.

The muddied waters stirred in consternation. Repulsed by the annihilation of its own making, the river twisted away, pushing and turning from every bank, every pebble and every root that it had once lovingly tended and polished. With every bend, the river was wrenched and dragged deeper and deeper into the murky hollows, until it could run no more and ebbed in throbbing sorrow.

Months passed. Through the sting of grief, the river moved, in torpid dullness. A silent witness, it watched as the farmers cleared the debris left over from the storm, and looked on as they piled stone and sand along its river bank. As the banks grew taller, the river began to come to a settling, as it found stability in the solid rock that bordered its sides. Even as its most impudent waves beat against the banks, the river could feel the strength of the newly erected structures that would keep it safe.

When it saw the farmers start to sow their seeds again, the river turned away, reminded once again of its shame. It wondered at the audacity of the farmers who cut grooves into the soil, daring the river to enter their fields again. But though it tried to resist, the river was drawn inch by inch into the soil and was surprised by the embrace it received. It felt the earthy balm salve the harsh shadows and allowed the forgiving warmth to soothe its troubled waters, restoring wholeness to its heart.

As dusky pink clouds stretched across the evening sky, iridescent beams of light danced across the languid waves lapping gently on the winding river. The mellowing born of pain and regret brought forth a soft warm current that curled through the river in fluid grace and touched the land and plants with greater tenderness. The river sang its song in a deeper voice rich in melody. “I’m heading to the great blue ocean where the waters are deep and where the most amazing fish and sea creatures live!”

“Truly truly!” chirped the birds soaring off into the clouds.

“Stay the course, stay the course,” sang the flowers dancing along the bank.

The river, majestic and elegant in the fullness of its being, weaved endlessly on, a constant presence amidst the rippling light and darkness of its ever changing waves.

Written by Ms Carolyn Kee
Consultant Principal Psychologist