Writing therapy can be one of the best ways for children to process difficult or confusing events. It allows kids to vent their emotions, explore different ideas, and place themselves into alternate perspectives. It can provide a sense of clarity, meaning or closure. It’s also an activity that offers a certain sense of empowerment, especially for young children. Their faces light up with a sense of authority as they tell you to “write that down.” The act of recording their thoughts allows them to feel as though their voice and feelings are being heard and respected.

When it comes to dealing with negative feelings, “there’s something about writing it down that’s super important,” says Amy Nitza, director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York. (Wenner-Moyer, 2021) Research has shown that writing about a difficult experience brings about surprising improvements to both physical and mental health. (Pennebaker 1997; Pennebaker, Mayne & Francis, 1997) In fact, writing therapy can be as beneficial as seeing an actual therapist. (Gannon. 2010)

Writing therapy can also serve as a valuable tool for adults who are working with traumatized children. It opens up a window into what kids are thinking or feeling, allowing you to better address whatever might be troubling them. Caregivers can then use the process to reinforce a variety of recovery concepts.

The exercises in this chapter can be done with children of preschool age or older, even if they can’t yet read or write. You’ll just have to change the project from a writing project they do themselves to a dictation project you do together: an adult recording children’s thoughts as they dictate whatever it is they’d like to put on paper.

Guidelines for conducting writing therapy with children

In order for these sessions to be meaningful and productive, it’s important you adhere to the following guidelines:

1. All these exercises are designed to be a collaborative experience; don’t just give kids a pen and paper and tell them to write. Talk with them as they’re doing these exercises or sit down and do it alongside them. After they’re through, encourage them to share their thoughts with you, and use this opportunity to try and reinforce important principles of recovery.

Teens, on the other hand, may prefer to do some of these exercises alone and in private. You should give them that option while gently encouraging collaboration and sharing your own writing exercises.

2. Be respectful of children’s privacy, if they crave it. Give them the choice of whether to share their thoughts with you or others.

3. Children are highly suggestible, so be careful that you aren’t putting ideas into their head or guiding their answers beyond the basic instructions provided with the exercise itself. We don’t want your thoughts on the matter, we want theirs, which may be quite different from your own. When adults truly allow children to express their thoughts without direction or censure, they’re often surprised at what they find. The closer you can get to their uncontaminated thoughts, the better.

4. Most of all, be sure to adopt a positive focus in these writing exercises, promoting principles of empathy, understanding, and reconciliation. If all you do is have kids write about their anger or how upset they are, it will tend to reinforce these negative feelings rather than diminish them. It’s perfectly okay to allow kids to vent their frustrations, and there are exercises herein that allow them to do precisely that. But the focus then needs to turn towards replacing these feelings through greater understanding and compassion toward the situation.

5. Be aware that memory is not a static thing. We are always incorporating ideas and information obtained after-the-fact into our original memory. Thus some of these writing activities may alter a child’s memory, especially ones that encourage them to reimagine their story as fiction. A child may incorporate aspects of what they creatively write into their memory of the experience. This isn’t a bad thing per se – in fact, it’s part of what makes writing therapy so powerful. (The same type of memory contamination can also occur when kids are watching TV or talking to others; see the Memory chapter in our book, The Resilient Mind.) But it’s something you should be aware of, and if a child’s testimony is needed, you may want to hold off on certain exercises for now.

You can find instructions for specific writing therapy exercises in our eBook: Child Trauma & Recovery. It’s just $9.99 and all proceeds from your purchase go to help kids in need. (Coming Soon)