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Magic of the Metaphor

Helping Children make sense of the Coronavirus

Fairytales feature turmoil and conflict for a reason – to prepare the young developing mind-body for the difficulties we face as adults: the loss, the grief, this pandemic.  Grimms fairytales and Aesops fables do exactly this.  My own first response work, particularly directing Child therapy after the Sandy Hook School Massacre, compels me to share a new folktale that is helping my three year old cope with and control her own perceptions of the Coronavirus. 

On the evening of March 9th, we were informed that our happy little girl’s Preschool was cancelled for the next morning.

I freely associated this new fairytale for her bedtime story:

“The Happy Clam and the Purple Algae”

Once upon a time there was the happiest little clam. She lived with her Mama and Dada and pet starfish.   She would travel to and from their happy little cavern in the coral reef to her school.  

One day, the Happy little clam went out for a walk with her Mama and Dada and pet starfish.  In the distance the Dada clam saw a Purple Algae – it looked like a fast changing haze. “Look!” Dada exclaimed pointing, “The Purple Algae”. Mama chimed in, “We need to get home.” With that the three clams closed their shells and shimmied into the sand, burrowing toward their happy little cavern.

Once they were safely inside their cavern in the coral reef, the parents told the Happy Clam, “The Purple Algae is a new virus in our world.  It has traveled the seven seas and now is here. To be safe we will stay home most of the time, there is no school for now.”

“Why do we have to stay home?”

“The purple algae can make mollusks sick.  When one sick clam sneezes or coughs the purple algae lands on rocks or shells, and if we make contact we can get sick.  For now we will keep our distance from others, wash our clam shells often, and stay home to play together. Dada and I are staying home too.”

“When can I see Silly Little Oyster?”

“For now you can see her on the rock screen, no worries – you will see her and play again one day.”

The happiest little clam snuggled closer to the Mama Clam and closed her shells, she was tired. The purple algae was exhausting her.  Here she felt cozy, calm,  and happy. 

“I love you Mama, I love you Dada”

“We love you happy little clam, sweet dreams.”

Art therapy and storytelling to recreate/redefine horrifying traumas is noted throughout history starting with the Holocaust.  The Journal of Humanistic Counseling published an article in 2011, “Children and Play In the Holocaust: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis- Heroic Child Therapist” , exploring the work with the children who entered the dismantling realms of Terezin, the German concentration camp. 

Though many children are in  safe  environments at home during the next few to several months, in some instances children living through this pandemic may be living in abusive or neglectful homes. Know that young children process life experiences in the subcortical regions of the brain, and the entire brain continues to develop through young adulthood.  What does this indicate? Very young children function with what is considered “reptile brain” – Hence, using playful and imaginative language allows the child to explore this dreadful topic void our harsh reality. This Coronavirus hurts people, and could potentially hurt their grandparents, or parents.  Imagery and puppet play will help children heal from the harmful effects of this pandemic.

My child matter of factly tells our loved ones on FaceTime when they ask things like – How are you,  or what are you doing today? “The Purple Algae” Sometimes with explanation and a sigh, “So I can’t see my friends,” or “No hugs”.  All of the above are typically met with a chuckle from the loved one.  Why? Because imagery helps us heal and cope.  In the days following the initial story telling we began making clam art

Encourage tracing both hands to create a “clam” shape, you can place wrists together to symbolize a clam-like form. If you like this fairytale, another effective and playful approach is to fold your hands in a fist pump position, and put your wrists together to make a “hand clam puppet”. Again children of all young ages can be as involved as you allow them to be. Let them trace blob hands, and then encourage them to do their best cutting them out. You can fold them, and do more storytelling if you like.  A background “safe ocean mural” can be encouraged.  – stashing and burrowing activities are fun, too!

This short folktale is a beginning, one playful example of how to captivate children and reduce the fears or upsets regarding the abrupt changes that have taken place.  Young children, though they may not have the words, are also processing the loss of social connection and normalcy.  Tell the Happy Clam & the Purple Algae story, and/or be creative, and have fun creating your own stories with your children.  Do they love the woods? The city, the zoo?  My family adores the Sea- so The Happy Clam was a natural fairytale to tell.

A spontaneous symbolic representation of our given lives amidst this pandemic, as the mollusk closes its shells for protection, and burrows deep into the sand.

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