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By Leda Sportolari, L.S.W.
Through The Eyes of Children: Healing Stories for Children of Divorce
by Janet R. Johnston, Ph.D., Karen Breunig, M.S., Carla Garrity, Ph.D., Mitchell Baris, Ph.D.

Through The Eyes of Children: Healing Stories for Children of Divorce is a collection of fable-like tales designed to be read to children by their parents, therapists, or other concerned adults. The stories help children understand and cope with their parents’ separation and the fallout from their parents’ conflict with each other. While some are written with younger or older children in mind, the authors point out that it is the story’s theme which is the most important determinant of its usefulness to a particular child‹how well it correlates with the family experience from that child’s point of view. For each of the 15 stories the authors provide a paragraph preface describing what underlying struggle the story addresses and the coping strategies and resolution(s) it suggests. Story themes include normative divorce issues such as handling sadness and anger, loyalty conflicts, reunification fantasies, caretaking depressed or depleted parents, long distance relationships with noncustodial parents, and step and blended family issues; as well as themes dealing with more serious situations such as high conflict divorce, parental substance abuse and extreme parental anger or violence. In the introduction to the collection, the authors encourage caregivers to craft their own unique stories for their children and offer substantive, sound guidance on how to do so. They list and describe core concerns of children in separated families, as well as key story elements to include that facilitate psychological healing.

About a decade ago, I was fortunate to work with Janet Johnston, Ph.D., the principal author of Through the Eyes of Children, on the West Coast when she was first developing her therapeutic use of stories. The Turtle Story, the first story in the collection, is the original story Dr. Johnston wrote and is a real gem. It gives children (and parents) a non-blaming way to understand divorce and emphasizes how important it is that children continue to positively identify with and have a relationship with each parent. It is the story of how Sammy, a sand turtle, and Sally, a sea turtle, meet at the water’s edge and fall in love, attracted by their differences. Tommy and Tina turtle are soon born and have so much fun both digging in the sand and playing in the waves, that they don’t notice that their parents are spending less and less time together. Finally Sammy and Sally decide that Sammy will live up in the sand dunes and Sally will live at the bottom of the ocean.

Both Tommy and Tina are sad, with Tommy expressing it as anger and Tina as withdrawal and depression. They seek the counsel of the “wise old owl” asking him, “Can you please make our mother and father live together again?” The wise old owl answers, “A sand turtle should NEVER marry a sea turtle. They are each two different kinds of turtles. . . When they live together at the water’s edge they are both unhappy, cross, and angry. It is much better than they live in places where they are happy again! But you Tommy Turtle and you, Tina Turtle, are each half a sand turtle and half a sea turtle. You can live in the ocean and eat jellyfish and you can live on the land and eat sand crabs. . . .The best plan for you is to live some of the time in the water with your mother and some of the time on the land with your father.”

The Turtle Story, like many of the stories in the collection, uses a wise figure (the owl) who does not make unrealistic promises (he can’t reunite the turtles’ parents). Rather, he offers an explanation for the divorce (your parents are very different and made a mistake getting married) as well as a realistic solution (you are of both your parents, and can benefit from and live with both). The stories speak to children’s deepest concerns and feelings as well as offering hope and comfort. The tales primarily feature animals as protagonists, thus allowing children to easily identify with the characters and deal with issues at a symbolic, non-threatening level. The stories need not be interpreted to children as being about their own lives to be effective; rather, the authors advise adults to follow children’s lead in discussing how much they feel either the same or different from the characters in the story.