How To Write A Crisis Story

Exceptional Parenting, July 1997

You go to a gathering of family or friends. Everything is perfect. The weather is crisp but sunny. The drive was uneventful. The food smells wonderful. The people there are warm, inviting. All is well.

Except your child is standing in the doorway throwing a tantrum that shows no sign of letting up. And the relatives’ welcoming smiles are becoming frozen on their faces. People are beginning to back away with puzzled looks or worse, to come forward and try themselves to cajole your child out of it. What is a parent to do?

It happens to all of us at one time or another, and if you have a child with some sort of special issues, such as behavior problems, it probably happens a lot. This is most likely not due to bad parenting, rather to unprepared parenting.

The scene I described is exactly the way my Thanksgiving went four years ago. And ever since that day, I try to go into any new situation with a crisis story. The crisis story is a tool I’ve developed that is similar to the social story, a device used frequently with children who have difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next. Social stories and crisis stories describe in very simple language what is expected of the child each step of the way for any particular activity. Although often used with children who have developmental delays and related behavior issues, any child can benefit from the use of these stories, particularly around an event that may be strange, new, or potentially unsettling for the child. The social story and crisis story explain the activity from start to finish, removing the mystery and giving comfort to the child.

A crisis story goes beyond the social story in that it contains visual aids and personalizes the story. Crisis stories can be designed for the particularly difficult upcoming event, such as spending all day at an unfamiliar relative’s house, or starting a new school, or moving to a new home. I use actual family or magazine photos to accompany my story narrative and personalize the story to my child and his specific needs. These stories have been enormously successful for my son because they are written for him and about him. They utterly absorb his attention because they contain pictures of him and his loved ones and because they deal with the things he worries about. Crisis stories contain the details that are important to a specific child. The following is a step-by-step description of how to make your own crisis story.

1) What you’ll need to begin.

You’ll need about 10 pieces of construction paper or a pad of paper, scotch tape, scissors, pen, magazines to cut from, and photos you won’t mind cutting. You will be constructing the scenes you will need for your story — faking scenes — using people from one photo and another, combined with magazine photos, (as needed) all taped together.

2) On separate paper, sketch out your narrative.

The entire story is about ten to fifteen pages. There should be around two to three lines per page, so you’ll have to extract only the most necessary words. Start with a small, simple definition of what the event is, but keep it in the child’s terms. For example, it’s probably not important to him at age four that Thanksgiving is “a commemoration of the Pilgrim settlers’ peaceful dinner with the Native Americans.” For him, Thanksgiving is “a holiday where we eat a turkey dinner with our family for one afternoon. We feel happy and thankful that we have family and friends to spend time with.” The same lines can be adapted to Christmas, Easter, Passover, etc. You can state simply that Christmas dinner is eaten with such and such people; you don’t have to get into the religious aspects or even Santa Claus because you are merely trying to get your child successfully through the social event (unless a visit from Santa is scheduled during the dinner and there will be some related expectation of your child).

3) Keep your child’s needs and abilities in mind as you write.

What is important next? What will he see? What might he be feeling? Think moment by moment. A crowd of people at the door. Sitting at a huge table. Uncomfortable chairs. Grandma’s dog. Perhaps you will continue your text with the car ride, which goes with most of these dinners. If he must endure a long car ride to get there, tell him that it will be long, but when he gets there he will see the following people, toys, pets, etc. He might feel scared for a little bit but he will have toys and Mommy and Daddy to comfort him and he will soon calm down. Put this into the text. If this is read to him from a book it carries much more weight than if you simply tell him. He will look at the pictures of him at Grandma’s house, smiling (he won’t know that the picture was cut and pasted from his birthday party last year!) and he will believe it. If the book is about something like moving to a new house, you can have a line like: “The house becomes empty” with a picture of an empty room. Think like your child. Get down to his level. See what he will be seeing. Feel what he will be feeling.

4) Write about each consecutive aspect that is essential to the event — as briefly as possible.

The dinner. The duration. Your expectations of him: “Jack will sit quietly at the table while he is eating. After he eats he can run around.” Or if the story is about moving day, the text might run like this: “We pack up all of our toys, books and clothes into boxes. The moving men take the boxes and put them on the truck. We say goodbye to our old house. We drive over to our new house.” Each of these sentences could be a separate page in the book.

5) Be clear about your expectations of him.

He is expected to sit fairly quietly, calmly, and eat some of the food. He is not to scream or run around the table. You must list what he will do and read it authoritatively. Preferably you will have pasted up a fake picture with him sitting cooperatively at this magazine-picture Thanksgiving table so he can see for himself how nicely he will sit at Thanksgiving or whatever holiday it is.

6) Describe how the event will end, what his reward will be for getting through it.

After the dinner is over, or after he has sat nicely for a little while, he will eat pumpkin pie and then go home. Or if this is a book about moving, talk about his wonderful new room. You can often arrange with realtors to get in and photograph the place before moving day.

7) Recapitulate the salient features of the day/event and end on a positive note.

Conclude that Thanksgiving/Christmas/Easter/Passover was pleasant; we all did a good job there at Grandma’s and we will do it again next year. Or that our new house has all of our things in it now and that we will like it here.

8) Once the text is finalized, assemble your pictures.

Before going to the event try to photograph the room or rooms, and the people who will be there, and the food that will be eaten there. For instance, before a holiday dinner take pictures of Grandma, a turkey on Grandma’s table if you can, or find a picture in a magazine. Use a collage of found magazine pictures with family photos to create the pictures of who and what will be there. Don’t be afraid to cut up photos and tape together a picture of little brother sitting at a Better Homes and Gardens Thanksgiving Day feast, with an out-of-date photo of Grandma at the head of the table if that’s all you have. Every page of your story should have photos of the people your child will see there.

9) Tape the appropriate picture to the construction paper page and copy the corresponding text beneath each picture.

You can fold each page in half, and lay the pages within each other in booklet form, or you can use whole pages and staple them. Whatever works for you is the best method. Design an interesting cover to go with it.

Read the story as many times as he will allow. You may find, as I did, that he will repeat the phrases to himself during the event and that this will have a calming effect on him. It is a bit of work, doing all that cutting and taping, but you might find it fun, too. And you will have a lovely, helpful book that your child will like because it is all about him!