‘Tell your story’: The power of poetry to help kids cope

Plus, 6 ideas to get your child started

Award-winning teen poet Mckalah Jimenez has been writing poetry since she was nine years old, but it became a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her family was struggling to pay rent, she couldn’t focus on her virtual classes, and she hadn’t seen her best friend for months. 

When she felt overwhelmed with anxiety, poetry was a release—a way for her to express her emotions and regain a sense of control. “I was writing more and more, and I came up with poems every single day,” says Jimenez, who is currently a junior in high school. “Poetry helped me take my mind off being kept away from the outside world.”

Like Jimenez, many kids are grappling with pandemic stress, complex conversations around racial injustice and political unrest, and unprecedented natural disasters. Poetry is a creative outlet that can help them express themselves during these tumultuous times.

In fact, the positive effects of poetry garnered national attention during President Joe Biden’s inauguration as the world watched 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s moving reading of “The Hill We Climb,” a lyrical message of hope and heartache inspired by the events of the past year. In an interview with NPR, Gorman revealed how writing poetry helped her overcome a speech impediment and gave her creative freedom.

“Writing, particularly journaling and poetry, provides people with emotional release,” says Nicholas Mazza, professor and dean emeritus of the Florida State University College of Social Work and founder of the journal Poetry Therapy. “If you’re anxious or worried about something, writing it down helps you get some control over it.”

Poetry can improve kids’ well-being, reading comprehension, and self-esteem—and they don’t need to be award-winning youth laureates to reap these benefits. Here’s why poetry is so powerful, and how parents can help foster creativity at home.

Poetry and the brain

Poetry has some unique linguistic characteristics that set it apart from other types of writing. Compared to traditional prose, poetry often communicates ideas and emotions through metaphor, condenses ideas into fewer words, and uses rhythm and rhyme to give it a musical quality.

fMRI studies show that listening to poetry activates similar brain regions as listening to music—likely because poetry taps into the melodic properties of language. This includes the brain’s reward system, which is responsible for pleasurable emotions. And because of the emotional nature of poetic language, researchers suggest it may also foster empathy in the reader or listener.

These rhythmic qualities can also sharpen kids’ reading skills and memory, says neuroscientist Katherine Swett Aboud, a researcher in the Education and Brain Science Research Lab at Vanderbilt University. That’s because rhymes and rhythms are particularly memorable, and they help younger children learn phonology, or the sounds of words.

And unlike prose, poetry is more likely to activate areas of the brain associated with introspection, which is key in cultivating mindfulness. “We know that when you teach kids mindfulness meditation, they’re able to experience the same reduction in stress that adults do, even young children,” says Anandhi Narasimhan, a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. “The only difference is that kids’ brains are still developing, so there could be an added benefit over time.”

Finally, creating poetry is a multi-stage creative process. Whether you’re a novice or a pro, the act of writing poetry—and then revising it—can exercise different areas of the brain related to focus and creativity, says Swett Aboud, who co-authored a neuroimaging study of poetry composition and revision.

The healing power of poetry

Research shows that isolation and increased anxiety related to the pandemic can worsen mental health problems in young people, including substance misuse. While not a substitute for professional mental health treatment, creative writing—whether it’s journaling, poetry, or storytelling—can help kids express and work through these complex emotions.

“This pandemic has brought about feelings of isolation and stress to so many people, including children,” Narasimhan says. “Part of cognitive-behavioral therapy involves putting your thoughts on paper so you can dissect what you were thinking. Many of my patients have found comfort in writing poetry and songwriting because it allows them to do just that.”

Poetry is a form of writing that often evokes emotion in both the writer and reader. That’s what makes it a particularly strong medium for kids and teens to explore feelings and individuality, Narasimhan says.

“The last year has had an incredible impact on my work,” says 17-year-old Alora Young, the 2020 Nashville Youth Poet Laureate. “The Black Lives Matter movement and protest served as an inspiration for art I have been waiting to make but never had the words to.”

Nineteen-year-old Faye Harrison, the 2020-21 Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Youth Poet Laureate, was also inspired by recent events in the United States. “Poetry is kind of like reconstructing language to tell your story,” Harrison says. “My poetry is political because as a Black queer person, my existence ends up being political. For some reason, my existence and identity is always up for debate.” But through poetry, Harrison controls the narrative.

It’s also an outlet for kids to express things they may not be ready to talk about. “When someone writes or shares poetry, it’s liberating for them because they’re able to express secrecy or things they can’t express otherwise,” Narasimhan says. “Having someone read it and accept it and still show them compassion is empowering. Sharing vulnerabilities is empowering in that it reduces shame and feelings of loneliness and abandonment.”

Poetry can also allow kids to feel safe when writing about personal struggles, explains Kirsten Giles, workshop coordinator for WriteGirl, a nonprofit mentorship program for teen girls in Los Angeles. For example, they may write about encountering a bear in the forest as a metaphor for a difficult encounter.

“The shield of creativity and abstraction protects your vulnerability,” Giles says. “It puts you back in control.”

Kids often feel like they have no choices—and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has amplified these feelings. But Mazza says that poetry gives them a myriad of choices—not just in form, composition, and punctuation, but in the words and topics they choose.

“You can’t make a mistake expressing personal feelings,” Mazza says.

6 ways parents can help foster creativity

Harrison says encouraging children to read the works of diverse poets is a good starting point to help kids tune into what excites them about poetry. Here are five other ideas to get your kids started:

Sit outside. Giles recommends having kids spend five minutes outside exploring each of their five senses—this can inspire poetry while also relieving stress. You can also take a walk to observe your surroundings, and take photos for even more creative energy.

Look within. Giles uses common prompts to explore identity, such as “I come from,” “I believe,” and “This is the story of my name.” “It’s almost like when we put our identity on a page, we own it more,” she says.

Make a list. Lists are another way to ease into writing, Giles says. Encouraging kids to make lists of their favorite foods, for example, or animals they’d love to be able to talk to can spark imagination.

Rip and scribble. Another way to get kids inspired is not writing at all. Instead, try ripping out a page from a magazine and start crossing out words. “Leave words that you like, and poetry can just happen,” Giles says. Another option is to create a rule, like writing down every third noun in the dictionary and playing around with the results.

Follow a prompt. Fill-in-the-blank poetry prompts are a less intimidating way to start writing thoughts and seeing where they lead, says Alex Leviton, a volunteer with the Pongo Poetry Project, a Seattle-based teen poetry organization. For example:

• Today, my heart feels like ...
• If my heart could speak, it would say …
• A good day is when you are given …
• I hope every empty room will eventually have …
• I want you to understand my pain when ….

Most importantly, support your child in their self-expression. “People ‘nope’ each other all the time; kids are used to this,” Leviton says. “They hear, ‘No, you don't feel that way,’ or ‘That's not important.’ I tell parents all the time, don’t ‘nope’ them.”

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