How Poetry Heals

April 18, 2018

This April is the 22nd annual National Poetry Month. Two clinicians, Bob Nickles and CasSandra Calin, from Mental Health Services (MHS) at ChildSavers teamed up to share their perspectives. They shared that they believe children live in a world of symbols and speak with real voices. In this way, children and adolescents can be poets and young people can expand adults’ understanding of how to communicate.

Since its inauguration by the American Academy of Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month has brought literary celebrations to communities across the country. Poetry, unlike prose, doesn’t fill a page. Lines of poetry shift and slide without clear direction. While authors of essays make their ideas clear and precise, poets use ambiguity to hide their meaning. Poets invite the reader into an interpretive dance with the text. Like it or hate it, poetry evokes strong feelings.

When a Child Loses Their Voice

Children experience the world with fresh eyes. They have great capacity for imagination, make-believe, and magic. Unlike adults, children are less likely to hide their voices. Children can be more authentic than adults, too. Gradually, as children learn how the world works, they begin to make stronger distinctions between real and make-believe. Children slowly learn how to act based on specific contexts: sit up straight, shake hands, don’t interrupt, etc.

These are important lessons, which serve us well. However, these lessons can dampen adventure into the magical world of imagination. Even when life is running smoothly, therapy can help children by preserving child-like thinking while maintaining appropriate responsibility and structure in their lives. Sometimes, life does not run smoothly. In the face of danger, loss, or stress, children may begin to believe that they should no longer imagine. Children may become adult-like in their thinking too quickly. They can begin to take on blame for a disaster or responsibility for adults involved. Taking on too much responsibility as a child can be harmful.

By taking on roles that are not healthy for them, children may lose their voices. In these cases, therapy assists children in recovering their voices and self-expression through symbols, language, play, and poetry. Therapy can also assist those who love and care for children in connecting to the child’s perspective.

How Poetry Can Help a Child Find Theirs Voice

One way to support children with poetry is to use fill-in-the-blank sentences to bridge the communication gap between child and adult. Structuring symbolic language allows self-expression to move beyond play into verbal or written narrative. This is easier for adult brains to comprehend. Shared language between adults and children assists families in developing private codes for hard-to-discuss topics. Consider the following:

If death was a color it would be ______.

If death was an animal it would be _____.

If death was a song it would be _____.

If grief was a season it would be _____.

If grief was a sound it would be _____.

For example, talking together about a “sneaky opossum” that hides in the trash instead of speaking directly about death, can create a safe distance for a parent and child to discuss something scary. Saying, “I’m in that long, long post office line today,” may be easier for children than describing symptoms of personal grief.

You can try this out by writing five lines about a feeling or event.

  • Line one: one word for the feeling or event you want to process (title)
  • Line two: two words to describe the event or feeling
  • Line three: three action words related to the event or feeling
  • Line four: four words about the feeling or event’s impact on you
  • Fifth line: another word (title) different from the first line.

This poem explores an emotion richly and deeply in a short amount of time. Forms such as these can enhance a child’s emotional vocabulary. They will have more words to talk about their feelings. For example, children may communicate feeling “sad” as an “oozing, sinking, flooding” feeling. Also, children will see their words on paper. That paper can be touched, folded, ripped, or hidden. Further, the paper can be used to share their idea with an adult who cares about how they feel.

How Poetry in all its Forms Heals

Some children may not need paper. Each of us comes from different cultural and traditional backgrounds. Some of us verbally put symbols, words, and rhythm together to process life without paper. Some of us enjoy processing through language but writing and reading can be difficult or frustrating. There’s no wrong way to use poetry to process emotions. Song lyrics, metaphors, and storytelling may also be a helpful way for children to express their feelings in a way that feels safe and healing.

Also, poetry can show children that others have felt the same way. Whether or not a child can read, any adult with a dramatic voice can share poetry with a child.

The difference between children and adults is that children rarely hide their playful nature. Sometimes, that nature comes under the shadow of something difficult that the child has experienced. When this happens, they can use poetry and play to help them recover and heal.

Should you wish to learn more about the use of poetry in a therapeutic setting, please use the resources listed below.  For clinicians or those who practice in a clinical setting, we always recommend assessing readiness and appropriateness before implementing a therapeutic approach.


National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy

National Association for Poetry Therapy

For parents this is a look behind the curtain as to ways and reasons clinicians use poetry in therapy.  Please contact ChildSavers, or another local resource, if you have questions about this therapeutic approach.

By CasSandra Calin and Bob Nickles


CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University. CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.

Bob Nickles is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and actor. He was born in South Carolina and has been moving around ever since. Bob lives on the Northside of Richmond and hails most recently from St. Louis. ChildSavers welcomed Bob to the Mental Health team in 2015 and recently, he became the Program Supervisor for ChildSavers and Greater Richmond SCAN’s Richmond Public Schools Resiliency Partnership. Bob will lead the delivery of clinical services within Richmond’s East End schools and supervise the mental health team.