11 May 2023

Children's stories tackle the loneliness of trauma

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 11 May 2023

Māori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith says she often cried while writing her new series of therapeutic storybooks for kids.

"Some of the biggest witnesses and victims of violence are children and yet we don't speak to them directly about these matters and we don't let them speak to us in a sense," she tells Kathryn Ryan.

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith - a professor in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith - a professor in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato Photo: (c) University of Waikato

The books, which are based in kaupapa Māori, are a resource for people working with children who've experienced trauma, including caregivers, social workers, psychologists and doctors.

Tuhiwai Smith, who has spent decades researching the impacts of trauma on Māori communities, was driving around the North Island when she started thinking about how children can get left out of the conversation when there is family trauma.

She looked around for books that centre on childhood trauma and found very few so decided to write some herself – to be released in both English and te reo Māori.

The cover of Riwia and The Stargazer by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

The cover of Riwia and The Stargazer by Linda Tuhiwai Smith Photo: Huia Books

Riwia and The Stargazer (Riwia Me Te Mātai Arorangi) is about a little girl whose baby sibling dies.

"This story is about the grief of a family. It's about the resilience and resourcefulness and creativity of the parents who have to grieve for their baby but also care for this curious girl.

"It was really important to me to show that Māori fathers can be present… any dad or mum who is present for their child can be doing things to help them process grief."

I Am a Little Voice (He Reo Iti Noa Ahau), which is about a child who's been abused and needs professional help, was the book Tuhiwai Smith cried the most while writing.

"[As well as the impact of child abuse] it's also about the lots of little ways extended members of whanau can help children through with kindness…. Sometimes it's not the spectacular things that heal people, it's the everyday acts of kindness, love, relationships and recognition of what a child may be going through."

Tuhiwai Smith designed the books to help adults open up conversations with tamariki.

From her research, she knows that if a child experiences something traumatic and no one talks to them about it, they'll often create their own narrative in which they blame themselves.

"Children have far more insight and wisdom than we often give them credit for ... I have this belief that children can process grief and trauma if adults help them process it. And that means adults have to process their own emotions and be able to think outside what's going on for them.

"What parents must do is encompass their children in their grief processes and the management of their grief. That's where the healing is – it's healing for the parent as well as the child.'

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou) is a professor in Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato.