How journaling and journaling prompts can help kids and teens after abuse

Writing and journaling support abuse survivors’ healing and mental health

It might seem counter-intuitive to parents and caregivers accustomed to hearing their kids avoid their English homework, but a regular journal writing practice can help kids and teens recover and heal after traumatic events like sexual assault, an abusive relationship, domestic violence, and more.

Importance of journaling for kids and teens

Kids and teens often lack self-awareness. Young kids, for instance, can understand physical pain but may not understand why they feel negative emotions like anger or fear. Teens may lack self-compassion, an understanding of “what comes next,” or the ability to regain a sense of control of their own life’s narrative. 

Kids and teens may also feel the emotional exhaustion of having to speak to counselors and investigators, relive stressful events, and lack the communication skills to fully self-reflect. In a sense, they may be remembering events but not processing them. 

Journaling can help kids and teens:

  • Capture their personal thoughts in a private space
  • Explore their thoughts and beliefs, question their reflections, and discover new insights about themselves by reading old posts as time progresses
  • Say what’s on their mind without fear of upsetting others, allowing them to move forward in the healing process
  • Expand their vocabulary through written words, sometimes in pursuit of “finding the right word” or words. This is handy on a digital device with built-in dictionaries and thesauruses.

Expressing feelings through journaling to build resilience

Teachers have long recognized many kids and teens will reveal insights through writing they would never express verbally. Even in class assignments as common as “What we did this summer,” kids use expressive writing similar to artwork, often masking their own experiences through characters or scenes. This self-reflection is critical and can also yield insights to trusted adults about a child’s overall health and well-being.

For youth working with a therapist or other psychiatric treatment, the benefits of journaling extend to being able to communicate with their doctor. Children and teens may find it easier to share their journal entries with therapists, counselors, or supportive individuals who can help them navigate their healing journey. These trusted individuals can gain valuable insights into the child’s or teenager’s experiences and feelings, enabling them to provide more targeted support. It can also be useful if a child seeks professional help years later or into their adulthood.

Journals and diaries can also serve as supporting evidence for future judicial actions and support. In cases of sexual assault or abuse, journaling can provide documentation and evidence if legal action is pursued later on. Journal entries can serve as contemporaneous records of the events, emotional impact, and subsequent recovery progress. 

However, it’s important to consult with legal professionals on how to appropriately preserve and handle such documentation. It’s also important to recognize these events are rare and fear of the court system should not deter someone from expressing themselves.

Expressive and creative writing may help youth get through difficult times

You might remember an elementary school teacher asking you to write a letter to yourself in the future. Then, many years later the collected letters were delivered upon your high school graduation. It’s a common technique to show personal growth. Those letters to a future self aren’t always done for therapeutic effect, but offer a lighthearted way to remind yourself of who you were and the kind of person you’ve become — or thought you’d become. But for many, they are therapeutic and helpful.

Difficult emotions often change over time. Initial anger and frustration give way to sadness or grief or become distant memories. Every child is different in how they process stress or express themselves. 

In one study, a writer used their journal as a sort of “art therapy.” The researchers write, in part, “ As a result of the study, the participant-researcher experienced an increased sense of empowerment and advocacy, pride of self, spiritual growth, hope, and enhanced self-love.”

Tips on how to start journaling

Expressive writing helps them slow down, particularly when writing is done long-form with a pen and paper. 

Parents and caregivers can model personal reflection by journaling together, but privately.

  • Consider establishing dedicated “journaling times”, like after school or on Sunday mornings.
  • Be self-critical, and offer to talk about anything. This works both ways for parents and kids. Even if they don’t share what they’re writing about, you can offer to talk about what you did from time to time to show it’s okay.
  • Offer prompts or questions. We’ve included some examples below.

Some kids may get hung up on sentence structure, spelling, or the “semantics” of writing. Remind them that reflective journaling is about feelings and strong emotions, not grammar. No one’s grading them, and no one has to read it unless they offer to share it with someone first. Emphasizing non-judgment and privacy, particularly when many kids may feel a distinct lack of privacy in their lives, is a significant benefit. 

Choose topics or formats that interest them and guard online journals

You don’t need much to get started, but it’s important for kids to find the medium that serves their message. That might include:

  • A series of Post-it notes or index cards. The small size requires brevity and can alleviate many people’s “blank page” fear.
  • A single sheet of paper can be a start, too. Writing on paper with a pen is likely better for any writer, as it purposefully slows people down. Using a pen to write can reduce stress levels and distractions offered by phones or laptops.
  • Journal apps like Day One exist for phones and computers. These apps help people journal regularly, and many offer features that automate some parts of the process, like logging the date, time, and even the weather. They’re a powerful tool for kids who want reminders, prompts, and the ability to reflect on past entries quickly. 
  • Absent dedicated apps, even the simple Notes app on a phone, Google Docs, Word, or other word processors can work fine, too.
  • Recognize paper journals have the benefit of including space to doodle, draw, and include artwork. 
  • Digital journals have the benefit of including ways to use photos and videos. Tablet devices that support digital styluses may also be able to support drawing. All are useful coping strategies.

Some older kids and teens may want to share their feelings publicly online through a blog or website. This can help them find a community of survivors with similar life experiences and identify lots of online resources for people dealing with traumatic experiences.

If your child shows interest in online journaling, talk to them about online safety and stress the benefits of journaling and the risks associated with publishing it online. Even when published under a pseudonym, many teens and kids will likely share the link with a family member or close friend. This risks their privacy as friendships evolve over time.

Journal writing prompts for kids and teen abuse survivors

Here are some writing prompts to help you or your kids start a regular journaling practice, creative or expressive writing practice, or gratitude journal.

  1. Write a letter to your younger self, offering words of comfort, support, and encouragement.
  2. Describe a place where you feel safe and at peace. What does it look like, smell like, and sound like? How does it make you feel?
  3. Reflect on a time when you felt strong and resilient. What strengths and qualities did you display? How can you apply those strengths to your healing journey?
  4. Write about a positive memory or experience that brings you joy. Describe it in detail and explain why it’s meaningful to you.
  5. List three things you appreciate about yourself and why they are important to your healing process.
  6. Describe a coping strategy or self-care activity that helps you feel better when you’re struggling. How does it make you feel, and how can you incorporate it into your daily life?
  7. Reflect on a time when you overcame a challenge or obstacle. What steps did you take to overcome it, and how can you apply those steps to your current healing journey?
  8. Write a gratitude list, focusing on things or people that bring positivity and support into your life.
  9. Describe a person or role model who inspires you. What qualities do they possess that you admire, and how can you incorporate those qualities into your own life?
  10. Write a poem or create a piece of art that represents your journey of healing and resilience.
  11. Write a letter to someone who has supported you throughout your healing journey. Describe how their support has made a difference in your life and express your gratitude.
  12. Imagine you have a magic wand that can bring healing and positivity into your life. Describe the changes you would make and how they would impact you.
  13. Create a playlist of songs that resonate with your healing journey. Write about each song and how it makes you feel or why it holds significance for you.
  14. Reflect on a quote or mantra that inspires you. Write about why it resonates with you and how it can provide guidance and strength during challenging times.
  15. Write a fictional story or poem that symbolizes your journey of resilience and healing. Explore metaphors or symbols that represent different aspects of your experience.
  16. Make a list of activities or hobbies that bring you a sense of peace and joy. Describe how each activity makes you feel and how you can incorporate them into your healing routine.
  17. Imagine you have the ability to travel back in time and offer support to your past self during a difficult moment. Write about the advice and encouragement you would give.
  18. Reflect on a personal quality or skill that has been strengthened or developed as a result of your healing journey. Explain how this growth has impacted your life.
  19. Create a collage or vision board representing your vision of healing and a positive future. Describe the elements you included and what they symbolize to you.
  20. Write a letter to your future self, expressing your hopes, dreams, and intentions for your continued healing journey. Reflect on the progress you’ve made so far and the goals you aspire to achieve.
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