The Little Iceberg
by Nicky Murray
(illustrated by Sylvia Lynch)

Nicky Murray (Headteacher of Claypotts Primary School) and Suzanne Zeedyk (developmental psychologist, research scientist and founder of connected baby) will be familiar names to many of our community who are familiar with the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) movement in Scotland. Their collaboration has resulted in the publication of Nicky’s story of The Little Iceberg – a story inspired by a child Nicky was working with and which he penned on his mobile phone while sitting on his daughter’s bed waiting for her to fall asleep.

The book is a high-quality children’s book and like many successful stories demands more than one reading to appreciate the depth of insight offered by the narrative. As the blurb states ‘This is the metaphoric story of a child who is able to embark on a journey of healing because she no longer has to cope with loss and trauma on her own.’ The lonely, frightened little iceberg is helped by the compassionate little bird and finally she finds a place of belonging. The captivating illustrations created by artist Sylvia Lynch bring the story to life and the message is very much one of hope.

As Hazel, an adoptive mum said, “It is such a beautiful book. The illustrations really pulled my son in and he examined them all in lots of detail.” Her son said, “You feel safe when you see the rainbow.” His engagement and connection to the story was such that he requested a rainbow styled wrist band for his transitional object when going back to school and even took a copy of the book to share the story with his new teacher.

Many schools have ordered copies of The Little Iceberg and are using the story as part of their recovery curriculum this term.  The connected baby team created the Companion Guide that comes with the book to support just such activity. Thumbnails of each illustrated page sit alongside an explanation of that part of the story so that none of the key messages are lost. This Guide supports parents and teachers when reading and talking about the story with their children.

Suzanne explains that connected baby is focused on three areas of action:  creating resources, hosting events and staging exhibitions around the theme of connection:  “We work to find creative ways that help people to understand the science of connection and bring it to life.” The Little Iceberg does just that! For adoptive children the themes around not belonging and being disconnected are powerful. Although it’s not just adoptive children who will relate to this book; any child who has experienced loss and trauma will find a connection with this story.

Suzanne explains that, “It’s very hard for parents to watch their child struggling with these feelings and it’s natural to want to make those feelings disappear.” She goes on to explain the power of presence, “Just being present, being kind and listening to the feelings like the little bird does is what’s needed. That’s where trust is built.” The feelings don’t go away quickly. Children carry them for a long time and the feelings can bubble up during times of overwhelm and may even explode.

Schools can sometimes trigger this overwhelm but it is important to remember that a lot of the trauma and pain, just as with the metaphor of the iceberg, is hidden from sight. As adults in school, we need to respond with compassion and kindness. Many children affected by trauma have an impaired sense of cause and effect - and an inflated sense of shame - so traditional school sanctions and reprimands are unlikely to work. Luckily, as Nicky states, “Far more schools are devoting more time to understanding the biological basis of behaviour and building confidence with therapeutic approaches and moments across the day with check ins and relational practice.”

Often as parents or teachers supporting traumatised children, we think a big intervention is needed to provide support.  One of the wonderful messages of The Little Iceberg is how powerful presence is and how it creates connection. Suzanne explains, “It takes great strength to stand with another person who is in pain, especially if it’s your child, who you love, and listen to that pain. Because it’s easier to shut it down and to think you’ve fixed it. Or to tell them, it’ll be fine.…But the problem is that doesn’t help the child to heal their feelings. What they learn is that they can’t talk to you when they are in pain. What you want them to learn, is that they can come to you with their pain. And that takes courage for adults to do. Yet, if you trust that listening is the key thing you need to do, if that is ‘all’ you need to do, then that can be comforting.” When CAMHS’ waiting lists are long and funds are in short supply, the message of presence, connection and time as essential elements of the healing process is a welcome one - although more funds and mental health supports would not go amiss.

Of course, the themes of loss and belonging are not only relevant to children. As adults we need to respect our own losses and be kind to ourselves. We cannot support children with their big feelings when we do not acknowledge our own. We need to be able to remain regulated and calm when our children are overwhelmed and to do this, we need to be mindful of our own mental and physical state.

Parents and teachers know that supporting children with trauma can impact on their own mental and physical health. The little bird, with compassion and kindness, shows that when we are scared by the storm facing us, we can withdraw and keep ourselves safe, and that it takes courage to return. Suzanne explains, “Even when you are being kind, when things get too scary, you might need to stop for a bit. Remove yourself. Stay compassionate and then return.” When we don’t take anger personally and remain regulated, we help children to feel safe. This is also an excellent message for classmates who may find it difficult when the child carrying trauma lashes out. As parents of ‘that child’ we know too well how other children, and their parents, can increase the feelings of not belonging by excluding our child and adding to their trauma.

The metaphor in this book allows for discussion, encourages kindness and facilitates ways to stay safe.  The story is essentially a parable that Nicky first created for a school assembly to encourage kindness, compassion, hope and connection in the school community. The original storytelling beginnings help to explain the light feel the story has. Hazel explains, “I feel the book is helping my son, but it feels gentle and not too heavy.  It has led to conversations about how the iceberg must have felt, how the bird felt, and why the page with the rainbow made Callum feel safe.”

In his school Nicky uses these three words to support children in their healing: safety, choice, trust. Children have a degree of ownership over how their day in school will be; they are offered choices with safety in mind and over time trust in adults is developed. In the story, the little bird models how this trust can be developed over time.

One of the benefits of sharing this story in schools is that it can unite children in their grief, offering a shared reading experience and initiating sensitive topics for discussion among children. Adoptive families often hear their children talking about foster families, birth families and half-siblings with other adoptive children. This conversation is incredibly important as it helps them to process their story and ‘normalise’ it for them. Other children use the same terms and have similar stories creating a feeling of belonging and normality. This is what The Little Iceberg does: it creates a community which allows children to talk about loss and not belonging. By making it normal to talk about, it helps children to process and understand their feelings.

There are no quick solutions to healing from trauma but if you are a teacher or parent supporting a child in their healing, read this book. You will love this beautiful story, be captivated by the illustrations and find that it opens important conversations with your child.

Find out more about connected baby and The Little Iceberg by clicking the image: