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Divorce Helping Children Through the Crisis of the Separation
Divorce & Children continuing education MFT CEUs

Section 13
The Benefits of the Therapeutic Story for Children of Divorce

CEU Question 13 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
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Rationale for the Therapeutic Use of Story
Children find it difficult to directly express their thoughts and feelings with words, yet are able to do so metaphorically through media such as art, music, and literature (Early, 1993, p. 98). Story (or bibliotherapy story-telling Divorce counselor CEU course , as it is sometimes referred to) can promote healing among children who have been traumatized or who are experiencing behavioral and emotional difficulties. Children's literature or story-telling can help solve interpersonal problems and promote mental health in children lacking self-esteem, appropriate role models, expressive language, or a vocabulary with which to express feelings (Bauer & Balius, 1995). Davis (1989) points out that the therapeutic use of story is particularly helpful because stories are a naturally enjoyable part of a child's life. In this form, it is not necessary for children to own their problems. In the story, children can see the main character struggle with a problem, explore various solutions, and arrive at a resolution. They react and experience feelings while thinking about what they would do in the same situation. This experience validates the child's feelings, illustrating that other children share the same feelings. According to Pardeck (1990b), the bibliotherapeutic approach lets children read about others who have overcome problems similar to their own and gives them the opportunity to apply what they have learned to their own situations. Troubled children will feel less isolated by reading or hearing about children who struggle with similar issues. The approach allows children to “see solutions to problems without the burden of in-depth verbalization, confrontation, and interpretation, strategies which are often critical to successful intervention” and avoids the problems that many children have with traditional interview-based therapy (p. 1044).

Developmental Therapy : Developmental therapy is the preventative process of helping healthy children deal with the usual difficult issues of childhood, whereas clinical therapy involves helping children cope with unusual emotional or behavioral problems. Therapeutic stories help children deal with common physical, social, and emotional changes (Pardeck & Pardeck, 1986; Gladding & Gladding, 1991). Cohen (1987) posits two goals of using children's literature therapeutically in institutional settings such as schools and hospitals: to anticipate and meet the emotional needs of children in a supportive environment before they become problematic and to offer different coping models for the shift from one developmental stage to another (Mohr, Nixon, & Vickers, 1991).

Children can maintain an emotional distance from their struggles by discussing the problems of story characters instead of their own conflicts. Borders and Paisley (1992) point out that by choosing books that express children's self-worth and that provide insights into relationship issues, the counselor can help children deal with common developmental stages. Providing children with information and expectations about common issues as well as examples of how others deal with developmental changes can make the process of growing up less intimidating (Schlichter & Burke, 1994). Another purpose for sharing therapeutic stories with groups of non-clinical children is to stimulate valuable discussion when certain topics trigger feelings of fear, guilt, or shame (Coleman & Ganong, 1990).

Play Therapy: The use of story is theoretically based on many of the same basic tenets as play therapy. Marvasti (1997) indicates the pivotal roles of metaphor and story in play therapy: “It has long been noted that many children have a difficult time with traditional talk therapy. However, through indirect methods such as play, art, and story-telling, children are able to communicate about therapeutic issues” (Marvasti cited in Bauer & Balius, 1995, p. 25). As in play therapy, children work through the feelings and problems of other characters, thus gaining affective distance from their own struggles (Lenkowsky, et al., 1987).

Cognitive Therapy: According to Davis (1990), the goals of using therapeutic stories are similar to those of cognitive and rational-emotive therapies: stories teach new attitudes and belief systems to children who have learned to believe that they are not worthwhile individuals. Okun (1991) states that bibliotherapy is also a behavioral strategy that focuses on specific, observable behaviors and aims to replace maladaptive behaviors with more appropriate ones. Many troubled children are unsure of themselves, and Okun points out that behavioral strategies such as modeling are effective in developing positive self-awareness.

Pardeck (1990a) points out that the therapeutic use of story can help children cognitively restructure problems related to victimization they may have experienced. When a child acquires information about being a victim of abuse and receives suggestions for new behaviors, therapeutic change can occur (Fuhriman, Barlow, & Wanlass, 1989).

Behavioral Therapy: The therapeutic use of story also draws on learning theory's position that children learn by imitation (Pardeck, 1989). Fictional characters in books can serve as models of positive, adaptive behavior, particularly useful for children lacking positive role models in their social environment. Bauer and Balius (1995) claim that therapeutic stories help children develop skills to resolve problems, while also providing them with corrective experiences.

Healing through the Therapeutic Story
Rapport and the Development of a Trusting Relationship: Central to the therapeutic use of story is the establishment of rapport and a trusting relationship (Wallas, 1985; 1991), which allows the client to be receptive to the healing message of the metaphor. The metaphor or story is a very powerful intervention, not only because it defuses resistance so that new possibilities offered in the story “become intriguing suggestions rather than commands” (p. 16), but also because it is free from confrontation (Marvasti, 1997). Additionally, story serves as a reflection of the client's struggles, contributing to the client's sense that the therapist understands and accepts the feelings and finds them to be important (Bettelheim, 1977; Rosen, 1982; Durrant, 1995). This is particularly true with children. Using story to communicate with children conveys respect for them and a willingness to use a medium in which they feel comfortable. Indeed, “when traveling to a foreign county, greeting a person in his own native language is an acknowledgment of respect that can lead to an immediate rapport” (Mills & Crowley, 1986, p. 105).

The Process : Based on Freud's stages of healing in psychotherapy, Pardeck (1990a) posits three stages in the process of healing that result when children are exposed to literature that reflects their struggles. The first stage involves identification and projection, where similarities between the child and the main character of the book are evident, and the child identifies with the needs, wishes, and frustrations of that character. This is the most fundamental aspect of the process because the child becomes involved with the protagonist, which may be helpful in the future to develop relationships in the real world, find new and creative ways of solving problems, and dealing with feelings. The child also gains a sense of security and hope in finding that he is not alone and that success may come. The second stage of the healing process involves abreaction and catharsis, in which the child experiences an emotional release of feelings expressed either verbally or non-verbally. By identifying with and projecting their own feelings onto story characters, children release their own feelings when they experience the emotional release of the story. During the final stage involving insight and integration, children recognize themselves and significant others in the characters of the story and gain insight into the significance of the similarities. With a decreased sense of isolation and aloneness and an increased level of self-awareness and self-understanding, children may gain greater courage to face their own problems. Bettelheim (1977) believes that the most important but difficult task that a child faces is to find meaning in life. While finding meaning occurs through growth experiences, children in therapy often have not had the types of experiences necessary to develop self-knowledge and to understand and relate to others in satisfying ways. Bettelheim states that “as a therapist … my main task was to restore meaning to their lives” (p. 4). Believing that literature conveys to children cultural information that helps them achieve meaning, he adds that “morality is not the issue … but rather, assurance that one can succeed” (p. 10).

According to Erickson, the most important function of the therapeutic story is to illustrate a therapeutic message in a memorable and powerful way. According to Zeig (1980), therapeutic stories can “make simple ideas come alive” (p. 8) and gently and indirectly suggest new perspectives or possible solutions to a particular problem or way of being. Reframing or redefining involves suggesting an alternative way of approaching or viewing the client's situation. Because the listener is free to take the story at face value if its implicit meaning is not acceptable, this technique minimizes the likelihood of resistance that often occurs when therapists suggest that clients must change (Barker, 1985).
- Carlson, Roxanne; Therapeutic Use of Story in Therapy with Children;  Guidance & Counseling, Spring2001, Vol. 16 Issue 3
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about the benefits of the therapeutic story for children of divorce.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 13
According to Carlson, what is one of the main benefits of using story therapy? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet

 
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