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Divorce Helping Children Through the Crisis of the Separation
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Section 14
Implementing Story Therapy with Children of Divorce

CEU Question 14 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Couples
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

While stories can be used with clients of all ages, they must match the client's age and reading level. Thus, story therapy is highly dependent on the skills and expertise of the counselor. In addition to having much experience working with children, therapists must have an extensive knowledge of language, reading development, and children's literature, enabling them to select stories that reflect the child's situation and that facilitate positive, appropriate, and achievable problem resolution.

Davis (1990) claims that any issue a child struggles with can be used as a basis for a story. Erickson believed that stories shared with clients should be analogous but not identical to the client's life situation, thus increasing the story's meaningfulness (Wallas, 1985).

Through play therapy and learning about the child's background, the therapist can gain an insightful and comprehensive view of the child's world. This important information (including what has been beneficial in the past) can be used to create a familiar environment or background for therapeutic stories (Mills & Crowley, 1986). The therapist can then share with the child a story about a child or animal experiencing similar conflicts, behaviors, or emotions, and who overcomes these problems using helpful skills and coping mechanisms. “The emphasis is on assets rather than losses, potential rather than weakness, hope rather than despair, solution rather than problem, and healing power rather than pathology” (Marvasti, 1997, p. 37).

A debate exists within the literature over whether the story's intentions should be made explicit to the client. Combs and Freedman (1990) state that “telling the moral of a therapeutic story undermines its effectiveness, because it stops people from searching for meaning relevant to them” (p. 249). Bettelheim (1977) indicated that explaining a story to a child “destroys the story's enchantment … [and leads to a] loss of the story's potential for helping the child struggle on his own, and master all by himself the problem which has made the story meaningful to him” (p. 18). Davis (1990) agrees, claiming that “it is better if the child does not consciously understand the subtleties of a story; therefore, it is generally best not to interpret” (p. 22). Coleman and Ganong (1990), on the other hand, state that “analyzing [the story] in depth can facilitate the reader's identification with the book's characters … attempts should be made to identify similar incidents in the experience of the reader [in order to] … help the child recognize, sort out, and evaluate their feeling responses to the literature.” (p. 329)

Early (1993) suggests asking the child what the moral of the story is and instructing the child to illustrate the story to process feelings it may have elicited. Gladding and Gladding (1991) and Hebert (1991) emphasize the client's processing of the literary experience (in the form of discussion, writing, art work, or role playing) in forming the crucial aspect of growth and change. However, Lenkowsky, Dayboch, Barowsky, Puccio, and Lenkowsky (1987) found it unnecessary to discuss the issues presented to children in therapeutic stories: “Groups involving directed reading and combined directed reading and discussion evidenced no statistically significant difference in positive effect upon mean self-concept scores” (p. 487).

Cohen (1987) cautions therapists to refrain from pressuring a child to listen to or read a particular story. Setting therapeutic goals and then choosing stories that fit those goals rather than sharing a standard story or set of stories is also recommended. Cohen also claims that it is very helpful to reread particular books to help children absorb their healing message. Parents and other caregivers may adopt this approach, thus becoming actively involved in the child's healing process. “For families who are not skilled in sharing feelings, the fact that everyone in the family is reading the same books may be a first step in communication. Families also benefit from discussing the characters in the book and the plot, a less threatening activity than discussing their own feelings. (Coleman & Ganong, 1990, p. 330).”

Even though a child may be a good reader, most children respond better when read to (Pardeck, 1990b). Manning (1987) emphasizes that the therapist should read aloud to the child, alleviating the child's struggle with the physical act of reading. I believe this should always be the case. In my experience, children sometimes ask to read a book aloud themselves. I have found it effective to allow them to do so after I have read the book to them first.

Choosing Therapeutic Stories
According to Coleman and Ganong (1990), “it is important that quality not be sacrificed for relevance. If a book does not qualify as good literature, it should not be used” (p. 328). Conversely, it is important that books of outstanding literary merit that do not meet the criteria for therapeutic value should not be used. Various criteria have been established for determining a book's therapeutic value.

Parry and Doan (1994) ask various questions when determining what stories to share with clients. Are the characters believable? Are they described well enough that the reader can understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions? Does the plot communicate the therapeutic point the counselor is trying to make? Does the story contain obstacles that prohibit the characters from achieving their desired goals? What feelings are elicited by the characters or story line? Are these feelings ones to which the child can relate? Butterworth and Fulmer (1991) consider similar questions: Can children readily identify with the plot, setting, dialogue, and characters? Is an acceptance and respect for individual differences portrayed? Are effective coping strategies evidenced? Is the crisis presented in an optimistic way that allows resolution?

A book that meets all the criteria outlined above is Big Sister and Little Sister by Charlotte Zolotow. It is an emotionally sensitive story that illustrates the difficulty the responsible big sister has in caring for her carefree little sister. I use this book with both adults and children who have coped with a difficult childhood by becoming over-responsible and adopting a parental role as children. The book exposes clients to the concept of self-nurturing and encourages them to acknowledge and celebrate their inner child.

Although it is difficult to be aware of the many books appropriate for use with various ages and issues, a comprehensive list of children's books that can be used therapeutically is a valuable resource. “If one can't use what one doesn't know relates to this situation, then a therapist's lack of knowledge of literary resources is the greatest drawback to the use of imaginative literature in the therapeutic process” (Fuhriman, Barlow, & Wanlass, 1989, p. 154).

Creating Your Own Therapeutic Stories
Some children are apprehensive about participating in any activity that appears to be school related (especially if they have had negative school experiences). Other children may be struggling with issues that are difficult to match with a book. In these situations, the therapist may choose to create a personalized therapeutic story, being careful to begin the story with the main character's situation reflecting the child's experiences and feelings. Following the introduction of the problem, “a method of changing, redirecting, or healing is woven into the story. The potential to change is then made clear to the unconscious, trusting that the child will find the power, the method, and the optimum time to change” (Davis, 1989. p. 18).

When to Use Therapeutic Stories
Play therapy is often the treatment of choice for children with emotional or behavioral problems. Story can be a very helpful and healing adjunct to such a program. Davis (1990) suggests that therapeutic stories, like Ericksonian anecdotes, can be used with any therapeutic technique at any point in the process to build self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and a sense of personal agency. Therapeutic stories can be particularly helpful with children who appear to be angry and unwilling to participate in therapy. The therapist can read or tell a therapeutic story to the child without explanation, and the healing message of the story will be heard and integrated by the child's unconscious even if the child appears not to be listening.

Expected Outcomes
Successful use of story in a therapeutic setting can be observed when the child makes a connection with the story. Davis (1990) notes signs of a connection that include the child asking for a certain story repeatedly or responding to a story with a comment similar to “I love that story.” If the story is not directly applicable or helpful, the child will appear uninterested and will not ask to hear the story again. Since therapeutic stories are never used in isolation, it is difficult to pinpoint other behaviors that indicate a successful outcome. Davis suggests using projective tests throughout the therapeutic process to chart the child's progress toward emotional health.
- 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 #7
The preceding section contained information about implementing story therapy with 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 14
What are six questions to consider when choosing a therapeutic story? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet

 
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