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Rationale for the Therapeutic Use of Story
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
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).
Reflection Exercise #6
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Skinner, O. D., Sun, X., & McHale, S. M. (2021). Links between marital and parent–child relationship in African American families: A dyadic approach. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
Steinbach, A., & Augustijn, L. (2021). Children’s well-being in sole and joint physical custody families. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.
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