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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
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.
Creating Your Own Therapeutic Stories
When to Use Therapeutic Stories
Reflection Exercise #7
Online Continuing Education QUESTION 14
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