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The Power of Therapeutic Stories


The Power of Therapeutic Stories What is it about therapeutic stories that make them so effective? Listed below are 12 factors that assist in the appreciation of the value and effect that therapeutic stories have on their audience.  Non-Threatening  Build Rapport  Foster Independence  Bypass Resistance  Make Ideas More Memorable  Mobilize Unconscious Resources  Release Emotions  Alter Moods  Model Flexibility  Teach New Concepts  Redefine Problems  Provide Alternatives and Solutions to Problems


Non-Threatening Therapeutic stories contain characters that are magical and fantastic. Individuals can defeat whole armies, dead characters spring back to life, animals can talk, and everyone lives in kingdoms that are not of this world. Clearly this is not the everyday world. Nevertheless, the issues dealt with in the stories (abuse, abandonment, etc.) relate directly to children, so the stories resemble real life enough for the child to be able to relate to them. This combination of the familiar and the fantastic allows a “once removed� perspective (Wallis, 1985). Ultimately, the child is free to view the story from one of three perspectives: this story is exactly like my life experience; this story is similar to my life experience; or this story does not relate to my life experience at all. These three possible approaches to the story allow the listeners to get as close to, or as far away from, the experience at a conscious level as they wish. It is this possibility that makes therapeutic stories nonthreatening and easy for children to experience.


Build Rapport and Strengthen Relationships Storytelling entertains and, thus, promotes positive feelings between the storyteller and the audience. They share the experience of the story and, in this sharing, rapport is developed and strengthened. Children feel more at ease because of the less threatening aspect of this type of communicati on. When children are feeling anxious or unsure of the child and youth therapist or the situation that they are in, a wellchosen story can relieve some of the anxiety and can strengthen the relationship between storyteller and audience. The entertaining and rapport-building qualities of storytelling often create an intimacy between the narrator and the audience. There is a communion of the adventure, the emotion, and the life of the characters that creates a bond between the storyteller and audience. This union can develop into a sense of closeness or intimacy, which strengthens the relationships between child and therapist.


Foster Independence

Therapeutic stories contain characters that, through courage and determination, overcome seemingly impossible situations and complete superhuman tasks. These characters act on their own behalf, ask others for assistance, and stay with the task even when it appears hopeless. Their parents often abandon them, they are exiled from their homes, they are bewitched by spells, and they are forced into slavery. In spite of all odds, they persevere to the completion of the tale. The therapeutic message to the child is: “If you want things to change, you’re going to have to act on your own behalf; it will not be easy to accomplish, but you can do it.� The characters in these stories encourage children to think and act independently. However, such stories do not tell them that they are alone and must not accept help, which often leads to frustration and inaction. Instead, they tell children that help is available, which leads to hopefulness and encourages action.


Bypass Resistance Therapeutic stories bypass children’s fears and resistance to change by allowing them to explore and understand the characters’ painful experiences, which are often much like their own, but without consciously reexperiencing them. These painful experiences are happening to the characters in the story but not to him. The themes and messages in the story are not overt but are implicit giving children the ability or option to listen without fear of being reproached or confronted with the problem.


Make Ideas More Memorable Therapeutic stories take problem situations common to children and present them in magical and fantastic settings. The characters live in exciting environments where anything can happen. The child’s imaginative and creative impulses are stimulated, setting the experience out of the ordinary. Children tend to remember situations that are extraordinary and can recall them more vividly than experiences that are more mundane. The other-worldliness of the story situation, coupled with the fact that in some ways it parallels the child’s experience, creates an impact that makes the whole experience more memorable.


Mobilize Unconscious Resources Therapeutic storytelling communicates directly to the unconscious mind, the storehouse of all of the individual’s experiences. The therapeutic story makes suggestions to the child’s unconscious mind that open up this source of resources and experiences. These can then be applied to generate strategies that will resolve conflict, reduce or eliminate negative symptoms, and solve problems. Regardless of the conscious interpretation of the story, it continues to impact on the child at an unconscious level. Gose (1985) writes that therapeutic stories “can have an effect, even though the listener or reader may not be specifically aware of possible levels of meaning” (p. xii). The therapeutic story can contain unconscious meanings that are not necessarily obvious to the listeners but are nevertheless communicated. This capacity, to mobilize the resources of the unconscious, makes therapeutic stories a tremendous asset to children who are faced with difficult situations.


Release Emotions

Stories told that concern death and dying can provide the grieving child with a vehicle with which to express emotions. Scary stories give ventilation to many of a child's unexpressed fears. Stories told of pain and destruction often open up these feelings in their listeners, allowing them to identify and to release their feelings within the context of the story. The child therapist can utilize the cathartic effect that stories have on their listeners to give children an appropriate way in which to express their emotions.


Alter Moods The magic created by the storyteller and the story line has the power to change the gloom of a group of teenagers into laughter or relaxation. It can motivate an apprehensive classroom to try harder; or, it can calm down a room full of boisterous ten-year-olds. When the child therapists select the appropriate story, they are provided the opportunity to creatively change the prevailing mood and to enhance the situation by creating more opportunities for success.


Model Flexibility The characters in therapeutic stories are extremely creative, intuitive, and magical. They exhibit great flexibility and adaptability when dealing with problems. Thus, their actions encourage children to view and deal with their difficulties in novel and creative ways. The characters are able to transform situations magically. A prince who is bewitched into a frog infuriates a child in order to have his spell broken. An obvious impossible riddle is imposed upon the hero, yet by staying open to all possibilities, he finds the answer is whispered in the wind or spoken by a fool. The therapeutic story says to children, “Stay open to possibilities. The person with the answer to your problems may be the least likely person. Use your intuition. Take help from where it comes.” Listening to therapeutic stories encourages greater flexibility in viewing and managing life’s problems and difficulties.


Teach New Concepts Stories can be used to explain and to communicate any one or a variety of skills, ideas, concepts, morals, and points specific to learning. They can be used to introduce new material or to review topics already discussed. Stories can provide step-bystep instructions on how to acquire new skills. Child therapists, in their role as educators, can make use of storytelling to enhance the learning process for the children in their care.


Redefine Problems When children are communicated to by means of a story, they will often project their problems on to the characters in the story. This not only allows them to distance themselves; it redefines the problem for them in the eyes, ears, and emotions of the story's characters. This provides children with the opportunity to see their problems in a new way.


Provide Alternatives and Solutions to Problems When children are presented with solutions to their problems in a metaphorical fashion, these solutions often come through identification with the character(s). The child is free to utilize the strategy that the character in the story used, or the child can adapt a strategy that is better suited to his/her situation. The more solutions presented, the more alternatives there are to solving the problem. Depending on the developmental level of the child, s/he can be presented with as many alternate solutions as s/he can appreciate in order to make a decision based on the best choice.


Bibliography Bettelheim, B. (1975). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. Burns, M. (2002). Therapeutic storytelling in child and youth work: Holly, a case study. The Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, Vol. 17, 60-55. Caracushansky, S., & Giampeitro, A. (1987). The use of myths and fairy tales in a Bernian approach to psychotherapy. (Rene Marechal, Trans.). Transactional Analysis Journal, 17, (1), 277-285. Davis, N. (1989). The use of therapeutic stories in the treatment of abused children. Journal of Strategic and Systemic Therapies, 8(4), 18-23. Gose, E. (1985). The Irish wonder tale: An introduction to the study of fairy tales. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. New York: Dell Publishing. Pearce, J. (1985). Magical child matures. New York: Bantam Books. Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. (M. Cook Trans.). New York: International Universities Press. Schwartz, E. (1956). The psychoanalytic study of the fairy tale. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 10, 740-762.


Wallas, L. (1985). Stories for the third ear. Markham, ON: Penguin Books Canada.

Reflection Exercise List, or if you wish make a brief sketch, of the stories and characters that captivated you as a child and adolescent. How do you think the themes and or characters in the stories influenced your thinking, emotions, and or behaviours as a child and adolescent? How about now as an adult? Who told you stories as a child? How, if at all, did those storytellers influence you?


Session 2 of therapeutic storytelling