Therapy through storytelling

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By Michelle Laverack
on 05 February, 2017

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Promoting children's mental health through storytelling

Meeting the mental health needs of children: the need for creative therapeutic approaches.

Many children experience traumatic events and uncomfortable feelings which are difficult for them to process. Unlike the majority of adolescents and adults, children often do not have the ability to express how they are feeling using everyday language and discussions about their feelings frequently evoke closed responses such as “I’m okay” or “I’m sad”. Such words often fail to encapsulate the intensity of their feelings and because of this their views may go unheard. Children, like adults, require the time, space and means to process difficult feelings. If they are not given this opportunity these feelings may manifest in a variety of often unhelpful coping mechanisms and they may display challenging behaviours.

Adults can play an important role in enabling children to explore and work through difficult feelings but to do this they need to develop strategies which are meaningful and accessible for them.

The language of Metaphor and Storytelling

Stories have long been used to communicate important messages to children and children’s stories often use metaphor to explain abstract ideas, explore emotions and develop children’s moral understanding. Stories often capture children’s imaginations and they often ask to hear them again and again.

Stories are potentially a very effective way of communicating to children as they reflect the natural language of many (albeit not all) children. Children often use metaphor and communicate their experiences, feelings and explore aspects of their personality through imaginative play. Through such play children can make sense of their personal experiences and they often adopt familiar roles playing mums, dads and teachers. They may also explore more abstract ideas taking themselves on imaginary adventures where they face many challenges.

It is clear that many children use metaphor as a tool to explore themselves and their world, and stories have been used to communicate important messages to children. With this in mind, the art of storytelling provides a potentially useful tool for working therapeutically with children.

Therapeutic Storytelling

A therapeutic story is written or read to a child to help them explore their own potentially difficult experiences and emotions. The stories are designed to be affirming and they contain positive messages for children.

Through the use of metaphor, the storyteller strives to represent the difficult feelings and experiences that the child is dealing with. They may try to identify any unhelpful strategies that they are using to cope and where appropriate, highlight that these strategies may be having a negative effect.

A key feature of a therapeutic story is the point of change. The story may be written to communicate an alternative way of understanding a situation. Where appropriate, it may include a potentially more helpful strategy to support children in managing their situation. This is often done through the introduction of a wise character who offers advice or a magical object that helps the character to manage their situation.

Children may connect to the story on a personal level and through storytelling the reader can communicate an empathetic understanding of them. The use of metaphor enables the storyteller to communicate in a respectful way that is less invasive than talking about their situation directly. 

Therapeutic Storytelling: Case Study

In a recent case, I was asked to provide therapeutic support to a child who had experienced a bereavement: the loss of his mother. Through direct play-based work with the child and discussions with the adults who knew him best I gained an insight into the child’s understanding of this very difficult experience.

I wrote a therapeutic story: ‘How the Little Dragon got his Sparkles Back’ which was presented to the child as an illustrated book. The story was based upon an understanding of his interests and the dragons in the story were created to represent key figures in his life. The sparkles were used as a metaphor to represent the child’s sense of belonging.

When I read the story to the child I noted that he listened intently and he was keen to share his story with others. Over the next few days and weeks he asked for the story to be read repeatedly and it was apparent that the story was of particular significance to him. In later discussions, he was able to begin problem solving using the characters. The use of metaphor helped to open up a natural dialogue and by problem solving through abstract characters the child was able to experiment with different ideas. In addition to this, I also noted that the story evoked a strong emotional response from the adults who were close to the child and may have provided them with an alternative insight into the child’s world.

Final Thoughts

Many children have traumatic experiences and uncomfortable feelings which are difficult for them to process. It is important that they are given help to manage these feelings and this support provides them with tools to explore their feelings in a natural and safe way. The use of therapeutic storytelling offers a potential approach to support these children. The use of the story metaphor enables the reader to communicate with children in a respectful way that is less invasive than talking about their situation directly. A well selected story can communicate an empathetic understanding of a child’s situation, and through the story the reader can convey positive affirming messages. A further advantage of a therapeutic story is that it can be read an infinite number of times and hence it is a therapeutic tool that can potentially transcend the boundaries of therapeutic sessions.

One final, final thought… in writing and presenting a story book to a child it is possible to communicate a very powerful message: You and your story are very, very important.

For more information about the types of therapy our educational psychologists can provide, contact Jacqueline Graham on 0844 967 1111.

Further Reading

Sunderland, M (2000). Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children. Milton Keynes: Speechmark.

Goulding, K, S (2014). Using Stories to Build Bridges with Traumatized Children: creative ideas for therapy, life story work, direct work and parenting. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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