Home > child psychology, education, literature, psychology > Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 2)

Basic Primer for the Therapeutic Uses of Literature (aka. Bibliotherapy) for Children and Adolescents (Part 2)

June 24th, 2010

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~ James Russell Lowell 
1819-1891

            A study conducted by Louise Despert and H. W. Potter in 1936 offered several conclusions after working with twenty-two institutionalized children ranging in age from four to thirteen.

· The story is a form of verbalized fantasy through which the child may reveal his or her inner drives and conflicts.

· A recurring theme generally indicates the principal concern or conflict, which in turn may be corroborated with other clinical evidence.

· Anxiety, guilt, wish fulfillment, and aggressiveness are the primary trends expressed.

· The use of the stories appears to be most valuable when the child determines the subject matter of his or her own story.

· The story can be used as both a therapeutic and an evaluation device.

            These generalizations are still viewed as valid today.   From this early study and others like it, the uses of reciprocal storytelling has continued and flourished to the point where it is considered a valuable professional tool.   Free flowing ideas coming from a child’s subconscious mind, in the form of a story, often provides the mirror that can reflect the complexity of a life that the child can barely begin to grasp.   Essential information is often garnered from this glimpse into the inner world of the troubled child.

The Use of Props

The books we read should be chosen with great care,
that they may be, as an Egyptian king wrote over his library,
"The medicines of the soul. "

             Younger children, whose expression is limited by verbal abilities, may use props to enhance their stories.   These props often include items such as dolls, puppets or crayons. Gardner commented on the use of these devises when he said, “Although drawings, dolls, puppets and other toys are the modalities around which stories are traditionally told in child therapy, these often have the effect of restricting the child’s storytelling or of channeling it in highly specific directions. ”  (p 25)  In contrast Brandell cites numerous sources that have used adjuncts, such as puppetry, finger painting, drawing, costume play, clay modeling and doll play with success. (p 4).    Brandell does qualify the use of play techniques with the statement that “ at times, the traditional therapeutic play modalities simply cannot provide the child clinician either with sufficient, dynamically meaningful information about the child or with an effective vehicle for conveying both therapeutic understanding of the child’s narrative and therapeutic communications of a more specific nature.   “Accordingly, children’s autogenic stories have long been recognized as an important source of clinical data. ”  (p 86)  Toys are used alone in play therapy but are merely an adjunct when used in conjunction with stories made up by the child-patient.   In the end, it is the story that provides the rich store of potential information and the props merely a means to that end.    

In child therapy the conduit created for these stories to flow through is safe.   Because the child feels safe his ability to express disturbing wishes, fears and conflicts become less encumbered.   The subconscious narration takes form through metaphor.   This metaphorical story now gives the therapist a rich volume of information to utilize when helping his patient to move towards stronger mental health.   Play therapy also engages in the use of props and toys.   Many of the toys are specially designed to be flexible enough to allow the child’s play to take many different forms.   In this environment it is not necessary to solicit a story of make believe to accomplish therapeutic goals.   When props are used there is a thin line between play therapy and reciprocal storytelling.   Knowing when one begins and the other ends would be difficult to clearly define, however, it is easy to see how one can bleed into the other!  

            The problems that affect children are often common with those that afflict adults.   Mental disorders such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive behavior can be explored using reciprocal storytelling.   Occasionally the after effects of emotional neglect and physical and/or sexual abuse is exposed.   But topping the list of those situations that are most effectively treated by this type of therapy are those children troubled by environmental causes such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or serious illness.  

An Example of Reciprocal Storytelling

Storytelling reveals meaning without

committing the error of defining it.


~ Hanna Arendt ~

1906 1975

            Dr. Richard Gardner uses case histories to illustrate and help therapists learn to ply their talents.   By Dr. Gardner’s own admission the soliciting and the evaluation of stories is “is not an easy technique to learn.   Proficiency may require months and even years of practice. ”  From the narrative the practitioner must tease out the ideas, emotions and issues that are being brought forward from the child’s subconscious mind.   Case histories can help fill the gap that the lack of experience creates.   To learn vicariously through an accomplished therapist is one way to understand how reciprocal storytelling works.

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