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

June 24th, 2010

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And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tale which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we wish them to have when they are grown up?

We cannot. Anything received into the mind at this age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.                                                                                           

(Plato, 374 B. C. p. 72)

            The idea that books affect people in profound ways has been around for a very long time.   The written word has been honored to point of near worship in its abilities to educate, entertain and transform their readers.   Stories told and stories read have the power to touch us in ways to numerous too list.    Books can entertain and educate.   Books can also heal the soul, promote personal growth and shine a light on those who may have lost their way in life.   It is no surprise then that the field of psychology and the professionals that serve this science have embraced its strength.   The general concept of using literature as a therapeutic tool has been around in one form or another since the earliest thinkers wisely recognized the power wielded by mere words.   This idea was given a modern scientific-credibility boost when Samuel Crothers first coined the term bibliotherapy in a 1916 issue of Atlantic Monthly.   Today, bibliotherapy can be broken into two distinct methodologies:  one in which stories are read and the other in which stories are told.   Mental health professionals who work with children and adolescents frequently use a form of bibliotherapy where no books are used.   A child is first asked to invent a story, create characters and formulate plots that please them. Because of the child’s youth, the story is often a conduit that reaches directly into his/her subconscious mind. The therapist then carefully examines the story and looks for issues that relate to conflicts occurring in the child’s life.     The professional then retells the story, often reframing it just a bit, so that a stronger, more healthy method of coping is demonstrated by the characters or expressed through the plot.   In child psychotherapy, this is a time-honored practice and is commonly called reciprocal story telling.   The other form of bibliotherapy assumes that good literature, when read, can offer the reader both conscious and subconscious insights into their own conflicts and issues.   While reading there is no face-to-face confrontation, there is no psychobabble interpretation to wade through.   Both factors contribute to an environment where issues are more easily processed and reconciled.   There is a large list of benefits that individuals may reap when reading selections of written works that relate to, mime or incorporate the struggles that currently occupy a person’s life.   These two types of bibliotherapy are used to effect positive changes in a child’s, adolescent’s or adult’s life.   These methods are used by a variety of different individuals, covering subject matter that is huge in its scope, and bring as a result, a rich list of potential benefits.

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Stories Without Books

Books are masters who instruct us without rods or ferules,
without words or anger, without bread or money.
If you approach them, they are not asleep; if you seek them,
they do not hide; if you blunder, they do not scold;
if you are ignorant, they do not laugh at you.

~ Richard De Bury 1286 to 1345

             As the title of this section suggests, bibliotherapy does not always include books.   This form of therapy, commonly referred to as reciprocal story telling, most often involves professionals in the mental health field.   The therapist begins by soliciting a story from the child-patient.   Because children lack the mental maturity that serves to moderate and regulate the subconscious mind, these stories often provide a valuable look into the issues and concerns that have been hidden away in their young brain.   Stories, through the use of metaphors, can store a cash of valuable information that the patient may be unable to express in any other way because he/she lacks the vocabulary or insight that comes with more maturity.   The younger the child, the more likely the story will reflect free flowing concerns or ideas generated from the subconscious mind.    This technique is used with patients ranging in age from 3 to 15 with the median age being 6 to 12.   To understand how this process works is no easy task!   It will help to combine references to theory and studies, then blending that with an individual case history.   To truly grasp this concept is far beyond the scope of this paper.   I am hoping only to provide a simple introduction that might serve as a springboard for further thought on the process.  

A Study from the 1930’s

Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen
from one to another mind.

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