Therapeutic stories are one of my absolute favourite resources to use when working with children and I love sharing the magic of storytelling with others. In this blog post I will explain what therapeutic stories are and why they are such an effective tool for supporting children's wellbeing. Stories have been used for thousands of years to entertain, inform, process experiences, and provide a sense of connection. I feel Brené Brown put it best when she said:
“The idea that we’re “wired for story” is more than a catchy phrase. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story- a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end- causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human abilities to connect, empathize, and make meaning. Story is literally in our DNA.”
For thousands of years, storytelling was the way in which important, and even life-saving information was shared and passed down through the generations, so our brains are literally wired to process information through stories.
It makes sense then, that storytelling is a tool that is used frequently in the therapeutic space. Many children’s therapists, like myself, are taught the art of creating and using these stories in our work with children during our training, however, you don’t need to be a therapist to use them or even to create your own!
You may have heard of the terms: bibliotherapy, healing stories, helping stories or social stories instead, all of which could be used interchangeably with therapeutic stories.
So what exactly are they?!
Therapeutic stories are, in short, stories created with the aim of providing hope, guidance and healing around a particular issue.
Typically, these stories will use characters and metaphors that reflect a child’s experience, while providing enough ‘distance’ that they feel safe enough to explore the issues raised in the story.
One of the aims of a therapeutic story is that the child can relate to and empathise with the character and their experience. This then provides the child with:
· A sense of feeling less alone with the issue they are facing.
· Validation of their own feelings and experiences.
· The vocabulary and language they need to explain their own thoughts and feelings (that they may not have had access to before).
Therapeutic stories also aim to provide ideas, guidance and support that can help a child to learn new coping strategies or to develop a new way to think about the problem they are facing. As these elements are incorporated into a story, they are less likely to feel like ‘a lecture’- as may be the case if we attempt to provide more direct advice.
Therapeutic stories always end on a positive, hopeful and happy note. This allows a child to imagine, visualise and internalise the ‘felt sense’ of an alternative future for themselves.
This plants a seed that maybe, just maybe, a happy ending is possible for them too. It allows them to experience the happy feelings, the pride, the relief and to internalise these feelings.
In this way the story creates a ‘road map’ towards healing. The happy ending is the destination they can now head towards.
So what makes therapeutic stories so effective?
· A child’s natural language is that of image and metaphor. They will often connect more quickly and easily to story than to a conversation about the same topic.
· Stories provide a safe distance from the issue, this can allow them to stay with any difficult feelings and thoughts long enough to begin to process them.
· The metaphors in therapeutic stories can help to create new neural pathways in the brain; helping children to reframe their experiences.
· Stories provide a way to talk about the problem indirectly and even to open up more direct conversation if needed (and only once the child is ready).
· Stories create a wonderful ‘jumping off point’ to allow for further creative processing through art and play.
· Stories create a ‘road map’ that can guide children towards healing and resolution.
So as you can see, a therapeutic story itself contains many therapeutic components, but there also lies a huge capacity for healing within the telling of the story.
Do you have memories of being read to as a child? Do you remember the magic of being transported to a magical land, while remaining safe, cosy and nurtured by your parent or caregiver?
Storytelling (whether a therapeutic story or not) provides a beautiful opportunity for bonding, connection and nurture.
So make time to get cosy and comfy, put on your best storyteller voice, and share a magical story with a child who needs it.
Take good care,
P.S If you would like to read some examples of my own therapeutic stories you can click here.