The goal in any storytelling game is to produce a story. Most storytelling games do not involve winning or losing, and there isn’t any competition. Storytelling games are really only games in a very loose sense and referred to as such by the clinician to encourage a playful attitude. There are some exceptions and some storytelling activities do adhere to a more game like structure. For example, Gardner’s Pick and Tell Games involve pawns, a board, chips, and dice. He has also created the Storytelling Card Game, which involves a spinner, die, collection of pictures and human figures. The Think-ets Storytelling Game was produced for the consumer market, but can easily be adapted for use in therapy. The Think-ets Storytelling Game includes a pouch filled with trinkets that can be used as prompts for creation of stories.
How to introduce storytelling
I approach storytelling in the same way I approach non-competitive games. I enthusiastically state, we’re going to play The Storytelling Game, and then outline the rules of the “game” for the child. I introduce storytelling the same way, regardless of the technique or storytelling tool being used. I simply say “we’re going to play a storytelling game.” As we begin I explain the story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I add, “tell me what the people are doing, feeling, and thinking.” When the story is over I ask the child what the moral or lesson of the story is. If the child can’t think of a moral or lesson I ask them to make up a title. Storytelling techniques are quite effective with children who are “stuck” or resistant to other forms of intervention, but can be used will all children.
Some children will view storytelling as work and other children may experience performance anxiety. In these situations it will be important to provide support and encouragement. It is helpful to provide prompts such as, “How does a good story usually begin?” or “What would you like to name the people in your story?” It may be necessary to start the story: “Once upon a time, in a far off land, over the mountains, and past the trees, there lived a …” followed by pointing expectantly to the child. Creating a story in therapy is not a language arts task, all stories are good stories. It is also important to ask questions and make sure you understand the story. As children become more comfortable they will produce more elaborate stories that will provide insight into their issues and feelings. As children make progress in therapy their stories will start to have more adaptive and healthier responses.
While there are dozens of strategies for creating stories in therapy, I am only going to cover two here. For more examples see the edited texts by Kaduson and Schaefer (2004).
The Mutual Storytelling Technique was developed by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 60’s and is outlined in a variety of publications including Play Therapy Techniques, 2nd edition, edited by Charles Schaefer and Donna Cangelossi. Storytelling, like play, communicates with children on multiple levels. Stories serve as models, teach values and skills, and can provide insight on both a conscious and unconscious level. Therapists can gain insight into a child’s inner conflicts, frustrations, and defenses by listening to their stories. The Mutual Storytelling technique uses the child’s language to introduce mature responses and healthier resolutions to the child’s difficulties, as they are communicated in the child’s spontaneously produced stories.
Variations of techniques using the Mutual Story Telling Technique include Bag of Objects, Bag of Words, and Bag of Feelings. All three of these techniques are combined in the Pick and Tell Game, but can be used individually and made at home. There is a more extensive discussion of the Mutual Storytelling Technique and these other strategies in Gardner (1975).
In the Mutual Storytelling Technique the child first tells a story, the therapist analyzes the psychodynamic meaning of the story, and then tells one of his own. The therapist’s story contains the same characters and a similar setting, but healthier adaptions and resolutions of conflicts. The story then becomes an indirect way of communicating with a child and may overcome resistance and lack of interest in a more therapeutic dialogue. Dr. Gardner proposed using a tape player and a script to introduce the child to the “Dr. Gardner’s Make-Up-A-Story Radio Program.” Children are encouraged to make a story, not tell a story they’ve heard before, and add a moral or lesson to the end of their story. Usually a warm-up activity is involved, which gets the child involved. For example, holding the mike up and asking the child’s name, school, age, and grade. Some children need additional support to get started on their story, and it is OK to ask for clarification as the story is told.
Fundamentals of Story Analysis:
• Which figures in the story stand for the child, & which figures stand for significant others
• Ambience of the story? Pleasant, horrifying, neutral, anxious?
• Select the most salient theme for the child at this time, based on the stories moral and child’s history.
Next the therapist constructs a similar story, with a slightly different ending.
Client: Once there was a squirrel…. (client pauses)
Therapist: Where did the squirrel live?
Client: He lived by the woods …..
Therapist: This sounds like a good story. Who did the squirrel live with?
Client: He lived with his mom, dad, and sister. He didn’t like his sister. He had to play with her all the time. He’s a squirrel, so he might eat her ….
Therapist: What happened then?
Client: They were playing in the woods, playing hide and seek, and something bad happened …. A bear came, and chased the squirrel and his sister. They ran really fast. The bear almost got the squirrel, but he got away and got home in his tree. And the bear couldn’t reach him.
Therapist: So the squirrel got away. What happened to his sister?
Client: She got away too.
Therapist: Well, that’s a very good story. Now, good stories usually have a moral or lesson, something we can learn from them. What’s the moral of your story?
Client: He could trip his sister, and the bear would get her and he could get away.
Therapist: OK, so we have good story and a lesson. He could trip his sister, and the bear would get her instead of him, and he could get away. Is that right?
Therapist: So the main thing is to get away from the bear? We’re not worried about the sister right now.
Which figures in the story stand for the child, and which figures stand for significant others? In this story, I would view the main character to be representative of the child, the bear to be the father, and of course the mother is the mother squirrel. For now, I’d ignore the issue with the sister.
Ambience of the story? Pleasant, horrifying, neutral, anxious? The story is a little scary, but has a happy ending. Home with mother is a place of safety.
Select the most salient theme for the child at this time, based on the stories moral and child’s history. Based on this child’s family history, I would view safety issues to be the most salient theme that needs to be addressed. Dad has both an anger problem and a drinking problem, and this has caused both the child and mother distress. While there has not been any physical abuse, there has been some verbal abuse. The child has not stated that the father scares him. However, the child has said the father is “mean” because he “yells.”
Therapist: OK, here’s my story. Once upon a time there was a squirrel family, a boy, a girl, a Mom, and a Dad. And they lived in a tree by the woods. The boy and girl squirrel liked to play hide and seek in the woods, but it wasn’t always safe because there was a bear that lived there. Sometimes the bear was really nice and played with the squirrels, and sometimes it was scary and the squirrels wanted to get away. The scary bear mostly came out at night. The squirrels knew when the bear wasn’t in a good mood, because it would harrumph and growl and complain and talk in a mean voice. So they learned to stay away from the bear when it harrumphed, growled, and complained. They would go to their own holes in the tree, or sometimes they would just spend time with momma squirrel. The also learned that they could call Mr. Lion who was the cop in the woods, or tell Mr. Owl who was their teacher if the bear ever hurt them. So the moral of the story is, stay away from bears when they are harrumphing, and growling, and talking in a mean voice!
Types of Therapist Stories
Claman (1993) identifies three types of stories the therapist can develop: the mirror story, the suggestive-directive story, and the indirect-interpretive story.
Mirror Story: In the mirror story the therapist simply reflects back the story created by the child, with minor alterations. This technique is useful when the child has created a story that reflects satisfactory adaption, or the meaning of the story is unclear. Outcomes can be slightly altered. The primary purpose is to support the child’s self-expression and competence.
Suggestive-Directive Story: This type of story encourages the child to begin to think differently about themselves and their problems, and to develop a sense that they can master them. Claman identifies six major themes that can be covered in this type of story: Trust, being assertive, persisting, peer-relationships, value of talking, and value of exploring.
Indirect-Interpretive Story: This type of story focuses on current problems. For example, a child with authority issues can be told a story about an animal in the jungle who learns to get along with the Lion, who is King of the jungle. The story above is an example of an indirect-interpretive story.
Modeling Stories: Another storytelling technique is outlined in Joseph Strayhorn’s book, The Competent Child. Dr. Strayhorn’s technique involves identifying specific skills and telling a story about that skill. For example, if a child is working on “listening the first time” all the stories will be about that skill.
Strayhorn Identifies Nine Major Groups of Skills
Closeness, trusting, and relationship building—Examples of these skills include engaging in social conversation, listening and empathizing, and being kind and helpful.
Handling separation and independence—Examples of these skills includes handling rejection, tolerating separation from close others, and dealing with disapproval or criticism.
Handling joint decisions and interpersonal conflicts—Examples of these skills include joint problem solving, conciliation and conceding, assertion and dominance, and forgiving other people.
Dealing with frustration and unfavorable events—Examples of these skills include handling frustration, feeling appropriate fear, feeling appropriate guilt, and tolerating thoughts and impulses that should not be acted on.
Celebrating good things and feeling pleasure—Examples of these skills include handling approval and compliments, feeling pleasure from doing kind and loving acts, and enjoying physical affection.
Working for delayed gratification—Examples of this skill include denying present gratification for future gain, obeying reasonable authority, and developing competence that brings approval.
Relaxing, playing—Examples of this skill include relaxing, playing, and enjoying humor.
Cognitive processing through words, symbols, and images—Using words to conceptualize the world, recognizing and being able to verbalize feelings, and letting thoughts mediate between words and action.
An adaptive sense of direction and purpose—Examples of this skill include aiming to make circumstances better and assigning an activity a meaning or purpose.
The purpose of the story is to address a skill that the child is working on. For example, Listening the First Time, Cooperating and Sharing, Handling Frustration, etc. A simple way to identify a skill is to first identify the problem behavior and then identify the behavior you’d like the child to display. So, non-compliant children need to learn to listen the first time, angry children often need to learn to handle frustration, and bossy children need to learn to cooperate and share. Anxious children need to practice being brave, and depressed children need to practice having fun and taking pleasure in activities.
A collection of random pictures are spread face down in front of the child and therapist. Since this is a modeling technique, one of the rules is that the therapist goes first (at least until the child gets the hang of it). A picture is drawn from the pile (I use about ten pictures cut at random from magazines and pasted on construction paper) and a story about the skill is spontaneously created. If the therapist or child doesn’t like the first picture they draw, a second picture is picked. The story should have a beginning, middle, and an end. In addition there should be a lesson or moral at the end of the story. Try to say what the people are doing, feeling and thinking.
This technique is ideal for behavior therapy when a parent is involved, but can also be used one-on-one. When a parent is present it is best to model appropriate storytelling and then give the child several opportunities to tell a story before the parent tells a story. You don’t want to get put in the position of the parent telling a real awful or punitive story. It is important that they have begun to buy into the concept of modeling appropriate behavior and using positive consequences to shape behavior.
Claman, Lawrence (1993) The Squiggle-Drawing Game. In Charles E. Schaefer & Donna M.
Cangelosi (Eds.) Play Therapy Techniques, (177-189). Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson Inc.
Gardner, Richard A. (1993) Psychotherapy with Children. Northvale, NJ. Jason Aronson Inc.
Gardner, Richard A. (1993) Mutual Storytelling. In Charles E. Schaefer & Donna M. Cangelosi
(Eds.) Play Therapy Techniques, (177-189). Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, Inc.
Kaduson, Heidi Gerard & Schaefer (Eds.) (2004) 101 Favorite Play Therapy Techniques.
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Kaduson, Heidi Gerard & Schaefer, Charles E. (Eds.) (2004) 101 More Favorite Play Therapy
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Strayhorn, Joseph (1988). The Competent Child. New York, The Guilford Press.