Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Storytelling and Cognitive Therapy with Children

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Storytelling and Cognitive Therapy with Children

Article excerpt

Storytelling is a developmentally sensitive tool to elicit children's thoughts, identify their distortions, and help them to more accurately make sense of their world. Integration of storytelling into a cognitive approach to child psychotherapy is encouraged due to cognitive therapy's conceptual richness and flexibility. Cognitive case conceptualization augments the application of the storytelling techniques. Advantages of the storytelling approach such as familiarity to children, relationship enhancement, meaningfulness, and flexibility are delineated. Clinical examples are described and special considerations are outlined.

Bettelheim (1975, p. 63) wrote that a journey into the woods, which is so common in children's stories, reflects "a voyage into the interior of our mind, into the realms of unawareness and the unconscious." Children's deeply held thoughts, beliefs, and images frequently lie unarticulated in this dimly lit but vast mental interior. Illuminating these hidden assumptions through mutual storytelling is an exciting clinical adventure. Storytelling in cognitive behavioral therapy with children is a developmentally appropriate means to enrich therapy.

The favorable results from case studies, clinical reports, and theoretical reviews mainly from a psychodynamic perspective support the utility of storytelling in child psychotherapy (Corder, Haizlip, & DeBoer, 1990; Kestenbaum, 1985; Remotique-Ano, 1980; Gardner, 1970,1971,1972,1975; Becker, 1972; Brandell, 1986).

Further, there is recent interest in the use of stories in cognitive therapy practice (Russell, 1991; Van den Brock & Thurlow, 1991; Bamberg, 1991; Leahy, 1988,1991; Friedberg & Dalenberg, 1991; Friedberg & Fidaleo, 1990). While this literature does not include well-controlled empirical research, it nonetheless provides a springboard on which a cognitive approach to storytelling can be based. Although storytelling in psychotherapy has its theoretical DNA in psychodynamic approaches, its use in cognitive therapy is a compelling hybrid. The beauty and appeal of cognitive therapy is its rich conceptual model which promotes integration with techniques subleased from other theoretical landlords (Beck, 1991; Alford & Norcross, 1991).


Gardner (1970,1971,1972,1975) offers a complete description of the Mutual Storytelling Technique (MSTT). He (1972) recommended the use of the MSTT with nonpsychotic children who are verbal and between four years old and adolescence. Basically, the child is invited to tell a story into a tape recorder. The story should include a beginning, middle, and an end. Further, it should be one the child has never heard before. The story ends with a lesson or moral. The therapist's job is to discern the psychological meaning of the story and offer a healthier version along a similar theme. Therapists can ask questions to flesh out their understanding of the children's stories. Finally, a lesson is also included in the therapist's story. In this way, the Mutual Storytelling Technique is a respectful and developmentally sensitive method to correct children's cognitive errors. In fact, despite its psychodynamic heritage, a main focus in MSTT is the "repetitious correction of cognitive distortion (Gardner, 1970, p. 429)." Certainly, the focus of the MSTT in cognitive therapy is more explicitly placed on problem solving, self-statements, and alternative thinking than in Gardner's more psychodynamic approach. Accordingly, less emphasis is placed on uncovering and interpreting symbolic meaning.

In their review of the literature, Van den Brock and Thurlow (1991) found that children were more apt than adults to neglect the roles emotions, thoughts, and images play in story characters' behaviors. They advocate targeting treatment toward increasing children's recognition of these internal states. Gardner (1972) similarly suggested that broadening children's truncated perspectives is the goal of MSTT. …

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