Risë VanFleet

Personal Storytelling


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People have engaged in storytelling for centuries, long before recorded history.  It’s a way to pass along cultural and family practices and values and to create social bonds through a common history.  Various types of storytelling techniques have been employed in child therapies (VanFleet, R. (1993).  Strengthening families with storytelling.  In L. VandeCreek, S. Knapp, & T. L. Jackson (Eds.), Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book, Vol. 12.  Sarasota, FL:  Professional Resource Press, 147-154.).

Personal storytelling involves the sharing of actual memories in individual or group/family therapy.  Described here is one way of using personal storytelling with a family in therapy.  I ask the family to relax (closing their eyes is encouraged, but optional).  I then ask them to think about a favorite toy or object from their childhood.  I slowly take them through some simple imagery, asking them to think about what the toy looked like, how large/small it was, what it smelled like, where it came from, how they played with it, how they felt when they played with it, any special experiences they had with it, what happened to it, etc. etc.

Almost invariably this activity evokes memories and feelings, usually quite pleasant.  Next, everyone takes turns sharing their memories of their favorite toys while the others listen.  The therapist can use the storytelling to help family members understand each other and themselves better, and sometimes can relate their stories to current-day reactions or feelings.  After each family member has shared his/her story, the therapist asks them what the storytelling experience was like for them and guides them as they briefly process the activity.

I use this activity, not for in-depth analysis or insight, but more to bring families together in a meaningful sharing of their lives.  It should be noted that sometimes sad or angry feelings can be evoked during personal storytelling, and the therapist needs to leave adequate time for the family to discuss and work through these feelings.

When there are young children in the family, the therapist can invite them to tell a story about their current favorite toys.  A subsequent “show and tell” session, if family members still possess the toys can be fun as well.

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