Introduction to Therapeutic Storywriting Theory

The theoretical model presented in the training focuses particularly on the relationship between emotional and cognitive development and makes particular reference to Bion’s (1984) theory of thinking that states that anxiety needs to be sufficiently contained in order for thinking to take place.

The training also looks at different models of the self and draws on Assagioli’s (1965) theory of subpersonalities. The workplace counselling skill of active listening is a core aspect of the training. Teachers practise using metaphor in their own story writing to address emotional issues and are also trained to keep reflections on pupils’ stories within the story metaphor. In this way personal issues, which may be overwhelming for the child if discussed directly, do not need to be brought explicitly into the session.

1. Unconscious aspects of the self may be projected onto story characters

Therapeutic Storywriting makes use of the psychodynamic model, first described by Freud, which considers that feelings or emotions are important factors in determining thinking and behaviour.

The term ‘psychodynamic’ is drawn from the idea of the dynamic unconscious which regulates the degree of emotion that the conscious self can deal with at a particular time without feeling overwhelmed.

When stressful emotions are experienced as threatening to the existence of the conscious self, they are suppressed in the unconscious and defence mechanisms are created by the psyche to keep these experiences out of consciousness.

Even when the situation is no longer threatening these defence mechanisms can continue to operate and give rise to what can appear as irrational and difficult behaviour.

The language of the unconscious is that of symbol and metaphor. Our minds seem remarkably capable of synthesising images which express the nature and quality of emotions locked in our unconscious.

These images are often expressed through dreams but can also be accessed through the creative arts including storywriting.

2. An emotionally safe way to process difficult feelings.

Story metaphor provides an emotionally safe medium in which to explore issues that might overwhelm the child if discussed directly.

Working through emotional issues with children is very different to working with an adolescent or adult. As Piaget’s work with child development shows, the junior aged child’s cognitive development means their rational mind is not yet ready to process abstract concepts.

Talking directly about unconscious emotions can easily make the child feel exposed and emotionally overwhelmed, as anyone who has worked with anxious children will know.

The psychologist Stern in exploring the development of self in infants, describes how the infant controls the amount of pleasurable affect (emotion) engendered by interaction with the mother by averting its gaze. He calls this process whereby the self is prevented from being overwhelmed by emotion affect-attunement.

In working with emotionally anxious children the use of a medium such as storywriting where feelings can be projected onto characters rather than the child feeling the spotlight of attention can similarly be considered as an affect-attunement device.

While to an informed adult’s mind the correlation of metaphor in children’s stories  to their personal experience can seems quite obvious, to the child they are  ‘just writing a story’.

Bettelheim, who spent his life supporting children with EBDs, suggests that it is this incomprehension of the psychic forces at work that provides the magical element in story for the child. In discussing the appeal of fairy tale themes he says,

‘Such motifs are experienced as wondrous because the child feels understood and appreciated deep down in his feelings, hopes and anxieties without these all having to be dragged up and investigated in the harsh light of reality that is still beyond him. Fairy tales enrich the child’s life and give it an enchanted quality just because he does not quite know how the stories have worked their wonder on him.’ (p19)

3. Storywriting can be viewed as a development from play.

This magical element of story that defies rationalisation is what makes it attractive to the child. While developing psychological insight into story metaphor it is important we remember that storywriting is essentially a playful and creative activity.

Children engage with  storywriting in such a focused manner not because it is good for their psychological health but because they find playing with her story ideas to be satisfying and engaging in itself!

The child therapist Winnicott who highlighted the importance of play in the development of the young child, considered creative activities, such as storywriting, to be a natural progression from the play of the young child. Both involve “the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” (p60).

There is clearly a common impulse between the spontaneous role-play of the young child and the junior child’s story writing where role-play is structured within the written story framework. Both take place in that intermediate zone between the internal and external worlds of the individual.

Educationalists acknowledge play to be crucial for the healthy development of the young child and it is an integral part of the early years curriculum . Nurture groups, which are based on psychodynamic theory and have recently been established as a SEN support for children at KS1, also have a large play element.

However, when children reach KS2 structured play is no longer as appropriate either in relation to the junior school environment or to the child’s educational development. Storywriting, when appropriately supported, can be a way for the child to continue to play with the fantasies of their internal world in order to release psychic pressures and resolve emotional tensions.

Rather than expressing these fantasies through the verbalised narrative of role-play the child is encouraged to use the more formalised structure of written story and thereby also supported in the development of writing and language skills.

4. Stories related to the personal self improve engagement with writing.

Children who are preoccupied with the anxieties of their internal world can often find it difficult to focus on classroom tasks. Sometimes their particular life circumstances can also make them feel ‘different’ to other children.

By projecting personal experiences onto story characters, the child can find the freedom to explore personally significant feelings and events in a way that is acceptable within the educational environment.

The role of narrator can also reinforce their sense of self as it places them in a position of power to renegotiate the meaning of events of which they may have felt the victim.

Both the psychologically rewarding nature of this exploration and the positive feedback naturally received in school for engaging with writing, combine to reinforce the child’s self-image as a writer.

As the child finds they have something they wish to write about, their motivation to write naturally increases and with this an interest in developing writing skills. (see case study Anya)


5. Containment of anxiety is necessary for thinking to take place.

While the above two principles deal with the power of metaphor to give expression to emotionally significant aspects of the child’s internal world, this process is dependent on the teacher providing an emotionally secure learning environment in which the child can feel safe enough to engage with their own inner story through writing.

We have probably all experienced, even as adults, times when we have been so emotionally anxious that we are not able to think straight. While storywriting draws on the internal feeling life of the child, the structure and language used needs to be thought about.

The psychotherapist Wilfred Bion (1993) put forward a theory of thinking which states that anxiety needs to be contained if thinking is to take place. There are various ways in which the teacher can begin to contain the child’s anxieties.

Emotional containment  is provided during the groups programme in the following ways:

  • A safe, welcoming & consistent environment
  • Regular sessions with good time keeping
  • Acknowledge  beginning and end of programme
  • Everyone has opportunity to say how they’re feeling
  • Story provides a container for ideas and feelings
  • Respect for the created story
  • Use of active listening.

Ensuring a good beginning to the group is the first step in containing pupils’ anxiety. Children need to feel that they will free from teasing or ridicule by their peers in the group. The room and timing of sessions must be consistent and  each child should feel they will have a time in which they can be given attention.

Next, the teacher needs to develop a deeper understanding of the individual children and the anxieties which can stand in the way of their learning. Bion considers that the child’s thinking is supported when a significant adult is available to first contain the child’s anxiety and then provide what he calls ‘empathic verbal reflection’.  The child internalises this meaning and language which can then be used for her own thinking. By thinking about the child’s anxiety the adult gives it meaning and the unbearable (unthinkable) is made bearable (thinkable).

In the context of therapeutic storywriting, empathic verbal reflection involves the teacher using language to show they have empathised with and thought about the feelings expressed in the child’s story. The teachers use of paraphrase and her comments on the significance of events in the metaphor gives the child’s story extended meaning and language.

The child internalises this meaning and language which can then be used for his/her own thinking about the relevant issues. The teacher may also use metaphor within her own storywriting to provide empathic reflection as explained in the teacher’s story.


6. Interpretations are kept within the metaphor.

The ‘interpretation’ refers to the teacher’s thoughts about the relationship of the metaphor to the child’s external world.

While interpretation is integral to the therapeutic teaching process in that it can provide insight into the child’s anxieties, comments to the child about their story, albeit informed perhaps by the teacher’s interpretation, are kept within the story metaphor.

This is sometimes described as an indirect interpretation. An example of an indirect interpretation of Anya’s story  might be,
‘It must have been very scary for gingerbread 3 to watch the other two gingerbreads being eaten.’
Here the comment is informed by the interpretation that the gingerbread story is a metaphor for something that Anya herself found scary but the reflection refers to the story characters not to Anya herself.

Direct interpretation which is used by some child therapists in the clinical situation is not appropriate to use in therapeutic teaching because of the implications for confidentiality.

A direct interpretation links the metaphor to the child’s actual emotional experience set in external reality. An example of a direct interpretation of Anya’s story might be,
‘I wonder how you felt when you witnessed scary things happening to your family at home’

This direct interpretation would encourage Anya to reveal actual events that have taken place. While this may sometimes be appropriate in a clinical setting it is not appropriate in the teaching environment – especially when working in a group with other children. In working this way, while confidentiality still needs to be thought about , it does not become a major issue.

Apart from confidentiality issues, the use of direct interpretation also has implications for the child/teacher relationship as it can give the child the sense that the teacher is all knowing about their inner feelings. This can in turn encourage the transference of feelings from the mother/primary care taker onto the teacher.

While some transference is natural in most teacher/child relationships it is not to be actively encouraged as the child can then become too dependent on the teacher.

What then is the point of the teacher reflecting on the significance of the metaphor if it is not to be communicated to the child? The usefulness of interpretation is that it helps the teacher to develop an empathic attitude towards the child.

In the case of Anya, her behaviour could easily cause a teacher to see her as merely awkward and stubborn. My personal interpretation of her story was that it reflected a deep emotional wounding that she had experienced in the family home and which had caused her mutism.

It is possible that my interpretation may have been wide of the mark but it strengthened my desire to acknowledge the importance of this story and to provide a safe and nurturing environment for Anya where she could continue to develop self-confidence and expression through her creative writing.


7. Each child has a source of inner wisdom.

The organismic theorists who include Maslow, Rogers and Assagioli consider that each individual has a natural in-built drive towards psychological health and fulfilment of personal potential.

Rogers, educationalist and founder of humanistic psychology, states that the aim of the ‘helping’ relationship is to ‘free the individual to find their inner wisdom and confidence’.

Assagioli, the founder of psychosynthesis, talks about how it is useful to hold what he calls a bi-polar image of the individual. He differentiates the unconscious into the higher and the lower unconscious. The lower unconscious corresponds to the Freudian unconscious and the higher unconscious, sometimes called the transpersonal, is considered the ‘home of our higher aspirations and intuitions, and spiritual energies’ .

Applying this theory to work with children is to  see them with their defense mechanisms and difficulties while at the same time acknowledging that each child is a has a ‘higher unconscious’  with access to their own inner wisdom. This is very evident in the stories pupils write.

The principle of respecting the child’s inner wisdom is also reflected in the way sessions are structured. While clear boundaries need to be established by the teacher and inspiration provided, children are given as much freedom as possible around their story theme based on the premise that they are the ones who know best what they need to explore through their writing.

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Therapeutic Story Writing book coverTherapeutic Storywriting – A Practical Guide to Developing Emotional Literacy.

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