Distinguished social work professor teaches storytelling therapy to Greek practitioners

June 10, 2013

“Reciprocal storytelling” is a powerful psychotherapeutic tool in child psychotherapy, permitting children and therapists a simple though highly effective and creative means through which emotional conflicts, disturbing fantasies, and other anxiety-laden material can be explored, a veteran practitioner and School of Social Work faculty member told mental health professionals in Greece last month.

Jerrold Brandell, distinguished professor of social work and a widely published expert on psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, in May presented clinical workshops on reciprocal storytelling at the Technological Educational Institute in Heraklion, Crete and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Aghia Sophia Children’s Hospital inAthens. Following a time-honored tradition that goes back to the pioneering child clinician and psychoanalyst Hermine Hug-Hellmuth, as well as later writers such as Richard Gardner and Nathan Kritzberg, Brandell developed “reciprocal storytelling” as a therapeutic framework in which client and therapist take turns creating imaginative stories. Through this process, the child expresses disturbing wishes, fears, and defensive adaptations, while the therapist, having discerned the dynamic meaning of the child’s story, responds with a different version offering therapeutic insights and more adaptive solutions.

Brandell’s contribution to therapeutic storytelling comes from his use of this specialized technique with diverse and severely disordered clinical child populations. While earlier research largely involved children with neurotic disorders, Brandell has applied reciprocal storytelling to the treatment of posttraumatic cases and disorders of attachment, as well as children suffering from self object, borderline, and other personality disorders. These types of children, he noted, “are much more commonly seen by social workers in the trenches.”

During his workshops in Greece, Brandell shared with clinicians various assessment tools to discern which clients are good candidates for storytelling, case studies from his own clinical practice, and information on how to interpret children’s stories and construct therapeutic responses.  Though child clinicians in Greece may not approach storytelling in a systematic way, Brandell observed, he nevertheless believes its use as a therapeutic tool has a unique cultural resonance there.

“The Greeks of course draw from an ancient storytelling tradition, and I think storytelling is still highly valued in Greece,” Brandell said. “In this country, children are no longer necessarily exposed to the Grimm Brothers fairy tales and other traditional children’s literature.  In fact, a lot of kids I’ve treated in recent years don’t really understand what a moral is without prompting – but, my impression is that storytelling has retained a strong appeal among the clinicians I worked with in Crete and Athens, and in contemporary Greek culture, more generally.”

While at the Aghia Sophia Children's Hospital, Brandell also presented a clinical paper, “Secrecy in the Psychotherapy of A Severely Traumatized Adopted Child,” which illustrated his intensive treatment, much of which involved the use of metaphorical play and story-making techniques, with a young adolescent male client.