CYC-Online 101 JUNE 2007
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Utilising metaphoric storytelling in Child and Youth Care Work

Raymond Peterson and Lynn Fontana

Child and youth care work is a highly creative practice: creativity often born out of the challenge of serving extremely dysfunctional youth and families under conditions of limited resources. The high pressure of daily management demands direct, immediate intervention techniques. Under these conditions, it is a challenge to press creative limits to develop indirect, subtle and more therapeutic approaches. In light of this, consider the lowly parable, the metaphoric story. It can be a potentially powerful resource for therapeutic intervention.

Throughout time, the telling of stories has been a powerful force in teaching and rearing children. Even more than this, storytelling can be a potent therapeutic force in the hands of child and youth workers who understand the principles for designing therapeutic experiences. The key to understanding this is the awareness that, in addition to the content of a story, there are hypnotic aspects in the presentation of the metaphoric story: in experiencing the telling of a story, the listener may go into a state of relaxation and focused attention which constitutes a light trance. In this state, the listener creates his/her own association and personal meaning for the story. The listener may also access memories from other experiences creating a multisensory experience – images, smells, excitement, colours, scenes and feelings associated with the story. While this is going on, other experiential learning may be taking place, of which the listener is unaware.

This phenomenon directly relates to the observations of Henry Maier (1987) about two different orders of change. As Maier observes in Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth, first order change is incremental, progressive change that occurs with added experience. Second order change builds upon incremental change, but it depends on turning points within the change process and is manifest by a transformation that demonstrates a substantive change has occurred ... Most of our work is with the second order of change objective.

We expect children within our care not merely to do better along their ongoing path of functioning. We also want them to manage, to feel, and frequently to conceive their life experience in a decisively different manner ... a change not necessarily to do better, but to do differently – to transform their everyday handling of life encounters.... (pp. 197-198).

The metaphoric story method is a useful intervention that reaches that second order change objective.

The techniques and theory of therapeutic storytelling and metaphor have been explored by hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, and in family therapy literature (Keeney,1983; Watzlawick, Beavin andJackson, 1967; Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). Erickson, as is also true of creative child and youth workers, was an innovator and practitioner of the naturalistic approach to intervention with children and adults (Rossi, 1986).

In Erickson's approach, anything at hand could be put in context to become a part of a client’s solution-making process. He especially modelled the utilization of the immediate environment, the paradoxical, the trivial, the surprising and the fun. A master in the art of applying the basics of caring (Maier, 1987), Erickson practiced a philosophy of acceptance and validation in order to normalize and positively reframe a client’s experience (Mills and Crowley, 1987). He developed a model of metaphorical storytelling and light trance work that is applicable to child and youth work (Peterson, 1988, 1980).

Where do you begin as a child and youth worker in the utilization of therapeutic storytelling and metaphor? You can start by listening for examples of the young person's symbolic thinking which comes through the stories and incidents that they describe. Through minimal verbal and nonverbal cues, young people reveal their own way of thinking, remembering and organizing experience. With practice, it becomes easier to recognize and present stories that are patterned after their own. By matching your way of speaking, gesturing and storytelling with theirs, you can create rapport and openness. The aim is to be synchronized with their way of feeling, seeing and speaking (Grinder and Bandler, 1981).

Much like a foreign language, we can learn the verbal and nonverbal language of the young person so that there is less that is lost in translation. By becoming familiar with subjects that are important and interesting to him/her, you can enrich communication, deepen trust and accelerate relationship building. In fact, you will probably find that as you hone your ability to find common ground, you will be able to connect with children and families that you had once thought unreachable (Yapko, 1988).

The best beginning point for the development of these skills may be to look at what you are already doing that uses these same ideas and techniques. Start there and flesh out those aspects that are missing.

On the other hand, you may want to try a systematic approach by utilizing a checklist of the key ingredients in the metaphoric storytelling recipe. To create a metaphoric story for a particular young person or treatment purpose, you may want to prepare the story line ahead of time. Here are eight points to consider as you experiment with developing your own approach:

  1. What is their way of remembering events when sharing a story or idea? Do they use seeing words, hearing words, or feeling words? Tell your story using their kind of words for describing experience.

  2. What are their hobbies and special interests? Use these to find a common ground.

  3. What is the particular kind of problem, skill or information for which they need help?

  4. Begin thinking of the elements of a story that might depict various aspects of the young person's situation.

  5. Think of how you could bring in an element to the situation that is a metaphor of the problem or struggle, and then add a metaphorical helper or solution into the story.

  6. As you begin to tell your story, get a feel for where to add drama and voice inflections that create a deeper sense of participation, relaxation and suggestibility.

  7. A little rehearsal with a friend or listening to a tape recording can accelerate confidence and learning. It should begin to feel like telling any personal story or anecdote that is an interesting and natural part of a conversation.

  8. Notice that the major difference between this story and normal conversation is that there are metaphorical features deliberately added which parallel the young person's situation. The conversational style feels natural. The features are abstract and open to the young person's interpretation. Like a riddle, the purpose is not to explain your point or moral but to leave the young person interested yet free to interpret in a private and personal way. This approach recognizes that second order change may go on long after the story itself has faded from awareness.

Another method, one that is fun and probably more commonly used by creative child and youth workers, is the story-line that is developed interactively between the practitioner and the young person. The primary story line is presented by the young person but as it is presented, it is shaped and reinterpreted through the interaction with the practitioner to give ita more useful and therapeutic meaning. The development and meaning of the young person's story is a collaborative effort that, again, feels like a natural part of normal conversation. This method is referred to as the “Team Technique,” or Therapist Evoked (client) Articulated Metaphor technique (Peterson, 1988). As the title suggests, often the child and youth worker draws the story line out of the young person by evoking metaphoric references for describing some experience. For example, you might start a story line by asking such questions as “You mean, is it like the kind of situation that comes up in a baseball game where ... ?”; or “Is it anything like what we saw in The Karate Kid last night?”; or “What do you mean? What is 'too hot to handle” for you in this situation?”

This approach, with its natural communication style, was developed through milieu Child and Youth Care practice. The milieu practitioner spends an extended period of time with young people. There are many opportunities for interventions using therapeutic metaphor techniques within the context of natural life events such as meals, games, television watching and group activities than the typical private practice session. The child and youth work practitioner can take advantage of the Naturally Occurring Therapeutic Opportunities (NOTOs) (Peterson, 1988) for brief interventions using the same kind of communication that young people use, such as jokes, riddles, and cajoling. The technique also works well with extended interventions such as stories and anecdotes. With imagination and practice, a TEAM-work story can be developed for nearly any NOTO. As you learn your own style of TEAM approach, it may be helpful to consider the following checklist of ingredients.

One of the advantages of the TEAM approach is that the young person feels that the story and meaning belongs to him/her and not to the adult. It is part of an internalized process, one that enhances a sense of personal empowerment. The effects can be far reaching and long term, because the process may change how the young person sees things; this can spontaneously create a wide range of second-order change. It is a co-creative process that prepares the young person for greater self-responsibility and independent thinking. A context is created by which he/she learns from his/her own experience in a self-directed “self-apprenticeship training” manner (Peterson, Young & Tillman, 1988, pp. 227-233).

The discussion of the process and the therapeutic power of metaphoric storytelling reminds us of both the power of “the little things” we do in our work, moment to moment, and the great potential of the little things when honed to a fine art. We see what can be done with the lowly parable when it is transformed into a therapeutic technique raising our conversations to the level of therapeutic interaction. Naturally Occurring Therapeutic Opportunities do not just happen, but are created through the recognition of what we are really doing and the identification and development of consistent skills.


Gilligan, S.G.(1987).Therapeutic trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Grindler, J., & Bandler, R. (1981). Trance formation: Neuro-linguistic programming and the structure of hypnosis. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Keeney, B.P. (1983). Aesthetics of change. New York: The Guilford Press.

Maier, H.W. (1987). Developmental group care of children and youth: Concepts and practice. New York: Brunner/ Mazel.

Peterson, R.W., Young, S.E., & Tillman, J.S. (1988). Applied ethics educating child & youth workers in competent caring through self apprenticeship training. In A. Anglin, C. Denholm, R. Ferguson, & A. Pence, (Eds., 1990). Perspectives in Professional Child and Youth Care.

Peterson, R.W. (1988). The collaborative metaphor technique. Journal of Child Care, 3 (4).

Rossi, E.L. (1986). Altered states of consciousness in everyday life: The ultradian rhythms. In B. Wolman & M. Ullman (Eds.), Handbook of Altered States of Consciousness (pp. 97-122). New York: Van Nostrand.

Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. New York: W.W. Norton.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J.H., & Fiseh, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Yapko, M.D. (1988). When living hurts: Directives for treating depression. New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers.

This feature: Peterson, R. and Fontana, L.(1991). Utilising metaphoric storytelling in Child and Youth Care Work. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 5(2), pp. 53-58.

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