Experiential Metaphors

"Pairing action with metaphor to achieve change is crucial to work with children" (Linden, 2003b, p. 150). Metaphors need not just be in the telling of a tale but may also be in the doing. We have probably all heard it said that experience is the best teacher. You learn to drive a car by having the experience of sitting behind the steering wheel, pressing the pedals, using the blinkers, and coordinating all those necessary eye-hand skills to make the vehicle move successfully and safely. Children may know that their enuresis, aggressive behaviors, or drug use are inappropriate, but until they experience what it feels like to wet the bed at a sleepover at a friend's house, they meet someone stronger and more aggressive, or they are rushed to a hospital because of an unintentional overdose, they may not appreciate the need for change. Similarly, until they experience a dry night, calmness in a stressful situation, or the strength and confidence to say "no" to drugs, it is difficult for them to appreciate that change is possible. A core ingredient of therapy, therefore, is the creation of the experience of possible change, and experiential metaphors are ones crafted to create such beneficial experiential learn ing by setting up an assignment that has the metaphoric intent of helping clients develop the appropriate levels of competency to reach their desired outcome.

If a child needs time out for processing certain life events, is it helpful to assist him in finding a time, a place, and the means for doing so? If a child wants or needs to develop problem-solving skills, would it be beneficial to set her an assignment such as exploring a maze, bicycling around an unfamiliar suburb, doing a jigsaw, or tackling another kind of puzzle? If the therapeutic goal is building a new skill, whether in bladder control, aggression management, or saying no to a drug supplier, could the child first build competency in a metaphoric task like learning to juggle, ride a unicycle, or sail a wind-surfer? If children want to stop biting their nails, or grow friendships, would it be helpful to set them the experiential metaphor of buying a seedling and learning what is necessary for its healthy growth and development? (How do you prevent insects from eating it? What does it need to nurture it?)

Some of our most important learning is experiential. No one has to tell children how to walk. Parents may lend a hand, but children acquire the skill through their own experience. They experience the unsteadiness, the falls, perhaps the hurts, and the initial difficulties of attempting to put one foot in front of the other. Each time they fall, they get up a little stronger, a little more confident, a little more capable, until soon they are running, hopping, skipping, and dancing. If there is some validity in the statement that experience is our best teacher, then it follows that the more experiences we have in life the more we are capable of learning. One important way of helping our young clients grow in skills, competence, and confidence is to create and facilitate opportunities for them to have a broader range of novel experiences. And one useful way of doing this is through experiential metaphors.

This subject is elaborated, with much greater detail, in Nature-Guided Therapy (Burns, 1998), in which a whole chapter is devoted to the subject of experiential metaphors and their application with adult clients. The principles for setting up such therapeutic assignments are much the same for children and can easily be extrapolated for the different age groups. Setting experiential metaphor assignments for children needs to be done with special regard to ethics and safety. As well as being ther-apeutically relevant, the assignment needs to be age relevant and competency relevant, and may even need to be carried out under parental or therapist supervision. Parental consent and involvement is important even with adolescent clients.

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