How Stories Facilitate Problemsolving

In planning and writing this book, I have consulted with many colleagues, and a universal theme came through many of those conversations that was most clearly expressed by fellow clinical psychologist Elaine Atkinson, who said, "Children who can work symbolically or metaphorically are the best problem solvers. Those who have difficulty thinking metaphorically also struggle with problem-solving tasks." Thus, by helping develop a child's ability to think and work metaphorically, we may facilitate the development of problem-solving skills—one of life's most essential skills. No one's life, whether we are born with the proverbial silver spoon in our mouths or not, is without problems. In fact, you may have heard it said that life's problems can be so complex even teenagers do not have the answers!

In workshop training, Jay Haley has stated that therapy ought to help a person overcome this current set of problems in a way that better equips her or him to overcome the next set. This perspective does not deny the fact that life for children, as well as for adults, has its problems. It does not offer the false promise that when you get over this current situation of bullying, abuse, parental separation, attention problems, or whatever, life will be a bed of roses . . . though that is probably an appropriate metaphor: Life has its beauty and its thorns. For a child to be properly equipped for life, this is essential information for him or her to have. Haley's perspective on therapy makes it clear that this current set of circumstances, no matter how distressing, can be an important learning experience from which a child is capable of developing enhanced skills for problem resolution. If therapy does this, it has served a valuable function, for people who are content know that life has its beauty and its thorns. How you handle it is what matters. . . . And this is where building problem-solving skills is so essential for kids and teens.

Fortunately, we have nature on our side. We are born problem-solvers. From infancy we solve our problems of hunger, soiled diapers, or discomfort by crying and thus gaining parental attention. We grow to become better problem solvers by developing different cries for different problems, thus getting quicker and more specific attention to our needs. We learn to solve the problem of early immobility by discovering how to stand on our own two feet and walk. By the time adolescence comes around we have gone from crying when faced with a problem of hunger to a whole new set of resolution skills: standing in front of the fridge, door open, complaining there is no food in the house until someone comes with something to put in our hands.

Some of the problem-solving skills that kids have learned may be very helpful and adaptive, whereas some may not be so useful. At times kids may encounter problems for which they have not yet developed the appropriate competencies—something that can happen right through our lives, but especially in childhood and adolescence. This is where outcome-focused stories may be helpful. Tales of role models or effective problem-solving heroes like Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, a sci entist, or an explorer may help provide the listener with the possible means for getting from the problem to the outcome. What would they do in a similar situation to your young client? How do they handle the difficulties your listener is encountering? How can they prepare themselves for similar experiences in the future? What are the things they do that might be useful for you to use?

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