Fiction helps deal with the hard facts

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Research finds novels can help pupils reflect on their own experiences and cope with trauma. Adi Bloom reports

Children's novels that deal with death, divorce or growing up can be used to counsel pupils through such times in their own lives, new research has claimed.

Eileen Jones, an educational psychologist, believes that traditional counselling can be too direct an approach for some pupils, who find it hard to discuss sensitive issues.

But her research has shown that reading can influence the way children think and behave. So, by carefully selecting relevant books, adults can help guide children through a particular trauma.

"No child has their grief in isolation," Mrs Jones said. "Books can help them to realise this. A book can give a child permission to feel."

Mrs Jones believes that a book's narrative can prompt children to hold an internal discussion about the subject matter, forcing them to confront the issues it brings up and clarifying their own feelings in the process. This can then make it easier for them to consider discussing these feelings with other people.

"A book helps them to view their problem from a distance," she said. "They have a more objective view of their situation. Then they can put it into their own language."

The key is the relevance of the novel to the child's life. Mrs Jones will carefully select books that reflect the problems a particular child is experiencing. For example, a boy who began shoplifting after his father died was given a book in which the lead character started to break the law after losing a parent.

As children read, or listen to an adult reading, they automatically empathise with the lead characters.

This can then lead to reflection on their own problems. They may begin to think about how the character's coping strategies could apply to their lives.

"It helps children to understand their problems," Mrs Jones said. "Often, one has to teach them how to react to a situation because children don't know how to do it automatically. A character in a book can demonstrate this for them."

Even if children do not immediately identify with the main characters, the process can be helpful. Readers can internalise the language of the story's emotions, creating a vocabulary that can be used to describe their own lives.

While adults can prescribe a book for a particular child, Mrs Jones insists that no one can tell the child what to take from the narrative. It is up to each individual to decide what is relevant and what lessons to extract from the text.

But teachers can help children by opening up discussion about particular characters or events and creating an awareness that others have overcome similar problems.

Once this has been established, teachers can help children outline possible solutions to their own problems, using the fictional characters' lives as a starting point.

"Children need time to internalise any parallel emotions and insight found through identification in a story," said Mrs Jones. "The very fact that a book can be read again and again, probably revealing deeper meanings on successive readings, can hasten this progress."

`Bookwork' by Eileen Jones, appears in the June 2008 edition of the journal `Counselling Children and Young People'


- Do not expect reading a book to solve all a child's problems. It is only a catalyst to set the child thinking.

- Similarly, avoid giving children the impression that reading a book will make everything better.

- Readers may have trouble distancing themselves from strong or appealing characters.

- Some readers may want to copy a character's behaviour, rather than thinking about the reasons behind it.

- Some teenagers use fiction to rationalise their problems, rather than to gain insight into them.

Suggested bibliotherapy books

Judy Blume, It's Not the End of the World

Virginia Hamilton, Cousins

Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia

Jacqueline Wilson, Falling Apart.

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