My son has exactly 5,873 books. Ok, maybe that is an overstatement BUT he does have a ton of books – like baskets upon baskets and shelves upon shelves. The first thing I went out and bought when we found out we were pregnant was an amazon cart of books. To say I am book obsessed is an understatement, and this love of books has been growing ever since I was little and had 5,873 books.
I have been using bibliotherapy in my practice with children and young people nearly since day one. I cannot describe how amazing it feels when a child feels seen and heard through bibliotherapy. Some children feel like they are the only ones to have gone through something or know what it feels like to have the feelings they have. BUT children get so much comfort in the fact that if someone actually wrote a book about something AND a publishing company felt it was so important to actually make the book – then they are not alone. That look of relief that washes over their face and the shame melting away is an amazing experience both as a therapist and for the young people we work with.
Bibliotherapy is the use of literature to help children cope with and process emotional and behavioral difficulties and big life changes. It is one of my favorite things to present on and I only combined my last presentation Books, Games, and Media Oh My: Broadening Your Play Therapy Toolbox because I didn’t know how many other book nerds were out there and would be interested in a whole 6 hours of bibliotherapy. Drop a comment below if you are also a fellow book nerd with your favorite book to use in the playroom!
Books are SO magical because they engage and capture the three portals of learning – visual, auditory, and tactile and kinesthetic. The last portal is especially engaged when bibliotherapy is combined with other directive play therapy techniques and research actually shows that bibliotherapy increases with effectiveness when paired with another directive technique.
The amazing thing about bibliotherapy is it can fit into most theories of play therapy depending on how you are using it. For those that practice Child Centered Play Therapy it fits into a play therapy session when a child spontaneously takes a book from the shelf and begins to explore. Some may read as a mother character or when playing the role of teacher. For more directive approaches liked Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy the therapist can introduce the book and the directive activity based on the child’s goals – maybe for emotional identification, shifts in maladaptive cognitions, or identifying adaptive behaviors or coping skills.
Being a mom and a play therapist is an incredibly interesting season as sometimes the play I do in office with clients spills over an informs the play I do at home. I mean, I have all categories of Dr. Gary Landreth’s toys present in my son's toy collection AND a sand tray in my living room. However, I am finding more and more that my play at home is informing my therapy practice. There are new toys, books, and games that I finding that I just NEED to by a second one for the office. The book Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena is one of those times.
To say this book is amazing is an understatement. It is beautifully and vibrantly illustrated, has a wonderful message on gratitude, and has won a slew of awards. One the first page we meet CJ, a curious young boy who is wanting what others have. As he and his grandmother catch the bus across town after church to volunteer at the soup kitchen CJ is wondering – why doesn’t he have a car? How come he doesn’t have headphones like the teenage boys? How come he has to go volunteer? His grandmother shows kindness and gratitude on every page. She is able to find the little miracles in the every day.
After the 500th time of reading this book (because that’s what kids like to do) I had a lightbulb moment that this was ABSOLUTELY a therapy book. The ways to help young people see the miracles and magic in the everyday is endless. This book is wonderful for those that struggle to see the good or positive, are often angry or irritated, have a sad or down mood, or are just chronic complainers! Research shows us that gratitude, the act of showing thanks and appreciation, is linked to improvement in mood, can actually change your brain, and releases the feel good chemicals of dopamine and serotonin!
The book on its own is amazing and for some who practice reactive bibliotherapy that is where this activity ends. I am a huge fan of interactive bibliotherapy where you pair the book with some sort of creative activity – and let me tell you – the sky is the limit. You could go together (with all the necessary permissions of course) on a gratitude walk during the session, naming things on the way you are grateful for. Even in your office think about all the wonderful things you could see on the way from your office to the waiting room – electricity, heat (especially important to Minnesotans with subzero temperatures), art, the internet, indoor plumbing, the ability to be mobile, and the list could go on!
You could assign the child homework to do a gratitude walk alone or with parents OR one of my favorite assignments for families is developing a ritual of sharing of gratitude on a daily basis before bed, at dinner, or in a gratitude journal. Sometimes I bring this technique into the therapy session because I find parents are often times so busy putting out fires that in a moment of peace they just want to relax and take a breath! For some young people I end my parent check in portion with the parent looking at the child and telling them all the things they are grateful for their child over the week. It can be anything from loving the child’s sense of humor, when a sibling instigated the child and he/she walked away, or enjoying an activity done together. I call these “ushy-gushy” moments because it is so darn COOL to see this outpouring of love that often times we don’t stop to do.
The book creates a nice springing off point to talk about WHO in the child’s life they are grateful for and HOW they could show that person/people they appreciate them. This could mean drawing a picture or making a collage of what they are grateful for. You could focus on the toughest part of their day and find the good parts to pull out. I also often have children in my office that want to make a card/art for a parent, teacher, sibling or friend. Other times it can be a thank you card – sent or kept private – that the child writes to someone special in their life OR to someone they struggle to find the good in.
Questions I found helpful to process this book:
Now lastly, I want to share one of my favorite bibliotherapy secrets – almost all books you can find on YouTube! I prefer having book in hand reading in real time, HOWEVER if you don’t have the budget, don’t know if a book will fit will into your practice, or dang it you forgot to put it in your amazon cart and the client you want to do this with is on your schedule today – watching a video of the book together can be wonderful.
What are your favorite ways to cultivate gratitude in session with clients? I would love to hear what goes on in your play room!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR CIT. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.