Fairytale therapy

Fairytale therapy as part of bibliotherapy is one of the relatively well developed branches. There are world-renowned works of authors who dealt with fairy tale therapy, such as Behind the Secret of Fairy Tales written by Bruno Bettelheim (1975-6), A Psychological Interpretation of Fairy Tales by Marie Louise von Franz (1986) or Women Who Ran with the Wolves by Clarissa Pincola Estés (1992-5). We present other rare works that we recommend to study in the list of recommended scientific and professional literature.

There is a well-known statement by Bruno Bettelheim, who worked educationally and therapeutically with children with severe health impairments and found that when he focused his work on raising the children in such a way that their lives gave meaning, they did not need any additional special help. Also, that when children are young, this ability to find and develop meaning in their own lives is best conveyed to them by folk tales. Of the more modern fairy tales and stories, those that, thanks to the artistic language means used, achieved the ability to convey both obvious and hidden meanings (p. 11 et seq.).

He also stated that “it is more healing to have a story told to you than to just read it or have it read to you” (p. 37), which emphasizes the importance of interpersonal contact and direct communication with children even in today’s modern age.

Most of the folk tales were created on the basis of the real life experiences of our ancestors, which were mastered and transmitted to the future for the instruction of the next generations. The used symbolic language that appeals to the soul and the deepest emotions, where thanks to the names of the main characters, the presented content is more typical than concrete and you can easily imagine yourself or a family member in their place. This helps to identify with the hero at a safe distance (at any time you can separate from him with the fact that his story is different after all, which leaves freedom for creative manipulation of your own life story).

Unlike other stories, the main characters in fairy tales are unambiguous (good or bad, black or white), which makes it easier to navigate the ambiguity, variety and multi-dimensionality of the surrounding world. Both the presented story and the characters are communicated in a specific poetic and metaphorical language, which develops an aesthetic feeling and a sense of harmony. Unlike myths, a fairy tale always ends well, which helps to maintain hope and confidence in one’s own strengths, abilities that can be developed. In therapy, hidden meanings should never be revealed prematurely, it should be waited until the patient or client has matured to understand them on their own. The hidden and apparent meanings, which he creatively handles during therapy (whether in his own imagination or through other creative activities), are the basis from which healing change can finally take shape.

We present case studies with examples of therapeutic work with fairy tales for adults provided by a colleague Mgr. Katarína Šurdová, for which we thank her very much. You can also be inspired by the example tasks for the exercises that we quote below.

Case studies

Example of exercise 1

Example of exercise 2

Both examples involve the use of existing fairy tale texts. Such work in the helping professions presupposes familiarity with the story contained in the fairy tale that the client prefers, preferably with the one that has the greatest emotional charge for the client. We certainly don’t need to remind you how important it is in the preparatory phase to find out the client’s reading and other interests, as well as a good knowledge of his current developmental challenges and potential, whether it is individual work or group work. It is quite a common technique of bibliotherapy to finish/complete the other end of fairy tales or stories if necessary.

Sometimes, however, a suitable fairy tale is simply not available, or it is necessary to specifically modify an existing fairy tale for therapeutic purposes (see, for example, already modified ones contained in the publications of Gerlinde Ortner, Nossrat Peseschkian and others).

Partial instructions on how and why to work with language and what else needs to be taken care of when writing a fairy tale text that is intended for therapeutic purposes can be found, e.g. in the work of Vladislav Babka: The Word as a Tool in Therapy.

However, the therapist can encourage the client with appropriately chosen questions to create such a healing fairy tale himself with his help. We are attaching the instructions how to create the healing fairy-tale with a child, for which we are again indebted to our colleague Katarína Šurdová and the workshop of the Slovak Society for Logotherapy and Existential Analysis: The Healing Power of Fairy Tales, held on May 27th 2023, at which she provided it.

Bettelheim, Bruno. 1975, 1976. Behind the secret of fairy tales. (Translated into Czech by Lucie Lucká 2000, 2016). Prague: Portál, 2017. 416 p. ISBN 9788026211723
Kotrbová, Kvetoslava. 2023. Cvičenia pre prácu s rozprávkami. [Exercises for working with fairy tales.] In Bibliotherapy. Lectures and exercises for students of the therapeutical pedagogy study program. Comenius University in Bratislava, Faculty of Pedagogy, Department of Curative Education, academic year 2020/2021, summer semester, updated in connection with the Erasmus+ project “Prototype teaching aid for bibliotherapy” on June 15, 2023.
Šurdová, Katarína. 2023. Materials from the workshop Healing power of fairy tales held in Bratislava (Slovakia) on May 27, 2023. (author’s archive)

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Author of the article:
PhDr. Kvetoslava Kotrbová, PhD., MPH, Department of Therapeutic Pedagogy, Faculty of Pedagogy of the Comenius University in Bratislava, June 15, 2023.

Recommended citation method:
Kotrbová Kvetoslava. 2023. Rozprávkoterapia. [Fairytale therapy.] In Kotrbová, K. et al: Biblioterapia.sk. Bratislava: PRO SKIZP – Association to support the development of the Slovak Chamber of Clinical Physics, Laboratory Diagnosticians, Language Speech Therapists and Therapeutic Pedagogues, 2023.  ISBN 978-80-974667-0-1 Available on: https://www.biblioterapia.sk/en/fairytale-therapy/

The contribution was created thanks to support from the European Union Erasmus+ program, Key action 2 – Cooperation between organizations and institutions, KA210 – Small partnerships for cooperation in the field of education and training. Project name “Prototype of online study tool for bibliotherapy”, project number 2022-1-SK01-KA210-VET-000082483. It represents the opinion of the author and neither the European Commission nor the author is responsible for any use of the information contained therein.