humor a therapeutic intervention for child counseling

Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 4:225–236, 2009 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1540-1383 print/1540-1391 online DOI: 10.1080/15401380903192705 Humor: A Therapeutic Intervention 1540-1391 1540-1383 WCMH Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, Health Vol. 4, No. 3, August 2009: pp. 0–0 for Child Counseling
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  225  Journal of Creativity in Mental Health , 4:225–236, 2009Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 1540-1383 print/1540-1391 onlineDOI: 10.1080/15401380903192705  WCMH1540-13831540-1391 Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, Vol. 4, No. 3, August 2009: pp. 0–0 Journal of Creativity in Mental Health Humor: A Therapeutic Intervention for Child Counseling  Humor: A Therapeutic InterventionR. G. Berg et al. RACHELLE G. BERG, GERALD PARR, LORETTA J. BRADLEY, and JEREMY J. BERRY  Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, USA Counselors utilize many strategies, techniques, and tools whenbuilding a therapeutic alliance or addressing children’s issues. Due to the serious nature of discussing problems or perhaps because of the fear of seeming insensitive, counselors oftenoverlook humor as a means to enhance therapy. Whether deliberate or spontaneous, humor can add creativity and insight to counseling  sessions. Humor is a valuable therapeutic adjunct in making assess-ments, forming a therapeutic bond, helping children develop social  skills, encouraging catharsis, addressing resistance, reframing mal-adaptive beliefs, and replacing rigid, self-absorbed perspectives. This article discusses several types and examples of humor and uses case studies to illustrate interventions. KEYWORDShumor, counseling, children, adolescents, techniques,creativity  Humor touches every facet of living. It is found in books, in movies, ontelevision, and in everyday social interactions. Surprisingly, however, humoras an integral aspect of counseling theory and practice has received only ancillary attention in the counseling literature. Ellis (1977, 1984, 1987, 1996),for example, addresses humor as a therapeutic intervention, but in readinghis ideas one is left with the feeling that humor is an extension of hispersonal style rather than an essential ingredient of his theory. Similarconclusions can be derived from studying such theorists as Adler (1964),Farrelley and Brandsma (1974), Haley (1996), and Mosak (1987). Although  Address correspondence to Rachelle G. Berg, College of Education, Texas Tech University,Box 41071, Lubbock, TX 79409-1071, USA.  226  R. G. Berg et al. Reality Therapy (Glasser, 2000) identifies fun as a basic need, this theory does not appear to feature humor in the process of counseling. A review of the leading counseling textbooks makes this point salient.Corey’s (2005) text, Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy  ,for example, devotes only 12 lines of the entire text to using humor intherapy (pp. 31–32), except for a small paragraph on its use by Ellis (p. 280).The eighth edition of the text by Corsini and Wedding (2008), Current  Psychotherapies  , does not include any reference to humor in its subjectindex. A programmed text often used in courses on techniques of counseling,  Essential Interviewing: A Programmed Approach to Effective Communication by Evans, Hearn, Uhlemann, and Ivey (2008), also makes no mention of humor. These omissions may result in counselors misusing humor or notusing it at all with clients. The purpose of this article is to encourage coun-selors to add humor to their repertoire of counseling interventions and toelevate its application beyond intuition to a planned strategy.Gladding (1995) concluded that while the counseling process can berigid and is one that is traditionally viewed as serious, humor has beenshown to occur frequently in counseling through the natural interactions of its participants. Even though the strategic use of humor is rarely in the main-stream of counselor training, recent literature on humor reveals that thetopic has been discussed from many facets, spanning various fields, thussuggesting that humor is viewed as an important tool for maintaining andimproving physical and mental health. Using the literature on humor, thisarticle will specifically focus on how humor can enrich the counselor’s work with children. IMPORTANCE OF HUMOR  One initial reason to use humor during therapy is to develop rapportbetween the child and the counselor. The therapist/client relationshipinvolves a power differential, especially when the client is a child. Theinitial stages of counseling can be stressful for a child, and humor can be afamiliar and productive way of alleviating stress. One way to make the childfeel more comfortable with the situation is for the therapist to use humor toreveal himself or herself as real, approachable, and human (Franzini, 2000).The counselor could exchange life experiences with clients to illustrateuniversality (Bernet, 2001; Gladding, 2005) and show that life does in factgo on after feeling hurt and humiliated. Using humor in this manner may also help build a feeling of alliance between the counselor and client(Brooks, 1994). Zall (1994) suggests that the use of humor in the beginningstages of counseling establishes that the counseling environment is a safeplace to discuss any topic, while simultaneously allowing the child to deter-mine limits for therapy.   Humor: A Therapeutic Intervention 227 Experiencing fear and self-protection may be part of any therapeuticrelationship, especially when the client did not choose to attend, a situationthat often occurs with young children. Laughing with clients can helplighten the mood and reduce the need for self-protection in several ways.Humor can help the client talk about difficult subjects. Humor providesdistance between the client and the sensitive topic; moreover, the clientmay experience freedom to explore issues that otherwise can be over- whelming. Humor may also help clients hear difficult feedback (Bernet,2001; Brooks, 1994).Using humor in counseling can help reduce tension, both inside andoutside the therapy session. A timely joke or humorous comment may defuse a tense moment between counselor and client (Brooks, 1994;Franzini, 2000), such as those that arise during power struggles with adoles-cent clients. In a similar vein, humor allows clients to “release hostile feelingsin a socially acceptable manner” (Manke, 1998, p. 372). Using these tacticsin the microcosm of the counseling environment teaches children an importantskill that may help them defuse tense situations in their everyday lives. Whenobserving or using humor as a means of tension reduction, the counselormust take care to ensure that the humor is not used as a defense againstdiscussing the problem at hand, for example, if a client starts to act silly  when a serious topic is introduced (Zall, 1994).Modeling the appropriate and nonhostile use of humor and teachingchildren how to use it in different social situations can benefit the childoutside the therapy room. Kilgore (2003) suggests that teaching childrenjokes, and even practicing them, empowers children with a social skill thatleads to making and keeping friends. This may not only help the child gainpeer approval and respect, it can also help the child defuse conflict situa-tions such as teasing or bullying (Kilgore, 2003; Klein, 2003; Martin, 1988).Further, assessing the child’s use of and response to humor can help with diagnostics in several areas. Humor is one indicator of cognitive andsocial development (Bernet, 2001; Dana, 1994). For instance, very youngchildren commonly enjoy potty humor and nonsense words, so if this is themain means of amusement for an older child, it could indicate delayeddevelopment. TYPES OF HUMOR   Various types of humor have been identified and include the unexpected,exaggeration, incongruity, word play, nonverbal humor, and retrospectivehumor. Different types of humor may be appropriate for different clients.Counselors must be cognizant of the client’s cognitive stage of developmentso that they don’t inadvertently cause insult or confusion (Kilgore, 2003;Klein, 2003; Martin, 1988; McGhee, 1979; Zall, 1994). Sensitivity should also  228  R. G. Berg et al. be used when choosing a type of humor to ensure that it matches orchallenges the mood appropriately and has a therapeutic purpose. Maples,Dupey, Torres-Rivera, Phan, Vereen, and Garrett (2001) advocated that the“use of humor should be tailored or customized to the particular client andhis specific cultural orientation” (p. 59). Therefore, counselors must have anunderstanding of a wide range of humor styles to meet the specific needs of their clients. The Unexpected One type of humor enjoyed by all ages is the unexpected. The unexpectedcontains elements of trickery and surprise and is usually in the form of ajoke or riddle (Klein, 2003). This type of humor would be useful as anicebreaker, rapport builder, tension breaker, or tool for the child to use tomake new friends. Some examples of the unexpected are: Riddle: What’s clear on the outside and gray on the inside? Answer: An elephant in a sandwich bag.Humorous Story: A cowboy had two horses, but he couldn’t tell themapart. He cut off one horse’s mane, but it grew back. He cut off the tailbut that grew back too. A friend suggested that he measure the horses.The cowboy measured them and went back to his friend and said, “That was a great idea—the black one was two inches taller than the whiteone.” (Hahn, 2006, p. 9) Exaggeration  A second type of humor is exaggeration. This type is useful for pointing outunproductive thoughts or behaviors. The children’s book  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day   by Judith Viorst (1972) is anexample of exaggeration. The main character faces one “mini disaster” afteranother but realizes, in the end, that those days happen to everyone.Similarly, a counselor could ask a child to purposely exaggerate the worst-case scenario of a current concern to point out the improbability of the very  worst happening. Exaggeration should be well timed and applied only  when it is appropriate to, and harmonizes with, the context of a counselingrelationship, lest children misperceive that the counselor is minimizing ordevaluing their concerns. Incongruity  Incongruity is one of the earliest forms of humor to develop and iscomposed of impossibilities and improbabilities, such as movies withtalking animals. Bergen (1998) mentions calling things and people by the

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