Therapy with stories. How to wean children off pilfering things

Sebastian Jüngel

We know today from various fields that we can steer an inner development or enhance abilities through visualisations and stories. A top athlete runs through the competition in her mind before the start. A patient imagines how he moves his paralysed arm in order to reopen a pathway for the nerves. And in cancer therapy as developed by Simonton the patients imagine how they are fighting the weak cancer cells.

To this extent it is no longer surprising today that Rudolf Steiner recommended in educational and special needs situations to tell a story to children who pilfer. Neurological research enhances our understanding as to why such stories can work. Speaking to special needs teachers, Steiner once summarised the characteristics of such a story: “With inner vividness we make up stories which lead what the child does ad absurdum in life. We tell the child about a case of stealing and do that in turn repeatedly.”

With inner vividness

The teacher or pre-school teacher is a role model and has an effect in what they do and feel. In truly believing what they present, they create “truth” (Steiner) between themselves and the child. Since it is not just a fact which is being communicated but the story means something, and thus each element is to be understood pictorially, a “fine spiritual stream passes over to the person who is being told something” (Steiner). The neurologist Gerald Hüther also refers to such a connection: a child assumed attitudes among other things from an “attachment figure” if they had a “close emotional relationship” with that figure. The condition for the effectiveness of a story is thus an active relationship between the teacher, the story and Billy.

No morality à la Hilaire Belloc

In essence, a story which relates to Billy’s pilfering is a lesson: look what happens in the story, it ends badly! Yet this is not about superficial morality à la Cautionary Tales for Children or the black education of Shockheaded Peter (Struwwelpeter). On the contrary it is about a factual representation of an immoral action. But when is an action absurd? Well, actually always when what happens runs counter to what the doer intended. He makes himself look silly. The child in the story might show himself not to be mature enough to possess what he has stolen so that he cuts himself on the knife he has stolen or burns himself on the cigarette lighter; he might also be sick because he has eaten too much of what he has pinched. Or he falls off the stolen horse …

Another possibility is that the child deprives himself of something through the theft. Because he loves surprises, he would have been really happy about the hedgehog cake. Now he has stolen it – and the parents can no longer surprise the child with his favourite cake. In all these cases the child has to come to terms with the matter themselves. But it might also happen that the pilfering becomes “public”. This might happen for example in that the child acquires something which is so rare and unique that everyone knows at once that it cannot belong to them. Or the child might argue with another one about possession of the stolen object, thus arousing attention. There are many opportunities to lead an action ad absurdum!

Interestingly, compulsive stealing can be accompanied by unconscious action. Hence denial is not malice but corresponds to the state of consciousness when the theft took place. Hüther mentions that there is no awareness of anything from outside that does not interfere with the inner order – this might explain why stealing often remains unconscious, after all, it happens in accord with the inner constitution.

By taking it ad absurdum, the disorder is “brought to experience” – the stealing becomes conspicuous. Since in the story the deed is not tolerated, indeed ridiculed, there is a disruption of the current state. In a strong, “uncontrolled” disorder Hüther refers to a “reorientation and reorganisation of current behavioural patterns” being enabled. On the other hand an overload can also lead to old behavioural patterns being resumed.

Healing takes time

As in all learning processes, it is not enough to tell such a story once. Only repetition makes it possible to connect with the values and processes it communicates. This can be explained in that neuronal connectivity – here as the physical foundation for action – becomes particularly well formed and easier to activate through frequent and intensive activation, later also without external sensory perception from memory.

This indicates that this therapeutic path should be initiated as early as possible. Of course Billy has to be mature enough to be able to take in the moral content of such a story. But even repetition is not enough – patience is also required: “healing” through stories is a protracted process through which often “something can be achieved only after a very long time”, Steiner himself says. Hüther, too, points out that time is required in the case of the processing of stress reactions which can extend from days or weeks to years.

But Billy has the opportunity successfully to tackle his “impulse control disorder”, as the compulsive urge to steal is also called.

About the author: Sebastian Jüngel is an editor, writer and publicist. His stories Auf Luzia fiel das Los (2013) and Luzia lernt kämpfen (2015) also address the subject of stealing.