The 2018 Adoption UK Life Story Work conference opened with a speech from Sue Armstrong-Brown about the difference between the facts of our life versus the narrative. Many of our children are given the facts of their life but are unable to create a meaningful narrative without assistance. This is why life story work can be so important.
The first talk from Rachel Staff focussed on the importance of a life narrative for teenagers. During this turbulent developmental age, lots of questions are raised around identity as children start to naturally pull away from their families.
In forming a sense of their own identity, they may question the values of their adoptive families and their birth families. They may link difficult behaviours of their own to behaviours found in their birth family. Peer groups are increasingly important during this time as a source of identity, as well as the wider society and culture. A sense of belonging becomes increasingly important, as does as a sense of injustice. All their questions are important, and adults should not move too quickly to reassure as this could make the child feel invalidated and not heard. Rachel uses the Dan Hughes PACE and DDP methods for working with children, being accepting, curious and empathetic alongside them on their journey of understanding.
A quote from Bowlby stated that life-story work should be coherent, integrated and linear, with appropriate feelings attached to events in an authentic way. So, life-story work is more than presenting the fact that there was domestic violence in the birth family. There was domestic violence and the child was terrified, powerless, guilty and all the other things that come from experiencing trauma. This in-depth examination and processing will be painful for the child but will help them contain their experience and emotions in the long term.
Richard Rose presented on therapeutic life story work – from preoccupation to narration. His approach offered some different ways of thinking through the process. Having come across children who had been overtherapised using PACE has led him to believe that integrating shared stories, therapy and building relationships can lead to a more cohesive understanding for the child. Linking past and current behaviours (leaves) to their root causes (roots) and bringing in the life-story can assist the child to unpick their perspective and reactions.
Richard thought that preoccupation with life-story can distract a child from the present. Unable to focus, they will create chaos to cover up their true feelings and motivation. Once the child has processed some of their story, they will be able to engage with the present more fully. His method involves creating a ‘Bayeux tapestry’ of a child’s life-story involving different activities, story-boards, games, problem solving and emotional literacy exercises along the way.
His advice for parents was that life-story work should be a process that is facilitative, not fixing. That children need to see their parents strong – they will test us just as any reasonable person tests the safety barrier when getting on a roller coaster.
Richard’s view of the development of identity;
7 year old ‘Who am I?’
11 year old ‘Who am I? Who are you?’
13 year old ‘Who am I? Who the hell are you?’
His message – don’t wait until adolescence!
Listening to the adopteens was amazing. They had all had different experiences of life-story work and some had had therapy. There was a strong message in the importance of being able to connect with other adopted teenagers.
Katie Wrench spoke of the importance of children feeling a strong sense of belonging to their adoptive families that cannot be communicated through life-story work alone. Work on the relationship first.
Similarly, the model used by Adoption Matters is based on Trauma Focussed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which stressed the importance of a child having regulation and grounding techniques before being able to embark on life-story work.