Lifestory Work - What It Is and how it helps children and adults make sense of their life experiences

14 October 2020

This is a guest blog by Louisa Busher, a qualified Social Worker (UK). Her background is working with families and children, with a specific focus on supporting and understanding the experiences of foster carers and kinship carers.

If you are a foster carer and you are familiar with the term, we invite you to find out more. If you don't know anything about lifestory work, then you are in the right place. We invite you to find out more about lifestory work and to see how it is used to help children in foster care make more sense of their experiences.

What: Lifestory work is an interactive tool commonly used with children in the care system. Often a social worker or foster carer will help a child create a personalised book of memories, photographs and keepsakes,supporting them to understand their identity and family history. Although this approach is common when working with looked after children , remember that as a parent you can also support your birth child with an activity like this. Children, like adults, benefit from being able to make sense of their stories and put their experiences into context.

How: Often lifestory work is likened to creating a scrapbook for a child. These colourful books can have anything in them, including photographs and birth certificates. The style of writing and the layout is meant to be accessible, fun and interactive. Encouraging a child to get involved and personalise their book helps them to see it as ‘theirs’. For children who have had difficult experiences, using sensitive and age-appropriate examples allows them to understand their story more gently. For example, ‘Mummy loved you but was sometimes too poorly to care for you’ is much easier for a child to hear, rather than their Mum couldn’t care for them because they had mental health issues. Depending on the child’s age and understanding, the language and format of the work can be adapted to suit the child’s individual needs. It can also be helpful for schools and other organisations to have access to a spare copy. A teacher or a classroom assistant may encourage the child to look through their book if they are feeling emotional or confused, and it  also ensures that the relevant people are aware of the child’s story.

Why: This approach is designed to support a child to understand their identity, family history, and, more specifically for looked after children, the reasons behind their fostering or adoption. This approach can be particularly helpful for children who have had traumatic, abusive and neglectful experiences. By gaining an age-appropriate and sensitive understanding, a child will be able to positively reframe their story, leading to him or her being more resilient, happier and healthier.

Woman and boy working together

For Adults:

What: Lifestory work for adults takes a different form, often being referred to as ‘narrative therapy’. Used within the realms of coaching, counselling, social work and health care settings, this approach aims to be strengths-based and collaborative. By helping the individual re-author their story, they take control of how it is told and experienced, as well as encourages them to explore alternative narratives which fit more comfortably (1).

How: Many themes can be covered in lifestory work including circumstances around birth, family relationships, love and romance, support networks, identity and culture, and major life events such as marriages, births and deaths. Individuals are encouraged to write in chapters, for example, 0 to 7 as it encourages memory retrieval and identification of patterns and internal processes.

Why: Lifestory work is beneficial for many reasons, including providing an individual with a clearer sense of who they are, as well as being a creative way of building a picture of themselves. This gives insight into who and what has shaped them, including identifying the positive things which have led to self-development and growth. This approach may also encourage unresolved emotions to resurface. It is important to remember these make an appearance for a reason and it is ok to sit with these and explore them. This can be done in several ways, including meditation, exercise, journaling and reaching out to a loved one or professional. Individuals are also be encouraged to externalise a problem, perceiving it as something which no longer has control over them. This can be helpful when feelings of shame, blame and responsibility are central to an individual’s experience, easing other more painful feelings.

Next >>> Visit Brent.gov.uk/fostering

References

(1) Miller Scarnato, J. (2019). Narrative Therapy in Practice: Externalizing the Problem. [online]. Available from: https://mswcareers.com/narrative-therapy-in-social-work/