Creative Life Story Work graphic

Building safety into the process of life story work

Katie Wrench is a registered social worker and art psychotherapist, living and working in West Yorkshire. She is Clinical Lead at www.bussmodel.org and spends a day a week training local authority social care staff, foster carers and adopters in life story work. Here, Katie shares how she builds strong foundations for life story work.

There is a widely held misconception that life story work is just about sharing difficult information with children, usually about experiences of trauma within the family. This then means that systems around children in care can become anxious about the process. If the child is ‘settled’ in a foster family is that the right or the wrong time to start the work? What if we make things worse? If the young person is ‘unsettled’ at home, might life story work further destabilise them?

I’ve been so privileged that my work has always been with children in care or adoption with a passion for improving the process of therapeutic life story work. Like a woman on a mission I’m interested in how we can support children in care and adoption to develop coherent narrative accounts of their stories; in how we can help them to process, to integrate and to understand their journeys; and in how we support the adults around them through this journey so they are best able to scaffold the child.

Out of this thinking and experience came a little pink book – Life Story Work with Children who are Fostered or Adopted (2013) – that I hoped would provide a concise, easily accessible guide to support social workers, foster carers and adopters to feel more confident in this area of work. Simple, creative activities are structured in such a way as to guide you step by step through the process within a containing framework.

The first and most important part of the model is to build strong foundations for life story work. This means focusing first and foremost on supporting the child to feel as safe as possible in their body and their relationships. Often, this is not a linear process at all, and children will need to go ‘back to basics’ in terms of re-establishing a sense of safety before moving on in the work.

Traumatic early experiences can disrupt the child’s internal regulatory systems and emotional states so no therapeutic work can succeed if safety is not first secured. By this I am talking amongst other things, about the child’s capacity for co regulation (preferably alongside their parent or carer), their ability to manage big feelings, to be present and in the moment of the experience. So, here are my top five pointers in this respect.

  1. Establish whether the child feels connected to a safe, calm-brained grown up – preferably someone at home and school. Wherever possible enlist this grown up to your life story team. If there is no such person, then this is where you need to start.
  2. Provide psychoeducation for caregiver/parent and the child around the impact of trauma on the brain and on child development – help them to understand the why of behaviour and normalise some of the strategies the child has developed to survive.
  3. Build a toolkit of regulation techniques – ideally have a carer present with you during the work to provide opportunities for co-regulation, but also think about the ways in which you can stretch the child’s window of tolerance. It can be great fun testing some of these things out and there’s no one size fits all. You need to support the child to learn ways in which they can make a U turn if they are tipping into hypo or hyper arousal and even better to tune into the cues their body is giving them that this is happening, gaining a sense of mastery and control.
  4. Develop a shared working agreement that establishes the boundaries – agree with the carer which of you is going to hold them during the work. Being clear about the logistics and the parameters of the work is containing for children – there should be no surprises and they should be able to contribute ideas themselves that will help the sessions feel safer for everyone. Be sure to check out whether the child will be able to let you know if they feel overwhelmed or want to stop – you need to give explicit permission for this.
  5. Establish routines and rituals that are specific to the child – this doesn’t need to be anything too fancy but it is containing and predictable and this helps build a sense of you as a safe person – always start with offering a drink or a snack, for example. As well as offering nurture, the right snack (crunchy, chewy or sweet) can also be regulating. Or always finish with a story. If they like a particular story, remember to bring it again the next time. This helps the child feel ‘held in mind’ by you in the spaces in between the sessions.

Who knows how long this phase of work will take, and it will look different for every child you meet. One thing is certain though… you can’t achieve safety in an hour a week.

Find out how Creative Life Story Work can help care-experienced children and young people better understand their own stories here: www.creativelifestorywork.com/about/what-is-creative-life-story-work.

More about the author

Katie has co-authored a highly accessible book entitled Life Story Work with Children who are Fostered or Adopted: Creative Ideas and Activities, (Wrench & Naylor 2013) that is full of tried and tested creative activities for professionals, parents and foster carers who may have little time and experience of direct work and limited resources. She then authored two further titles, Helping Vulnerable Children and Young People to Stay Safe: Creative Ideas for Building Protective Behaviours and Creative Ideas for Assessing Vulnerable Children and Families.

You can also follow her on twitter @WrenchKatie or find her website at www.blossomsocialcaretraining.co.uk