Most people have the story of their childhood retained by parents and extended family members who validate their memories within a time frame. For some children who enter the care system, these memories, both sensory and visual, may be of traumatic experiences. They are also separated from family members who may be the only ones who know their real story and who may not wish to share detailed information.
Without knowing the bigger picture, such fragments are likely to be framed in the typical pre-school developmental stage of ‘magical thinking’, whereby children believe their wishes or actions can influence the world around them. For children who have experienced trauma and separation at this age, however, these events may be interpreted by the child as something they have caused, or that is seen as their fault. The resulting guilt and shame can add to difficulties in trusting new adults and carers in their lives.
What is Life Story Work?
Life Story Work is a way to help care experienced children to make sense of their past and understand the journey of their identity.
Research by Dr Dan Hughes, a clinical psychologist working with children who have experienced trauma, has shown that Life Story Work can help children to develop a ‘coherent story’ which is ‘an autobiographical narrative involving both past adverse experiences and current experiences in safe relationships’.
Young care leavers aged 16 plus, with parental contact, were also found to want more information about their early lives than they had, according to research by Cardiff University.
The missing information might help children to navigate future contact with realism and self-care. If we start a narrative from the outset, such as telling a four year old arriving in a foster home that mummy is getting help with how to keep them safe, subsequent decisions can be explained with reference to what they already know, including a move to adoption.
A therapeutic benefit of Life Story Work is being able to link a child’s past to current feelings and behaviour. If done with empathy for what the child experienced and recognition of what they did not receive, this can positively impact on a child’s internal world and emotional regulation. The benefits of emotional intelligence are being widely recognised. For children who have experienced loss and trauma, such work can reduce the risk of future mental health difficulties.
Compiling a Life Story book
As part of Life Story Work, children may receive a Life Story book, a tangible record of the child’s story. It may be completed for a young child by their social worker and/or an adoption agency worker, or with a child once they are old enough to engage with the process. The book should contain birth details including the hospital the child was born in, the child’s weight, a family tree, timeline, photographs, and age appropriate when and why explanations of the child moving from their parents’ care. This should include information on their birth parents’ own vulnerabilities.
I have visited birth parents years after a child has been adopted who have been willing to contribute information, photos and, on occasion, an acknowledgement of their own issues and regrets to be written into a life story book. Adoptive parents and carers can also be involved, e.g. by visiting significant places, but important decisions are best imparted by members of staff representing the key agencies involved.
A child’s story should be revisited as their questions reflect their growing understanding of the world and it should also record the child’s hopes for the future. Life Story book work needs careful planning and can be a difficult journey for all involved. It is, however, a privilege to be entrusted with the story of children who have experienced such adversity, and to be given the opportunity to help them process and understand their past, and think about the future.
‘Holding’ their story
Social workers, adoptive parents and foster carers are often anxious that Life Story Work will stir up painful emotions. Our wish to protect however can lead to the story becoming ‘the elephant in the room’. Keeping memory boxes for all children in care and interim carers compiling a book recording the child’s time with them is now common practice. If care experienced children are to integrate their dual identities, from their birth and present families, they need their attachment figures and those responsible for their care to be open about and able to ‘hold’ their story. This consolidates new attachments, as is so well illustrated in the account given below by one adoptive parent who describes the experience of her and her daughter:
I adopted my daughter, Kaitlyn*, shortly before her sixth birthday, after a period of time spent living with other family members and two sets of foster carers. She had experienced a number of traumatic events in her early life and it had been decided that adoption was the best permanence route for her.
After adopting Kaitlyn, we embarked on a therapeutic parenting journey; empathy became second nature and Dan Hughes my new superhero. Both my daughter and I have a close relationship with her foster carers and no topic is off limits in our home. Although all questions that arose would be answered honestly and openly, they were not always initially accepted by her. In the first six months, memories around her birth family would sometimes be overly fantasised or idealised, and she felt angry when we would gently retell the story with more of an emphasis on the truth.
When it happened that both sets of previous foster carers met and realised they had both looked after Kaitlyn, we, with the agreement of social work, had the opportunity to speak to one of them after sending photos and a video beforehand. My daughter’s previous foster carer was able to tell her so many stories about her as a baby. We learned what her first words were and how she used to wake her up in the morning by tickling her toes.
We have since expressed our gratitude for each other. Due to the pandemic, we have been unable to meet up again, but we keep in touch. My daughter has become so relaxed when they speak. Knowing how much she was loved, wanted and adored has been hugely important for both of us, and helped her to understand her early life.
In England and Wales, Life Story Work, often before a move to adoption, is undertaken as part of the minimum national standards as a way of providing an account of their history. Although in Scotland work is done to provide children with a memory box, along with written accounts of a child’s interim care, it is hoped that Life Story Work will become part of our national standards. Involving children and giving them the opportunity to ask and understand questions they may have, while offering ongoing support along the way, can help enormously in providing the information they need about their history and background in a way that is both gentle and honest.
*The young person's name has been changed to protect her privacy.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.
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