The importance of the life story book- how to get it right for your child....
Identity is a strange phenomenon; difficult to define and often taken for granted when we have a strong sense of it, and yet desperately sought after when we are denied it. Thankfully most of us have a notion of what it means. If I were asked the question ‘Who are you?’ I might answer drawing on many aspects of myself: my name; how I look; my home town (Manchester) or my current home (West Yorkshire); my footballing allegiances (City not United); my family (wife, mum, sister, daughter); my friendships (a small, select few); my hobbies (even smaller and more selective); my values; my gender or ethnicity.... I could go on.
I also think about the nights my brother and I spent sitting with our mum when she was dying, not wanting her to be alone. We spent hour upon hour together while mum slept, through the dark hours of the night until the sun rose, re-visiting the past, sharing stories, unearthing memories and realising we each remembered things the other had forgotten or had experienced events or people surprisingly differently. When I look back at this awful time, I treasure those hours. I realise I am so lucky to still be able to use my family to develop a sense of who am I. My identity is still developing in the context of enduring familial relationships.
Traditionally, the family has been the source of all knowledge about its children. Where this process has been thrown off track by experiences of trauma and loss, or separation from birth family and community, how much harder it is for children to develop a coherent and positive sense of who they are. Where children have been repeatedly separated by multiple moves (from birth family to foster placements to adoptive family), each move fragments their personal history further. With each move, access to priceless information is potentially lost.
This is why a life story book should be so much more than a re-working of a social care chronology, with edited highlights from the legal bundle thrown in for good measure. It must include everything that makes a human life: the funny anecdotes; the stories that are special just to that child; the facts and the fictions; the idiosyncrasies of family lives - the things my brother and I spoke of in the dead of night... It should have intrinsic messages woven throughout the story: that this child is loved and loveable; that the trauma he suffered was not his fault; that he deserved better parenting.
So why is it that some social workers seem to find it so hard to do? Why is it so difficult to write a story that will initially help a very small child understand his world and help his parents explain the journey he has travelled to their homes and hearts?
Here are some of the tips I offer social workers in the hope that you can use them to advocate for better stories for your children. In an ideal world, I think children should really have up three stories depending on their age, although I realise the reality is that some don’t even have one. The first should help the toddler (possibly a simple metaphorical story), the second should speak to the primary aged child and the third (the later life letter) should be suitable for the older adolescent. Above all....
1. It should contain a coherent narrative account of the child’s story in a way that will help him share his past with his adoptive parents and others.
2. It should give a realistic but compassionate account of early events to dispel any lingering fantasies or distorted views about the birth family.
3. It should acknowledge issues of separation and loss and the pain this brings.
4. It should help the child develop a sense of security and permanence, promoting attachment to his new family.
What should you insist on?
1. Insist the story is written following Joy Rees’ family friendly approach; starting with the present and ending with a hopeful future, with the child’s difficult history sandwiched in the middle. The past is then openly shared, but symbolically held and embraced by the adoptive family.
2. Insist that the stories of the past don’t overwhelm the story – the history should be honest but short – kept in perspective in terms of the child having his whole life ahead of him, not necessarily to be defined by a difficult start in life.
3. Insist that stories and images of the child’s life with you are integrated into the Life Story Book and that you proof read the draft before the completed version is handed over and accepted. Make sure you are comfortable with the language and content and that you feel you could share it with your child.
4. Insist on good grammar, spelling and punctuation and captions on photographs!
5. Insist the story reflects the developmental age and abilities and interests of your child and incorporates suitable language, graphics and images. Does it look appealing and interesting to a child? Is it personal to him?
6. Insist on a genogram – it might not mean much to a toddler but might help you answer tricky questions from a teen...
Please feel confident in giving feedback to your child’s social worker in order to get the story you and your child deserve that will help you both now and in the future.
In life story work we have to address the child’s complex safety issues before we start on information sharing. Pay this important area of work the attention it deserves and this can help prevent hyper aroused states and provide valuable information for you as the worker as to how to scaffold the child. A safety checklist can help you plan activities for the child, but could also be an activity in itself if you use your creativity to engage the child through the use of puppets, art making or creative writing activities.
If appropriate, we are increasingly including carers (foster or residential) and adoptive parents directly in our life
story work with children and young people because they are often the right people to reinforce a sense of safety and provide physical and emotional containment through the difficult stages of
this work. Parents and carers are also of course great sources of up to date information when building on resilience and boosting self esteem.
Adapted from: Life story work with children who are fostered or adopted: Creative Ideas and Activities, Wrench and Naylor (2013)