Helping Carers Helping Kids podcast series for foster carers
Life Story Work with Richard Rose
Life Story Work with Richard Rose children is one of 11 podcasts in the podcast series, Helping Carers Helping Kids. This podcast series provides additional information and insights on a range of topics to help foster carers in their important role.
This is part two of Brian’s interview with Richard. In this podcast, Richard talks more specifically about his passion for Life Story Work. Richard is the author of two books, including Life Story Therapy: A new therapy for traumatised children – A model for practice, published in 2012. In this interview, Richard shares his insights on Life Story Work..
The podcasts are hosted by writer, producer and comedian Brian Nankervis, who you might know from the SBS music trivia game show RocKwiz.
The podcasts can be accessed at www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/foster care. Below is the transcript of this podcast.
We acknowledge the Aboriginal people of Victoria, the first nations upon whose land this podcast was produced. We pay respects to elders across Victoria and Australia, both past and present.
Hello, welcome to Helping Carers Helping Kids. I’m Brian Nankervis and I’m here today to talk to Richard Rose about life story work, a therapeutic model of care he’s pioneered for children and young people who have had experiences of trauma that’s currently being rolled out in the United Kingdom.
This podcast is part of a series produced by the Victorian Government to support foster carers in their important role.
Richard, you’re well known for your use of life story work with children. What is life story work and how can it help children, and how can foster carers use ideas from life story work?
Well, life story work as a concept has been around since the early ‘80s with particular concepts of working with children, and there are various ways of doing life story work. I’m interested in what’s called therapeutic life story work and the difference between therapeutic life story work and kind of story work, if you like, for children is that it involves the carer and the child, exploring together the events of that child’s life. So it’s almost as if we talk not necessarily about an event that’s happened to that child, say for instance where they’ve been hurt sexually, it’s really around thinking what does that mean to this child, but also what does it mean to the carer for this child now, so they can explore the concepts of what happened.
Very often when I’m working with children that I work with, within their family of origin, there is hurt and sadness, there’s generation abuse. And when you’re only working with one part of that family, it can be hard to understand the background history of that child. It can be hard to understand what you’re working with which is often not just that child’s story, but the story of where they come from. And historically in care, certainly in the United Kingdom, in England, where I come from, we’re not good at sharing information with our carers about the children we’re asking them to look after. We kind of say here’s a child who’s had a bit of a bad time in life who can’t live with their family at the moment because mum and dad have behaviours which mean they’re not able to meet their needs. But we don’t actually talk about the story of the child.
I think there’s a lots of different schools of thought. One is that can we give confidential information to a carer? Can we trust the carer with confidential information? Sometimes it’s the concern about the story having a privacy of itself and that it’s very appropriate to think about what we’re saying about other people without their permission. Sometimes I think it’s naïve, sometimes I think it’s about well, as long as the child’s in a safe place, they’ll be fine.
But what I’ve understood through the work I do with therapeutic life story work is by helping a child and a carer to understand the story of the child, the story of where they come from, going back generations to grandparents, to parents, to the child themselves, allows the carer and the child to have an insight into the world they are now sharing. But also what happens is in therapeutic life story work, we explore their past and we look at the present. So we’re looking at what behaviours have come from, what thinking has materialised from, and the carer can also take that thinking process with us, and we share lives and we share stories. And what we often find is that we are then starting to look at attachment formation.
If we’re working with a child who has a fear of adults and their story is explored with an adult that’s caring for them and the adult starts to understand the story and starts to emotionally share that story with the child, there is an opportunity for weaving, of an attachment to take place where the child is taken at face value and the carer is taken by the child at face value. And it’s a wonderful thing to see. So it’s a bit like you and I in this room here. I sit on one side and the carer and the child sits opposite me, and I’m weaving a story between them that they’re beginning to share, to laugh, to cry, to enjoy. And what often happens is that the carer and the child can then celebrate who they are rather than feel sorry for who they are. And what we find is that we have a chance to think around the past, to make sense of the present, and then for the two of them then to build the future.
So it’s a wonderful exercise. It’s about nine months in length, so it’s a relational context and what we find typically are children that are hurt by their past who have lots of shame and blame. Carers who are confused about the children they’re looking after and find it hard to cope with the behaviours that they manifest suddenly become attuned together, understanding each other’s stories and beginning to grow together into the future. And at that point, they jettison me. Literally they don’t need me anymore. And this is a wonderful piece of work that we enjoy doing as much as we see the results of.
Of course. Can you give me a sort of practical example? Not with real names. Let’s say you’re dealing with a thirteen year old boy who has a background of perhaps parental abuse, who is really struggling with his life.
What might happen?
So I work currently with about 26 children of which I have several thirteen year olds. So perhaps the best, without using names of course, to very briefly go through the process. So the young person that I have in mind which fits your kind of clarity: self-harming, a child who has very aggressive tendencies, who blames himself for not living at home because he believes that he should be at home with his parents, who suffered terrible abuse from his parents. He’s had lots of experience in care. He’s come out and in; out and in, currently in a placement where he is desperate to make links, to settle down. And so my role really is to try and understand the past of what’s happened to him.
So I met him. I speak to him about the process and ask him what kind of things would help him to understand the events of his life. So if you like, I kind of say I’m a detective for you for a very brief moment in time. What kind of things would you like me to go and detect? At the same time I’m seeing his family members. I’m trying to understand the build-up of his story and so I create an information bank. And this really is from the grandparents, to the parents, to older siblings, to his own birth, to the current day.
So it’s the first time, perhaps, that anybody has managed to get all the shards of a very broken life where he’s had many placements in the past, getting all that back into one space and place. The option to then is for us then to work with that young person who has these behavioural challenges, and the carer that he currently has, to then share that story together in bite-sized chunks, in a chronological pathway. We use wallpaper. If you imagine a large roll of wallpaper which tells the story of one’s life from beginning to the middle to the now, and that you can look back at that story and work out the sequencing of that story, you can start to understand why things happened. You can start to begin to question the sense of agency the child has, and the sense of agency of others. That really helps children to make sense of their lives, but importantly, it helps the carer to make sense of those lives, too.
So with my thirteen year old, his anger and his shame, he can start to think about how much of that actually is appropriate for him, how much actually belongs in other areas, how much of that is something that he has no control over. And then he starts to think around, well what would I want to happen? How might I be able to make different relationships? How might I be able to be happy with who I am? And so we will talk very much around how the past impacts on the current and that that doesn’t have to impact on the future. And so it’s a very kind of informative narrative, sometimes very fun-based opportunity to make sense of. And for him hurting himself was about helping himself feel bad because he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have what he most wanted, which was to be home.
When he understands the concepts of that, we see the self-harming diminish. We then see lots and lots of opportunities for this child to take risks in new friendships, and we see behaviour within the placement beginning to get much, much more appropriate and much more beneficial for him. Nightmares became a thing of the past. Where we are right now, we’ve not completely ended the story. He was struggling in school, not attending school when I first got involved. He now is attending school. He’s struggling a lot with the academic side of things, but whereas before when he couldn’t cope, he would hit out and he would obviously create diversions, and he would create mayhem, he’s able now actually to contain that more. He has much more internal control. So he can go to somebody and say I’m struggling at the moment, can I have some timeout? And that timeout allows him to pace himself. And we’re seeing less use of that as he’s getting older.
So my hope – as you said earlier on very hopeful person – is that by the time we finished he’s in a much, much more stable environment, he has a carer that understands him, a carer that understands how he’s come to be who he is, but also a carer that has an understanding and belief that she can make a difference in the future.
Richard, you’ve talked about your role in life story work. What about the carers? How can the carers support this process?
I think that certainly, with regard to the therapeutic life story work that we do, many of the people that I’ve trained or I spoke to about the process often say to me well, why can’t I just do this directly with the child like any other therapy? And I think that what I found over the many years I’ve been doing this work is that the carer is a crucial part of the process. The carer can offer emotional support, the carer can sometimes interpret for me what I’m trying to say because they know the child best.
So for instance, we may be having a conversation where the carer can actually refer to something that they’ve experienced together during the previous week or weeks that I could never hope to describe or to think around. There are practical things, of course, that we’d encourage our carers to do. So many of the carers will create and collate, rather, memory boxes so literally a box where they can put within the box things that are very important to the child – so there maybe letters from birth families, maybe photographs, maybe they have certificates they’ve had at school – and the carers themselves can actually start to develop this kind of box of important memorabilia over the period of time that child lives with that carer so that when and if they move forward, they have something that they can take with them.
So many times when I am doing life story work, carers will actually say to their children why don’t we get Richard the memory box and we can show Richard what we’ve done together, what we’ve experienced together? I think also diaries, so very often – certainly within England – foster carers have to keep diaries every day of children they’re looking after on behalf of the local authorities or the council. And so they have to keep a, kind of a note if you like, of that child’s presentation each and every day, whereas in life story we’re wanting more than that. We’re wanting anecdotes, we’re wanting events/achievements/difficult times and so if the child has a sad event at school – they fall out with a friend, they have an experience where they’re representing their school or where they go on holiday or have contact, all those wonderful things that happen for our children – the more that the carer can actually hold that information to keep that information safe, the better it is for the process of life story work.
And I would imagine, for the child to be completely honest and so therefore for the life story to build up in a full and rich way, the child would have to give that information freely and also give that information without fear that because part of me thinks well, if you find out something about what the father did, you would want to try and approach that father, but I can’t imagine you could do that.
No, and often the father won’t be around to do that anyway, but of course, from a carer’s perspective, often they will see the hurt child or they’ll see or they’ll be told something that will affect them. And one of the biggest issues we have for carers is vicarious trauma where, if you like, they’re reliving a trauma that the child is telling them about, but they don’t have a reference so they can’t see the person that may have been responsible. They might not have been around at that time. So again, within the life story context, we can actually think those things through. We can try to make sense of that hurt not just for that child, but also for the carer.
And so again, what carers can do to aid the therapeutic life story work is to be open to be able to listen, to be able to take on-board something and not try to resolve it, not try to problem-solve for the child, but actually just to hold that. So there’s that emotional attunement that we’re looking for and in sharing stories from the past are often very sad and very hurtful. I’m not really looking for a carer to jump to the defence of a child or to try and make that child feel better. I think what we need to allow for our children to do is that space to tell their story, and then for the adults around them to actually then reflect with, to make sense of.
So again the carer’s role in that therapeutic life story work for me is essential. The other thing that I would mention here is that often when we’re looking at role-modelling, we’re looking at behaviours, we’re looking at coping mechanisms. A lot of the children I work with have learnt to keep themselves safe by having behaviours which are not helpful, but they work. And if we have our carers who are open to thinking alongside me and alongside the child about those issues, actually what we see is those behaviours almost being dismantled not by the child, but by the parent and the child, by the carer and the child. So in a sense they create a different pathway which is one that both understand and both are congruent with each other and it’s those times when we see that happen that we realise we’re no longer needed. And I think that’s what we’re after.
So the qualities – memory box, patience, curiosity, playfulness – lots of times when I first go and meet families, I normally get involved with families where they’re breaking down. That’s kind of where I get involved.
And where they are suspicious of you?
Suspicious of me, suspicious of each other, suspicious of everything, but where they put notice in, where they said we can’t do this anymore. Yes? And in England we have what we call a 28-day notice which means that carers, when they realise or they think they can’t possibly meet that child’s needs anymore, can say to the authority you need to make another arrangement for this child, and I’m giving you a month to sort it out. Now that’s our process in the UK. It does help.
So people like me, sometimes will be asked to get involved and see whether we can resurrect that placement. And that’s what I’m good at, at the end of the day. So I go in and part of the process for me is allowing a carer to feel hurt, to feel angry, to feel frustrated, but also then to think around what could we do together to make sense of what’s going on here? What can we do together that we can provide an opportunity for us to grow and learn together? You know, this child, this child’s presentation, but you as a carer and your presentation to the child.
And I think for me a lot of carers are exhausted, but they don’t know quite why they’re exhausted and actually much of it is because it becomes a battle rather than a journey. So if we can change the concept of the battle and maintain a concept of a journey together, and then we can make change – slowly but consistently – then we can actually repair. And I think that’s where again, our carers are amazing, if we can get to the point where they can see that we’re there for them, they can see that we understand their hurt as much as we are there for the child and understand that child’s hurt. And the carers that can do that are worth their weight in gold.
Richard, you’re a world expert in supporting carers and those carers that have access to you are certainly very lucky. What advice would you give to carers who don’t have access to an expert such as yourself? Is there a particular tool do you think they can use to support the child or young person in their care?
In certain circumstances we’ve forgotten how to play together. And I know of several cases where I’ve been involved, and I’ve gone into a family home and the art of play, the art of sharing, the art of having time together is non-existent. And all that needs to happen is for some very clear, very direct concepts of play.
So I remember one case I did which was a young person who has particularly challenging behaviours, and carers who literally were tearing their hair out because whatever they tried and they tried an awful lot – they were brilliant carers, but they were just out of ideas – and I kind of went and observed for a while and realised there was no interaction between any of the people within this household other than going to school, coming back from school, going to bed and that was it. Everything else was PlayStations, screens, whatever else.
So I said look, I’d like to come and see you, but we’re not going to do my work, we’re going to play. So we got Monopoly which was probably the worst thing to have done, but there we go for time wise and I sat down with the three children, but primarily with the child I was working with, but two siblings and both carers went. They went to go. And I went, “Where are you going?” And they went, “Oh, we’re, you’re going to play with the kids.” I’m, “No, no, no, no, no” and literally “sit down.” So they kind of like looked and I said, “Sit down.” So they both sat down. Within about half an hour, this family is laughing, this family is joking, this family is beginning to talk and so for the next, I think it was about four months, every two weeks, we’d play a game as a family.
When it came to the life story work, the foster carers, they didn’t really need me because they’d heard about school, they heard about friendships, they’d heard about life. The children were hearing about their carer’s life, their carer’s friendships and so on, and so on. As simple as that sometimes, and yet so complicated too and that’s really what I think we’re about.
Monopoly. Three hours, but we won’t go there.
It’s a long game.
Yes. I must admit, lately I play something called Cranium which is a lot easier and has the same effects. So, but Monopoly at the time.
Yes, perfect. Richard, I wish you all the best luck with what you’re doing. It sounds like you’re doing incredible work and keep it up.
Thank you very much, and thank you for the opportunity to talk about it.
My pleasure – our pleasure.
For our listeners today, while life story work is not widely available in Australia, there is a range of exciting training and support initiatives being developed to support you. Please contact your relevant foster care or kinship care support agency to find out more about the types of training on offer.
This Podcast was developed in partnership between the Berry Street Childhood Institute, Melbourne; Child Trauma Intervention Services, UK; and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.
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