The Importance of Life Story Work
This week, we are going to take a look at what Life Story Work is, and why it is so important to our children and young people.
The young person I care for has been referred for Life Story Work – what does this mean?
Life Story Work is a therapeutic intervention. It is designed to help a person to understand their past, present and future.
For young people in care, this usually involves carefully looking back at their early childhood, including the reason they came into care. This may be very painful at times, so as their Foster Carer you should be ready to support them.
The work will be done with a suitably qualified person – perhaps their Social Worker, or a Support Worker. Life Story Work should not be done by the Foster Carer. Sometimes, the child’s parents, siblings or other important people will contribute too.
The process can take many weeks, or even months. The child should inform the pace, depending on how they are managing potentially difficult information.
It is not normally recommended that Life Story Work is completed in the home; this is the young person’s safe space and needs to be protected.
At the end of the process, the child will have a physical book with all of the work they have completed, along with photographs, timelines and letters. They can then revisit this as they get older.
Why is Life Story Work so important?
We all have a story, about where we came from, how we grew up and the people who helped us become who we are. Many children in care are confused about these things; after all, they are not allowed to live with their own families.
We want the children in our care to develop into healthy, happy adults. For this to happen, it is important that they have a positive sense of identity. Life Story Work helps with this.
The chaotic and often traumatising early experiences of children in care damages the sense of self and ability to trust in others. When done well, Life Story Work very carefully helps the child to make sense of what has happened in the past and take control of their emotions by understanding where they have come from.
Children who have experienced multiple placement moves in their childhood will have a highly fragile sense of who they are.
However, the overriding message should be that the young persons past is NOT their fault; they have always been lovable and they deserve to be loved and that the future is positive for them.
How can Foster Carers help a young person who is completing Life Story Work?
It’s likely that the process of completing Life Story Work will be both painful and confusing. Children may be retraumatised by revisiting their past.
You can expect that, following a session, the child might come home and be unsettled. They might be angry (with you and with the world), they might need lots of reassurance, they might regress…
What is most important is that you give the child space to experience all of the emotions that they are feeling. Try to imagine how difficult it is to peel back the layers of your identity and make sense of them, when each new layer contains painful memories.
Tell the child how proud you are of them; acknowledge how hard it must be for them. This validation will enable them to own their emotions.
If the young person needs time and space after a Life Story session, make sure you are tuned into this. Consider making their bedroom a sensory place, with music and lights. Or perhaps they will need to get out and burn off some energy – every child manages this differently.
If the child talks to you about their Life Story Work, it’s ok to tell them that they are right to be angry about the past. You should also remind them that they are safe now.
There may be some physical issues associated with revisiting a traumatic past. The child may wake in the night, develop bed-wetting, thumb sucking or lash out. These are all ‘normal’, and with the right care and support they can be managed without causing further shame and hurt to the child.
I think the child in my care would benefit from Life Story Work, but they haven’t had it yet.
Unfortunately, there are rarely enough resources to provide Life Story Work for all the children that need it, when they need it. However, this does not stop children from asking questions and needing to ‘make sense’ of themselves.
Foster Carers are used to fielding difficult questions from children, as well as managing the emotions that stem from the answers. However, it is important to remember that part of your role is to remain as neutral as possible when discussing a child’s past with them. You might feel a great amount of anger about what the young person has been through, and this is understandable.
Remember, a child who has a secure, trusting relationship with their carer is more likely to open up about their past. However, they may also be angry that you are providing the love and care that they did not receive from their birth family.
Reassurance is key. Confirm to the child that you are here for them, that nothing they tell you will make you not want to care for them.
As a Foster Carer, you are an advocate for the children in your care. If you think they are struggling with their identity and sense of self, speak out. Your Supervising Social Worker will help you to do this in a professional way, usually in review or education meetings.