ADVICE FOR CARERS
Everything a foster carer needs to know about life story work
At a glance
- What exactly is life story work?
- What does life story work involve in practice?
- Why do we use life story work?
- What does the research tell us about the effectiveness of life story work?
- When does life story work usually happen?
- Who decides that life story work is needed?
- What are the key stages of life story work?
- What is the reality of the life story work experience for young people?
- What is the reality of life story work for foster carers?
In your career as a foster carer it’s highly likely that, at some point, you’ll hear the term life story work.
Life story work is an invaluable tool for foster carers, social workers, therapists and other professionals, as it can help young people better understand their own past, so they can make sense of what’s happening in the present.
As an independent foster care agency that follows the principles of systemic family therapy, Lika uses life story work quite a lot.
In this article, we’ll explain exactly what life story work is; what it looks like; why, when and how we use it; and much, much more.
Life story work is a therapeutic process that’s commonly used in foster care. It’s all about sensitively providing the young person with detailed information about their own past, including any traumas they have experienced, to help make sense of the things they’re feeling or behaviours they’re demonstrating in the present.
It’s worth noting that:
It should not sanitise or omit significant events about a child’s life. Incoherent narratives do not help children understand their lives—it can just add more confusion.
As Rose and Philpot (2005) put it: “Life story work is about the people in a child’s life, what happened to the child and the reasons why those things happened. It is not and cannot be, a simple narrative or description”.
In practice, life story work can look very different depending on who is providing the therapeutic experience. In general, it involves a Local Authority social worker researching the young person’s life to gather accurate information about their experiences, so they can give the young person a more complete and honest picture of their life than they might already have.
The young person might meet with their social worker for life story work every couple of weeks, or it could be a session a month. It might be six sessions; it might be 18 sessions. It really depends on the age and understanding of the young person, what narratives are being worked through.
It also depends on the individual’s needs and how quickly and easily the social worker can pull together the information needed to accurately tell a young person’s life story.
It can have different levels of complexity, depending on the case. It’s likely that you as the foster carer, Lika as your agency, the young person’s social workers and the young person themselves will all be involved in the process. But other professionals may be involved, too—for example, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
Often, the social workers collect photos and records of the young person’s time in care along the way, and these all get pieced together to create a life story book. This book pieces together different scenarios and narratives to give the young person a fuller picture of their life.
We know that if children have an incomplete story about their life, it can lead to them filling in the gaps themselves. For example, coming up with the reasons why they think they’ve come into care, or what’s led to decisions being made around their care. These assumptions might not be accurate at all.
For example, it’s common for young people to fill in the blanks with, “I’m to blame for the fact that I’m in care”. Yet we know that kids are not to blame for coming to care. So, in life story work, it’s a social worker’s job to do the research around what’s happened for that young person in the past and provide an accurate narrative about that young person’s life.
Sometimes, when much younger kids come into care, they’re given quite sanitized versions of the truth, and as they’ve got older they’ve realised some of those things aren’t true. Life story work provides that truth.
This can be really important, affirming and empowering for the young person. For example, they might believe that their parent didn’t want to keep them but, when we’ve gone through the records, we’ve found that their parent went through court processes and tried really hard to keep them or get them back, and have been really consistent with maintaining contact.
Here are some comments about life story work from influential researchers and experts in the fields of social work and psychology:
- Understanding our personal history is thought to develop and build on childhood memories and the associated stories that sit alongside them. These stories are considered vital for a child to begin to make sense of who they are in the context of their past, present and future through the construction of an autobiographical narrative (Cook-Cottone & Beck, 2007).
- Autobiographical narratives continually evolve, based on the individual’s experiences, into increasingly complex life narratives that form the basis of dynamic and interactional identities (Thomas & Holland, 2010; Frame, 2009).
- When young people reach adolescence and young adulthood they become able to link their experiences into causal chains and extract from this information an overarching theme that they use to justify a conclusion about themselves (McAdams, 2006; Hammond, 2012).
- Missing information and confused and multiple stories about their birth family make it very difficult to make sense of what has happened to them without support from others to think about why these things have happened (Holland & Crowley, 2012).
- For children who have experienced many moves, their histories will have become fragmented, and their memories easily lost, so foster carers and adopters play a vital role in safeguarding these memories for the children in their care (Rees, 2009).
- Like buying clothes off the shelf, we attempt to fit our experiences into the narratives that are available (Dallos and Draper).
- The lack of a consistent adult to scaffold the child recalling and making sense of their experiences, together with often damaging and confusing events prior to and during care, leaves many young people in care with a negative and damaged identity (Rose & Philpot, 2006).
- It is argued that a narrative does not have to be complete, ‘good’ or wholly positive to be coherent, but it needs to allow for causal links to be established and to answer why things have happened to them (Horrocks & Goddard, 2006).
- [Allowing] a…young person to make sense of their experiences in a balanced way and to avoid believing that they are inherently bad and deserving of the rejection they have experienced. The absence of objectively presented causal links can contribute towards mistrust of others and low self-esteem and can increase the risk of the negative outcomes commonly observed in the care leaver population (Rose & Philpot, 2006).
- Life story work involves taking children along their journeys step by step, not passing over events, facts, beliefs or making the assumption that a child has understood or accepted when that may well not have been the case (Rose and Philpot, 2005).
If the child has experienced people not caring for them and finding them a ‘burden’— or worse, gets an angry or upset response to their return—this may lead them to believe that their carer doesn’t care for them but is instead annoyed and irritated by them. This may not be your intention, but you must be aware that children with trauma will understand your reaction through the prism of their own experiences of abuse or neglect.
The key thing is that the child is safe and has returned, so they need to feel welcome and know that your home is a good place to be. No matter how great the urge, foster carers must not be punitive when dealing with a young person who has returned from being missing.
Life story work can be started at any point in a child’s journey in care.
If there’s a lot going on for the young person (perhaps they’ve just had a placement move or are about to have another placement move), we wouldn’t do life story work at that time. But social workers might get to the point of deciding life story work is necessary because the young person is so unsettled and so uncertain about their life, the decisions made about their life, and where they’re going to go, that doing that piece of work can be really important even at that time.
Life story work should always be planned, the risks considered, and the young person’s key network involved in the process.
The Local Authority has a responsibility to young people to undertake life story work, as they are the corporate parents.
The decision to use life story work is often made by the social work team, with the Independent Reviewing Officer. Every six months there’s a Looked-After Children’s Review, which is the network around the young person making decisions about the next stages of their life, and quite often in that forum, the decision’s made for life story work to happen.
Wrench and Naylor outlined six key stages to the life story work process:
- Building a sense of safety: regulating and lowering arousal levels.
- Building emotional literacy: recording the words, feelings and descriptions the child has, and building on these.
- Building resilience and self-esteem: celebrating their strengths and achievements.
- Building a sense of personal identity: talking about the past, present and future – who they are, what they know about themselves and who they may like to be as an adult.
- Information sharing and integration: Building an accurate understanding of the young person’s history.
- Looking to the future: How to keep the ideas alive and planning for the future.
Children have really different experiences with life story work and use a range of words to describe it. They are often unprepared for what is being asked of them in life story work.
Some will say it’s short and sharp. Others that it’s been quite clunky. Some say they’ve had quite definitive ideas about their life and the life story work has been quite contradictory, which has not been helpful.
Yet others have said it has helped them to move on from past experiences and to fill the gaps with actual knowledge from somebody who’s verified some of that information. So, it has been a bit of a release for them.
Before the work even starts, the social worker should have some sessions with the young person to help make some agreements around how they can communicate with one another.
Hopefully, when they’re planning life story work, the Local Authority social worker would meet with the young person and talk about what life story work is and hear from the young person about what they would like to know about their life. The social worker would then look at files and talk to different people in the young person’s life to piece together a bit of a narrative.
Life story work is often a bigger piece of work than is anticipated and it can often be carried out by social workers who have little to no training in the field. Clinical support for the process is ideal but it is not common.
Often, foster carers may experience the consequences of life story work, without having been included in the process itself. Ideally, the foster carer would be involved in the process, but that doesn’t always happen.
At Lika, our carers have access to 24/7 support and expert training to help them feel confident handling any situation that might arise—including complications and issues arising from life story work.
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.
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