How writing therapeutic letters can transform a foster child’s life
Words are powerful.
They create, shape and influence our relationships and the way we see the world. Genuine and thought-provoking words can inspire and conjure new meaning for the person who reads them.
So, words can be an incredible intervention tool for foster carers to create meaningful change in their young people, and it’s why we encourage our foster carers to think of, and write, “therapeutic letters”.
Letters as a way of connecting people are nothing new. However, when the intention is to inspire the recipient, amazing things can happen. Many of Lika’s foster carers find these therapeutic letters help them celebrate and reflect on the significant moments in the lives of their young people.
Therapeutic letter writing is a tried-and-tested technique in social work and psychotherapy that falls into an area known as Narrative Family Therapy.
It was developed in the 1970s and 80s by Australian Michael White and New Zealander David Epston, who were looking for a way to bring about therapeutic change in people’s lives by helping them rewrite emotionally damaging or limiting stories they held about themselves.
For example, if someone believed they were “not good enough” to do or be something because of a traumatic childhood experience, or because of the way other people viewed them based on their class, gender, race or ability.
The idea behind Narrative Family Therapy is that most people are generally able to tell and experience the stories of others.
After all, storytelling is a “bread and butter” part of being a human — we have been telling stories for thousands of years. We make meaning of relationships, our culture, experiences and the world through the telling of stories.
Think about stories you were told when you were younger. How did these influence you? What about nursery rhymes, repeated so often they almost become part of your DNA? What about the sayings you grew up with, loaded with meaning? Like “a smile will get you everywhere in life”, “children should be seen and not heard”, “respect your elders” or “boys don’t cry”.
Stories stay with us. So, what happens if the stories a young person has heard about themselves have not celebrated their achievements or allowed them the space to be their authentic selves?
What we know is that if we hear stories about ourselves that are emotionally damaging or limiting, over time we can internalise them and perceive them as true.
If you’re repeatedly told you’re not worthy, you can begin to believe it. If you’re repeatedly told what is expected of your gender, over time it can influence how you think you should behave (such as being “ladylike” or needing to “man up”).
What if, over time, the story you have constantly heard about yourself is that expectations are low? Does aiming for anything higher become pointless?
Therapeutic letters can help to flip the narrative.
They are a way to shine a spotlight on a young person’s successes. You can switch their focus to the great things you notice in them, helping to create a new narrative — one that’s richer and more complex, and presents the young person with options when thinking about their identity.
This “reauthoring”, as we call it, creates a space for the young person to forge a new meaning about themselves — one that can contradict older and more damaging versions.
So, how do you write a therapeutic letter? If you’re a Lika carer, we’ll provide you with specialist training in this area, so you can make positive transformational change in the life of your young people. But here are some tips to get you started.
Writing a therapeutic letter does not need to be complicated. Below I have used excerpts from letters I’ve sent to young people in my role as a social worker, to demonstrate some of the guiding principles and show how these sorts of letters can be structured.
The young people who received these letters were aged from 10 to 18 years. For confidentiality reasons, I’ve not used the young people’s real names.
1. Be genuine with the statements, questions and observations you’re making
The young people we work with are pretty good at knowing if someone isn’t being authentic.
Being genuine sets a tone in the relationship. It says honesty and being meaningful with your words are important for the relationship. You give permission for honesty by writing honestly and coaching your young person to be genuine in return.
Here are a couple of examples:
“What I have learnt about you is that you are alive with enthusiasm for the world. I am excited for your future as much as you are! You are driven and passionate, which shines through in the way you speak”.
“I enjoyed hearing your views about our community last week. It offered me such insight into how you would like the world to be, how you make what you put into it and how to be critical of societal structures around you. Keep being suspicious of these rules that define gender, sexuality, educational achievement, race, power and so many more. We are what we make. Keep making the world a more thoughtful and kinder place as you have been”.
2. Affirm positive successes
It’s difficult to observe your own successes and believe in something that’s positive and promising if you’re not used to looking for these moments.
When we’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, we can’t always see the good, or a way out of a situation. Remember that old saying “you can’t see the wood for the trees”? A letter writer helps their readers see the missing wood, as well as the trees, using the words they choose.
Celebrating successes creates a new narrative and highlights someone’s inner strengths.
Here are some examples:
“I think one of the things that really stuck out for me is how emotionally attuned you are. I’m wondering where and how this developed? When did you first start to notice this? You’re incredibly articulate in how you’re able to describe what you are feeling, would like to feel and where this might be coming from. These are amazing skills that you have, something adults can struggle to do. I feel hopeful that one day you’ll be able to see what I do”.
“Carmella, thanks for meeting with me today. At the point that we were able to meet, it seemed like things felt really difficult for you. Well done for bringing yourself around to be able to take a breath, come outside and sit down and reflect on what had been happening for you. This looked like no easy thing to do”.
3. Humour can be helpful to start more difficult conversations
Humour can be a safe way to start difficult conversations.
This snippet is part of one of many therapeutic letters sent to a teenage boy who didn’t want to open his door to talk to me. (Changing to a new social worker was a difficult transition for him.)
“I met your door again today. I think we’re getting to know each other quite well. It’s not very chatty, but I think we’re starting to like each other. I hope you’re looking after it; it’s the only bedroom door you’ve got. I said I would see it again in a couple of weeks, so I’ll keep you updated. I’m hoping one day it might be open, but hey, I’ll be here, keen to find out. If it was open, I’m assuming you would be close by? Tucked away behind the door? I’m wondering what we would talk about if we met. If it’s ok, it would probably be food. Charlie, I plan my life around food. What about you?”
4. Plant seeds to grow for the future
We often need time for new ideas and reflections to take effect. Think back to some advice someone has given you. It’s rarely impactful in the moment. Often, we don’t want to hear it. But when we have a quieter moment, or some clear headspace, that’s when new ideas can take hold and grow.
Emphasising what you see in someone, and linking that to respected individuals or influential people who share similar values to your young person, reinforces that how they see the world really matters. This can create change in your young person.
“There’s an author I love by the name of Reni Eddo-Lodge. She’s a brilliant black feminist writer from London. I think you would really enjoy her writing. Look her up. A quote I really like from her is “the mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a selfish, hoarding few”. She is also just as passionate about changing the rules and achieving equality for all as you are. Some of your ideas remind me of what she writes about. I hope that you’re able to keep that fire in you lit on your journey to greatness”.
5. Build a strong “subplot” and contextualise meaning for your young person
Authors use subplots to tell a deeper story and support the main narrative they’re building. We can do that with therapeutic letters, too.
For example, the dominant narrative for your young person might be that they’re low in confidence and can struggle during times of stress. As an observer of your young person’s skills, you want to bring forward subplots that speak to their strengths, skills and resilience. Posing questions and sharing ideas about what you’re noticing can bring these to the forefront. Suggest ideas tentatively that might connect for them.
Here’s an example of a situation where I’ve brought forward a subplot for a young person:
“It sounded like the conversation you had with your mum on Sunday may have offered you some insight about how she has managed situations in her life, but also maybe left you feeling a little confused about how to think and feel about the future? I wonder how it is for you to be able to think about the needs of the people you love but how some of these relationships can also feel painful or incomplete at the same time. I’m thinking back to conversations we have had about resilience. I’m wondering what part of your many resiliences you have been able to use to negotiate some of these feelings?”
6. Keep it simple
There is something nostalgic about receiving a handwritten letter. However, for many young people these days, letter writing hasn’t existed in the way adults might think of it.
Use your imagination. Highlighting ideas and strengths to your young person can be done in an email or text messages, on Snapchat, or by using little notes. Therapeutic letters don’t need to be long; they just need to be thoughtful and carry a clear message.
Here’s my example:
“Today I thought of you when I heard someone giving advice to their child on the bus. It reminded me how you’re able to get your views across really clearly and in a way that makes such sense. You’re creative at using analogies to do this. I have learnt to channel this skill of yours when I need to get complex ideas across to young people. I think, ‘what would Jessica say?’”
Lika empowers foster carers to feel skilled and confident enough to try a range of approaches in their role. We passionately believe that interventions coming from the people with the closest relationships to a young person have the best chance of success.
We use our expertise to model and coach the ideas we think create positive outcomes for our carers, as sharing this knowledge benefits everyone. We offer training on these ideas, and supervision sessions with your allocated social worker embeds these ideas.
If you’re the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea 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.