‘Professionals often lack understanding of the therapeutic benefits of life stories’

Life story work is as important as the therapeutic parenting we are encouraged to promote, writes Ingrid Ayling

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Photo: WestEnd61/REX

by Ingrid Ayling, social worker

I sat one day with a tall, upright gentleman in his seventies, who had come to talk to me about his adoption as a baby. All we had to look at was a single piece of paper which held the story of his beginning.

The information held on this piece of paper included the name of his birth mum and her age, the date he was legally adopted, his adoptive parents’ names and a description of them having a clean home and coming from a Christian background. He was described as a fit and healthy eight month old baby. That was all. There was no mention of his birth father who was simply described as ‘unknown’.

I listened for two hours to this man’s story. He told me about his feelings of loss and how he had never felt he quite fitted. His story had a great many positive, fulfilling and happy memories but he had always felt a gap, a missing piece of his jigsaw. I felt sad that all I could do was offer him a piece of paper and my time.

I will never forget the tears in his eyes, his acceptance and grace and the frustration that there was not more.

Importance of life stories

That conversation made me passionate to push for the recognition of the importance of a life story that is properly recorded and begins with the roots of a child’s conception. This is as important as our knowledge of trauma, loss and attachments when children are removed from their family of origin.

For 20 years I’ve worked as a therapist with children and young people who have suffered trauma, loss and separation. I have supported birth parents, adoptive parents and kinship carers to understand the complexities of a child’s attachment, what happens when this is disrupted and what they can do to help put it right.

However, in the past three years it has become clearer to me that without a clear understanding of one’s own life story, children, young people and adults are left without an anchor. They can struggle to make sense of who they are and as a result are often unable to find peace and acceptance.

I want to be clear that in talking about acceptance I do not wish to deny that there is sadness, hurt, loss and ultimately harm and it does not deny that the child’s birth family did not get it right.

‘Not demons to be scared of’

The birth family are not all bad, they are not ‘demons to be scared of’ as I have unfortunately heard them described.

If a child is led to believe that their birth family are all bad they will also be at risk of carrying the burden that they themselves are also bad, and no matter what positive messages we pour into them this will resurface periodically throughout their lives.

So how do we talk about life stories? How do we make these meaningful and accessible? We need to be able to provide a bridge from the past into the present which can look towards the future.

In my experience few professionals understand completely the importance of this. They understand that life story work should be done but lack understanding of the real therapeutic benefits it holds and how to support the whole family on this journey.

‘The search for identity comes quickly for children’

Many families I have met avoid the subject, avoid the ‘book’. I can understand this when all they may have is an inadequate life story book that only provides a basic explanation about why the child was taken from their birth family and why this was the best decision.

Today, the search for identity comes quickly for children.

Often, from as early as the age of 10 years old they are beginning to explore ‘who am I’ and ‘where do I belong’, and the need to support them is great.

It’s far better to have good, rounded information and to be able to talk about this in the safety of the family in a healing and real way, and hope that this will build a platform for that child to ask questions without fear, and receive honest answers.

In all my experience in the lives of so many young people I have always enjoyed the work with the most difficult, the most angry and the most hurt as they have taught me the most.

Children and young people taken from their family of origin or who have lived for periods within local authority care have much to be angry about and I want to encourage everyone to not add to this by hiding their past, no matter how difficult that may be. The missing piece will inevitably lead to pain further along the line.

On the agenda

I want us to get life story on the agenda, for us to consider it as important as the therapeutic parenting we are encouraged to promote, it may be very scary. It may make us feel uncomfortable, but let’s look at how it makes us feel and even when we have to share the sadness and the anger that may rise we can perhaps understand this better if we remember that fear comes before anger.

So when that child is shouting and raging – as we have all seen and experienced – it may be because it is themselves that they are frightened of, because they don’t quite know who they are and what they might become. To know who you are can be a great relief, to know that you are not born from anything bad can be a relief. Your story can be a relief.

Ingrid Ayling is a social worker. This is an edited version of an article originally published in the June issue of Adoption Social

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2 Responses to ‘Professionals often lack understanding of the therapeutic benefits of life stories’

  1. Stuart Hannah August 19, 2015 at 3:13 pm #

    This is a moving and very important summary of the significance and lasting value of Life Story Work done well at the right time and at the right pace for those involved. How do we train ourselves and one another to do this work?

    My wife has recently cleared out part of our spare room and put on my bedside a genogram she did of my maternal family with my now dead maternal grandfather. On discovering it again my own Life Story Work was immediately reactivated. I think this self awareness/discovery journey is significant for all humans.

    Thanks for the prompt and reminder of how central this is to identity and personality development in us all.

  2. Suzanne Loveridge August 20, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

    I can but hope you are right. I often wonder if her life story will make her hate us because it will be full of lies by social workers who hated us