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122 APRIL 2009
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Narrative Ideas in Child and Youth Care

Garth Thomson

The impetus for this issue of the Journal of Child and Youth Care comes from many directions: a confluence of new growth in the world of ideas and practice, a desire to share those ideas within the field I have the most affection for, an attempt to see if I could write again, and a forum for my colleagues who are flourishing in this narrative landscape of the mind, experience, and community.

I had a particular desire to pursue this issue for two reasons. After seeing Michael White and David Epston and reading their Selected Papers (White, 1989), Collected Papers (Epston, 1989), and Narrative Means To Therapeutic Ends (White and Epston,1990), I knew as have many others that Michael and David had found some especially wonderful ways to work with children and youth around a great variety of problems. Some of those problems are encopresis, severe attachment and belonging, anorexia/bulimia, night fears (fear busting and monster taming), school refusal, deciding to grow up, and grief and loss (reincorporating a loved one).

I became intrigued enough to want to work with people already using their ideas in a residential Child and Youth Care context. So I left one remarkable program, Peak House (the only residential adolescent alcohol and drug treatment centre in British Columbia), for two more, the Family Enhancement Centre and the Children's Treatment Centre, in White Rock, B.C. I went specifically to work with Arden Henley because he had been developing the use of narrative ideas in their work with children, youth, and families for many years already.

The second reason for wanting to write came after working with the Child and Youth Care teams in these programs long enough to know that unique contextual residential work was being done there! New (to me), powerful methods of assisting families to bind together against severe anger problems, belonging breakdowns, and so-called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was being married to sophisticated Child and Youth Care practice. This work was also being done by the Child and Youth Care teams with humility and humour, while they tried to take into account the ever-present issues of social justice, power, gender, culture, inclusion of all family members, and inclusion of referring social workers, and the ever-present feeling of hierarchy amongst the team of Child and Youth Care workers, therapists, and management.

Every case seemed unique enough to write up as we all rode the line with children, youth, and families facing problems so extreme that family breakdown was often imminent. Our work of trying to assist the families to be their own experts by storying, restoring, and celebrating their own unique ways of languaging and being, standing up to violence in their own homes, and breaking the stranglehold of the ways very old problems had left them divided and demoralized, was a tremendous challenge in terms of not succumbing to the problems' desire to pull the whole team into its ways of power and control. Team meetings would sometimes find us blowing off frustration and making like we knew better than the family. We often had to clear up the confusion of whether “blowing off” was just pathologizing (we certainly wouldn’t “blow off” if the family had been present at all of our weekly team consults). We did this by reacquainting ourselves with our care for the families and by watchdogging the discourse of our staff meetings. That practice was crucial in making sure the team didn’t become divided from each other around both theory and practice. Another help was the constant storytelling and celebration of the incredible strides the children and youth were making against their problems. This, too, was crucial as the problems could strike at any time, leaving us all (family and team) bruised and worried. To date I can think of nothing else that stopped pathologizing in its tracks as fast as a team member telling a story of being excited or heartened by a child or family’s stand against a problem or announcing an idea they had constructed or co-constructed with a team member(s) or with the family, that might help. Despite how hard we tried, I never came to rest with this age-old process of Child and Youth Care residential teams meeting so often without the families present to scrutinize the proceedings. I would be most interested to hear from persons working in programs that have found truly equitable ways to speak about the families with care. It’s a remarkably difficult issue.

It would seem that we now have some grasp on the chaos, creative possibilities, and challenges of living in the postmodern world. (Please excuse these doggedly Eurocentric terms; persons from other cultures may experience these times as business as usual.) These times invite you to realize that, despite the doubting voice of modernist dogma and fear in your heads, it isn’t likely that anybody knows you, your experience, or your work better than you do. Can that not be an invitation for more and more versions of the work of Child and Youth Care practitioners and the persons being helped to pour into Gerry and Thom here at the journal? It is needed! The things the kids say help us to realize we are often on the right track in the ways we are attempting to be with them. The particular way the team conversed about an intervention, taking into account all relevant factors, needs to be documented for our reflection, validation, witnessing, and potential sharing with others. So much of our counselling today is the migration, surfing, and hitchhiking (White, presentation, 1991) of great and heartening ideas and stories between kids, families, and ourselves. No versions are more right than others; they are simply different!

There is, as with all things, the yin and yang of using narrative ideas in practice. On the one hand helping people restory, rescript, and reexperience their lives is a wonderfully creative enterprise, especially as you realize how constructed language is and how much we tend to believe the stuff going on in our heads. If we persist in the belief in “people good/problems bad,” then we simply have to keep up our strength for the restorying process with persons despite their experience of being problem-saturated and our own tendencies to fall into the problem’s influence. This can dry up our creativity and leave us caught in a similar merry-go-round of immobility and escalating frustration.

On the other hand – and this is a common experience in residential Child and Youth Care settings that work towards family reintegration – family circumstances (e.g., a sole parent with three children) are often such that our usual processes of diagnosing the parent as the one most in need of retraining are just not appropriate considering the emotional and monetary pressures on that sole parent. Increasingly in these situations, as the helping setting starts to feel the pressure the family lives with, two ways out are attempted. One is to find more troops and more money to help the family. The other solution is to give up the belief that surely the parent could change enough if only they tried as hard as we were asking them to, even though we know that we are sometimes asking for a large-scale transformation. Right there the lack of social justice often emerges in the limitations of our small care systems and our larger continuums of care. At that point you feel like you are applying bandaids on behalf of the political party in power and hoping like hell a tragedy doesn’t happen. Along the way, the conflict with the family, between team members, and with the larger helping system of professionals usually increases as the walls of the power system are acutely felt. There are many, many situations where therapeutic helping is not what is needed: social justice is. Thankfully many settings know their limits and don’t try to help families they know they can’t, thus not raising and dashing the hopes of those families.

Using narrative distinctions for understanding problems has simply heightened our awareness of the fragility of our modern, problem-targeted, time-limited, money-strapped systems. What are we doing to inform those with some power about the need for an expanded sense of community?


Epston, D. (1989). Collected papers. South Australia. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. (1989). Selected papers. South Australia. Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. and Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York. Norton.

This feature: Thomson, G. (1994). Editorial. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 9, 2. p.v-viii.

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