The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

Double Listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily; for example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels.  This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them.
However, people have many story lines running through their lives.  Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to?  In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people can fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid.  Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that ‘the problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

 

Eunice and Elaine share their 'strong story' of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because it challenges their values and who they are.  What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way?  What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened?  By exploring and thickening the strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience.  In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities.  I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”.
When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times.  In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare.  A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities.  Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers.  These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories.  The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

Collective Narrative Timelines: Uniting Aboriginal Women Through their Commitments to Children

A HOC Learning Workshop for strong Aboriginal Women in community

Since the Healing Our Children (HOC) project began, I have been responsible for developing Learning Workshops (aka a training program) for Aboriginal women in remote communities.  I was particularly interested in finding ways of engaging workshop participants that fits with a two way learning approach.  The methodology of Collective Narrative Timelines sat very comfortably with me because it powerfully honours the knowledge of everyone in the room.  Cheryl White has said “this was a method that enabled participants to share powerful personal memory and history but in a way that linked to a collective theme.  It brought people together while also acknowledging a great diversity of experience.” (Denborough 2008, p. 144)

The process generally goes like this.
Draw a timeline on a long piece of paper that stretches across a large wall.
Draw a map of the world.
Ask the group to reflect on a wish, a commitment, a hope, a learning or a value that is important to them.  Ask each person to think about:

  • the history of this wish/commitment/hope/learning or value and when it began. What year/date?
  • Where did you learn this or develop this (what place)?
  • Who did you learn it from?
  • Who did you learn it with?  (Denborough 2008, p. 147)

Each person is given a small piece of paper to document this story in a few sentences.  They are then invited to stick their piece of paper on the timeline at the appropriate date/year and briefly share their story with the group.  If the person has a link to a particular place, this can also be marked by a dot on the map with a few words depicting their story.

The focus of my Learning Workshops is on the theoretical and cultural knowledge underpinning understandings of how trauma occurs in early childhood.  I wanted my Narrative Timeline activity to orient the women participants to this topic by moving them into a place of looking through children’s eyes, by reflecting on their own childhood experience.  This was a bit of a twist on the original Narrative Timeline approach in that it is also quite therapeutic.  The following was indicative of the instructions I gave to set this up.

“We’re going to take a moment to think about what it was like for us to be a child and to document some of these memories on a timeline.  For some of you it might be uncomfortable to think about a childhood memory, so if this becomes too hard for you, it’s OK to have some time out.  See if you can think of a particular time when your parents said something to you or did something, that really had an impact on you.  This can be a good or not so good memory but you might find it more pleasant to think about a positive memory you have.  It needs to be a memory you are comfortable sharing with the group.  Try to remember:

  • Where you were?
  • Who was there?
  • How old you were?
  • What was said or done?

A collective narrative timeline of Aboriginal women’s childhood experiences

The timeline that I had drawn up was a Child Age Timeline from 0 – 18 years.  Each participant was invited to stick their paper on the timeline on the age that related to their story and briefly share their reflection.  I also followed up with the question ‘How has this memory shaped the person that you are today in a positive way (emphasizing that both good memories and bad memories can shape us in positive ways)?  This question got the women thinking about how their own childhood experience influenced their current parenting with their own children or grandchildren.  To illustrate this point, I would also share my own childhood memory on the timeline – receiving painful physical discipline with a strap – and how this shaped my own parenting beliefs and a commitment to never use harsh physical discipline on my own children.

As a follow up to this activity, we also reflected as a group on:

  • For those of you that had a good memory….What was it that you really appreciated about your parents?
  • For those that had a bad memory…Is there something you would have liked your parents to do or say instead? What would you have liked more of?

Then everyone was invited to reflect on…

  • What does this say about any hopes you have or had for your children?

These key messages were written under the timeline, as future commitments or as a way of reconnecting with closely held past commitments.

The light bulb moments are usually the connections people make when they reflect on a significant childhood memory and the particular skills, knowledge and values they have taken on from their parents/grandparents and how this has shaped them today.  Simple realisations like:

  • a commitment to ‘taking responsibility’ from the experience of being blamed by a mother for everything as a child
  • the importance of ‘having a joke and seeing the lighter side of life in times of crisis’ related to the carefree attitude of a grandfather who laughed off a near miss car accident
  • ‘being open to different religious points of view’ because grandma went to lots of different churches and cultural events
  • ‘the importance of family above all else’ being raised by a mother who showed so much love.

These realisations although personal for each individual also have resonance with the whole group.  Although diverse, the combined wisdom of Elders, strong women and struggling grand/parents is honoured.  It is through our collective experience of early childhood experience and its influence on us as parents or carers, we are connected and united.  This visual representation of collective history we created together stayed on the wall during the remainder of our workshop.  It is from this shared standing point that we progressed into the meatier, heavier topics of trauma and its impact on children in our LearningWorkshop.

References:
Denborough, D. 2008, Collective Narrative Practice: Responding to Individuals, Groups and Communities who have experienced Trauma, Dulwich Centre Publications.

For more ideas on working with Aboriginal women around parenting using reflections from their own childhood experience, see Rings of Growth.