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.

How Did Metaphors Become a Part of My Therapeutic Framework?

One of my very first learnings all those years ago in counselling work with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory was their tendency to talk in round-a-bout ways.  At first I found this frustrating.  You could not ask a direct question and get a direct answer.  It will usually be silence or a head nod (which does not necessarily mean yes, but a polite acknowledgement)!  So I had to find ways that clients would be comfortable to share their experience safely in ways which suited their communication style and integrated their traumatic experience.  After trying the methodologies I’d learnt from narrative therapy and getting such a good response, it dawned on me that working with metaphors was common sense.  Aboriginal people have been communicating in metaphorical ways since time began, through their dreaming stories and ancestors.  This way of working just fits!  Whether it has been in individual counselling or groupwork with women and children or in training and mentoring with Aboriginal workers, concepts or ideas are much easier to communicate through metaphorical stories, verbal or visual.

My first exposure to working with metaphors was at the Dulwich Centre.  “The Tree of Life” methodology was inspired by the work of Ncazelo Ncube of REPSSI (Zimbabwe/South Africa) to respond to children affected by HIV/AIDS.  I’ve used this and its sister method “The Team of Life” with children in the Tiwi Islands with great success, training local Aboriginal women to facilitate the activity.  The tree metaphor gives children a safe place to stand to explore challenges and problems in their lives without re-traumatising them.  I also noticed how the adults supporting the children, started talking about their own lives using trees.

“Trees can teach us a lot about how to live.  Our traditional way of life is about caring for each other and growing strong families.  Now there are storms destroying our families and hurting our children.  We can see it’s not a healthy life for our people”.  – Elaine Tiparui, Bathurst Island.

Picture: Ian Morris.

Picture: Ian Morris. This image has been used to talk about the role of the whole family/community to grow up strong kids (Grandparents are the old growth trees in the background, Uncles/Aunties and parents in middle, teenagers as younger trees and babies/toddlers the little seedlings in front).

I went on to work collaboratively with the women of Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland to develop a new tool using the tree metaphor to invite women into a conversation about violence and its affect on children’s development.  “It Takes a Forest to raise a tree: Healing Our Children from the Storms in their Lives” is my first resource produced in community, with community, for community.

As my counselling work progressed, I found that narrative therapy still relied on people being able to verbally express a story.  Neuroscience tells us that the impact of trauma on the brain means that people are simply unable to talk about what happened to them, even if they wanted to!  Many of the children, I’ve worked with were still very much non-verbal and I’ve come to rely more and more on art as a method of communicating and integrating traumatic experience.  Working alongside Aboriginal Child and Family Support Workers using their own languages, we discovered ways for children to document their stories of abuse, violence and neglect using methods like drawing, clay, collage and mask making.  Not surprisingly these stories were communicated through aliens, imaginary friends, monsters, dreaming animals, body parts and other such creatures apart from themselves.   To offer other alternative ways in to children’s stories, I also went on to write ‘The Life of Tree’, a therapeutic picture book, designed to help Aboriginal children speak up about their trauma experience.  Metaphors work in the most magical way to bring healing!

…metaphorically speaking will continue to experiment with playful and effective therapeutic tools using metaphors in our direct work with clients and in the resources we produce in the future.
You can read more about how we are integrating use of metaphors with other therapeutic modalities on our page ‘How We Work’.
You can also find further resources on using metaphors in counselling and trauma work in our Professional Development Library.

‘The Earth is our Master Teacher’ with Bernard Kelly-Edwards

This week on ‘Talk the Walk’ I sit down with Bernard Kelly-Edwards in the middle of his tiny art shop in the thriving alternative community of Bellingen.   Bernard is surrounded by paintings, expressions of who he is, a local Gumbayngirr man, and symbols of the deep spiritual connection to country that he shares with others.

Bernard began his own journey of self-discovery attending a cultural program called Red Dust Healing and now reaches out to other individuals and groups to support Closing the Gap in cultural understanding.   It is his passion for promoting mental health amongst Indigenous young people using the healing capacity of Miimga (Mother Earth) that is the focus of our conversation today.

His business, BKE Consultancy is a unique mix of multi-media platforms of art, photography, short film, poetry and storytelling.  Bernard brings all these talents, along with skills of deep listening and knowledge of Aboriginal Lore, recognising sight and the feeling of cultural sites, passed down to him.

A few times in this conversation, Bernard speaks of the spirit being, the one with no mouth.  He is describing the image in the painting, he is seen holding here.

This is what we explore in Episode 22 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • Bernard’s approach to ‘counselling’ using the tools he has found most effective from his own experience and gifts from Mother Earth
  • What deep listening really looks and feels like, for our own and others’ health and wellbeing
  • Easy practices you can try at home to develop your spiritual connection with Mother Earth and your self
  • The elements of life such as water, animals and wind that make communication and connection possible
  • Lessons for how we are living our lives, from the Earth’s perspective
  • Awareness – Balance – and Integration; Bernard’s 3 step strategy for healing of the planet beginning at home
  • How Bernard uses the concept of perceptual positions to assist individuals to take responsibility in their own healing process
  • Making deadly choices and being in the present moment, using the model of awareness, balance and integration
  • How Bernard works with the triggering emotions of individual’s past traumatic experiences to change belief systems and move people forward
  • Bernard’s sparkling moment – a good news story of healing
  • Bernard’s painting and it’s interpretation of his own spiritual form

Image: Bernard K Edwards

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

We apologise for some of the human-made background noise at the beginning of this interview.   That’s what happens when you are talking with real people on the job in the heart of their community.   Sometimes you just have to go with it.   Enjoy!

Things to follow up after the episode:

Connect with Bernard K Edwards on Facebook

Connect with BKE Consultancy on Facebook

Contact Bernard by email at bkeconsultancy79(at)hotmail(dot)com

“Every Child is Worth It” with Doug Dunlop

Today’s conversation on ‘Talk The Walk’ has many gems, but particularly for counsellors and social workers interested in developing an evidence based program that is also culturally safe.  Doug Dunlop is a senior counsellor with the ‘Holding Children Together’ program based in Alice Springs and working with surrounding town camps.  Doug is part of the team leading a rigorous evaluation process, developed and mentored by the Australian Childhood Foundation and a Cultural Advisory Group.  In episode 17 of Talk the Walk, we also get a glimpse into the man behind the work; his historical roots, his life experience, the values and principles he brings to his trauma-informed, culturally-safe practice framework.
There is nothing quite like ‘Holding Children Together’ elsewhere in Australia and other organisations are starting to take notice of the Care Team model adopted by this child and family counselling service.  The road to evidence-based practice is long, requires collective good-will and a large investment, but like Doug says “every child is worth it”.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Considerations for Doug arriving from New Zealand to work in Australia’s Central Desert communities
  • the stark differences working with Maori and Aboriginal children beginning with engagement in therapy
  • understanding trauma informed practice with Aboriginal children and their families
  • the Care Team model integral to ‘Holding Children Together’ (HCT)
  • a typical day in the life of a counsellor
  • how HCT is upholding cultural safety and working towards evidence based status
  • a sparking story that makes the work all the more worthwhile and why great outcomes cannot be tied down to one intervention
  • the challenges of working within a Care Team model
  • insights into the complexities of reunification with family when a lot of intervention has focused on establishing relationships with carers
  • what makes Doug so passionate about his work and the values he holds most precious
  • important considerations of cultural world views in cases of Aboriginal children in foster care which has implications for reunification
  • awareness of white privilege and seeing the world through the eyes of others
  • Moments from Doug’s early life that have influenced the values underpinning his practice
  • How Holding Children Together manage the exposure to trauma in counsellors
  • Hopes for the future of evidence-based counselling services and why it’s a good process to undertake

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after this episode

Contact Doug Dunlop at doug(at)ra-nt.org.au

Holding Children Together web page

‘The confronting world of working with Aboriginal Youth in Detention’ with Daniel Hastwell

Photos courtesy of ABC

I still can’t get this image out of my head.  A youth detained at the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre is forcibly restrained and hooded.   As Australians watched on in disbelief at the shocking Four Corners footage in July 2016, our Prime Minister quickly responded, setting up a Royal Commission to investigate practices inside the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention facilities and child protection system.

As part of a suite of supports put in place for young people and families making submissions to the Royal Commission, Relationships Australia was funded to provide counselling services.   One of those to join the team, moving from Adelaide to Darwin was Daniel Hastwell.
In Epsiode 13 of ‘Talk the Walk’, you’ll get an inside look at what it’s really like to work alongside a Royal Commission using a trauma informed approach to counselling.
With over 90% of youth in detention being Aboriginal, this has got to be one of the toughest and most important jobs in the country at the moment.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Daniel’s reaction to the Four Corners report which sparked the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory
  • Daniel Hastwell – Counsellor, Royal Commission Support Service

    Daniel’s previous experience working alongside Aboriginal consultants with Aboriginal families in child protection and hospital social work

  • What sparked Daniel to up and leave Adelaide for the Northern Territory
  • Daniel’s interest in culture and it’s connection to personal values of respect for the land
  • A day in the life of a Royal Commission Support Service counsellor
  • What it’s like to work with traumatised young Aboriginal men and youth
  • Using personal disclosure to build a relationship of trust and the challenges of engagement
  • celebrating the small moments and stories of success
  • outcomes for people who have shared their story with the Royal Commission
  • the hopes that clients have expressed for change within the system and Daniel’s hopes for the Recommendations due in November
  • The need for early intervention and prevention support services for young people

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Contact Daniel Hastwell via daniel(at)ra-nt.org.au

‘Acknowledging the suitcases that Aboriginal women carry’ with Anni Hine Moana

Anni Hine Moana, my guest this week on ‘Talk the Walk’ has over 40 years of experience from counselling in alcohol, drugs, gambling and mental health to supervision, lecturing and curriculum development.  This is a fascinating conversation with a researcher whose passion is to see tangible outcomes for Aboriginal people accessing appropriate counselling services.

Anni completed a Masters of Counselling in 2011 exploring the case for the inclusion of Narrative Therapy in counselling for Indigenous AOD clients.  Anni is now undertaking her phD on the ‘relationship between the self-conscious emotion of shame and alcohol, experienced by Australian Aboriginal women living in urban and regional areas’.  In this episode, Anni talks about her early research findings and the implications for social workers and other allied health professionals in their clinical work.

In episode 12 of ‘Talk the Walk’, we explore:

  • Anni’s emerging themes of the impact of shame and the ‘white gaze’ on Aboriginal women’s lived experience
  • How shame presents itself in the counselling room
  • The one basic skill every therapist can do to be respectful and develop a meaningful therapeutic relationship with Aboriginal women
  • The relationship between Aboriginal women’s shame and alcohol use; and the stigma associated with drinking
  • How Anni’s Maori culture has influenced her research; and the connection to experiences of shame within her own family
  • Key findings from Anni’s research and support for a narrative therapeutic approach to practice
  • The importance of listening for the ‘injustice part’ of women’s stories, the effects of racism on Aboriginal women’s lives and the role for counsellors in naming this
  • looking at your own ‘history book’
  • Challenges Anni has found in her work and research, how this impacts on her and what inspires her about the future

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’ by Patrick Wolfe

Stan Grants speech on racism and the Australian dream

Tree of Life by Ncazelo Ncube

Aborginal Narrative Practice: Honouring Storylines of Pride, Strength and Creativity by Barbara Wingard, Carolnanha Johnson and Tileah Drahm-Butler

David Denborough

Aunty Barb Wingard

Jane Lester

Violet Bacon

Maya Angelou

Ben Harper singing ‘I’ll rise’

Our Own History Book: Exploring culturally acceptable responses to Australian Aboriginal women who have experience of feelings of shame and are seeking counselling for problems with alcohol’ by Anni Hine Moana

Re-storying alcohol use amongst Aboriginal Australians. by Anni Hine Moana

Follow Anni Hine Moana on academia.com or email at annihinemoana(at)gmail(dot)com

‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ with Josephine Lee

The bold and beautiful, Josephine Lee

My guest on Episode 3 of ‘Talk the Walk’ is Josephine Lee. Josephine is a Gudjula woman from North Queensland whose social worker career spands almost 30 years.  Jo is committed to anti-oppressive, anti-racist, therapeutic and relationship-based practices as well as creative and hope-focused practices.
In true traditional style, this ended up feeling like a yarn around the campfire, than an interview.  Josephine takes us on a deep journey into her life growing up and how this has shaped the person she is today.  Her biggest influences on her social work practice is life itself.  This includes in her words

“moments of suffering that you think you cannot get through; moments of joy that you think you cannot believe has happened; good people; lessons learnt from bad; being given opportunities; being brave to take up the opportunities; forgiving yourself when you stuff up, learn and grow; kindness is a strength; beautiful art, music, writing, and so many things that have contributed to hope focussed approach; talk with belief, especially to those who have given up.”

It was truly a privilege to hear Josephine’s raw and honest account of the struggles in life and work.  Josephine is unashamedly and unapologetically frank in her assessment of the state of social work and humanity on the planet.  If you want to hear the brutal truth about what an Aboriginal social worker really thinks about our white middle class profession, but in a gentle kind way, then you’re in the right place.
This episode explores:
• What is hope-focused practice and how it differs from strengths based practice
• The impact of Aboriginal policy and racism on Jo’s family history which ultimately shapes her practice and her life
• Jo’s view of the world as a ‘social justice cake’
• The circumstances that led to Jo taking up social work as a career
• Jo’s reflection on her own personal experience of social workers involved in her childhood
• Lessons on responsibility and what social justice in action really means
• Special photos that have significance to Jo’s life and work (see below)
• Child removal as the impact of colonisation
• Cautions for social workers following the current trends in treatment without bringing a cultural lens and critical reflection
• The traps that white middle class social workers might fall into which leads to hopelessness and helplessness
• A blunt warning for social workers who don’t enter Aboriginal communities with respect
• What it means to walk alongside someone on a painful but healing journey of self discovery for deep nourishment and flourishment to happen
• The power of narrative therapy in working with Indigenous clients
• What is reflective social work practice REALLY
• Black empowerment theory and why it’s greater than feminist theory

“If you walk softly on this Mother Earth, you have tried your best to take care for her, and all life, and you did so with dignity and grace — that is a truly well-lived life.”Josephine Lee, July 2017

Josephine speaks about the following photographs in this interview.

Josephine’s maternal side of the family.

Josephine with her mother and siblings.

An artists interpretation of family surrounded by wild waters.

The picture a client identified as to what being happy with life looks like.

Please note, due to the length of this interview, it has been split into two parts.  Tune in next week to hear the final part of our conversation.
Warning: occasional explicit language.
Just click on the Play Button below and enjoy!  We hope to have ‘Talk the Walk’ listed on popular podcatchers like iTunes very soon.  Or subscribe by email via our Home Page.
Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

Various Books by Christine Fejo King

About Wayne McCashen

‘Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities’ by African American social worker, Barbara Bryant Solomon

‘Black and White Working Together for Strong Community’ with Patricia Munkara

Patricia Munkara – an advocate for children in her community

My guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week is Patricia Munkara.  Patricia is a traditional woman from Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory whose first language is Tiwi.  In our conversation, Patricia takes us into her world – giving us some insight into what it is like for an Aboriginal worker living in their community to work alongside non-Indigenous social workers/counsellors, some of whom have been on fly-in fly-out arrangements. Bringing her passion for children’s safety and protection, Patricia has developed a reputation of being a trusted community member in her role of Aboriginal Support Worker with a mainstream non-government organisation.

This episode explores:

  • how Patricia has been a role model for others in her community
  • how Patricia has worked alongside the counsellor in the delivery of a culturally sensitive model of therapy
  • what a typical ‘two-way’ approach to counselling looks like; and the skills, knowledge and tools used
  • advantages of having an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mix of counselling and support in the room with children
  • some of the challenges of the work
  • collaboration between the counsellor and Aboriginal Support Worker
  • the importance of valuing and including cultural practices, knowledge and values in the work
  • how employment and maintaining a status in the community as a carer for children has contributed to Patricia’s own health and wellbeing
  • a success story of reunification with a young Tiwi girl
  • the importance of flexibility in a challenging work environment
  • advice for new social workers in a remote community and what you can expect

As with any remote work, there were challenges with recording this episode.  We apologise for the varying quality of audio.  It’s something we are working on!
We hope you enjoy this episode.  If you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to check out after today’s episode:

Healing Our Children project

Healing Our Children on Facebook

Patricia’s 3 part series of child safety messages launched today!
‘Keeping Babies Safe from Harm’
‘Babies and Neglect’
‘Babies and Stress’

More about Patricia’s life and work on our blog

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice

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Using bear cards to give children a voice in the ‘third person’

One of the things I have been most passionate about in my work with children and their families is being able to give children a voice.  Sometimes this can be very challenging.  Children can be left silenced by their experience, especially in situations of domestic and family violence.  Feelings like shame, sadness, anger, guilt, despair and fear prevent children from being able to find words.

As a counsellor in remote communities, it would be very easy to become complacent and dismiss the effects of violence as normalised behaviours in children; because violence is something many children may witness and learn to live with.  But it is certainly not normal and violence shouldn’t be tolerated.  It is my experience on the Tiwi Islands working alongside local people that children, especially boys, are too scared to talk about the violence occurring in their families.  It could cause further shame for them or expose them to further punishment or abuse if they speak out.

So the challenge is….how do you allow children to have a voice without exposing them to further shame or trauma?  Of course, one does not necessarily have to speak about the details of a bad memory in order to begin the process of healing.  In fact, neuroscience suggests that sometimes it is physically impossible to recall all the details of a traumatic event anyway, due to the brains response to toxic stress and its effect on memory.  Some children may not be consciously aware of what has happened to them even though the body remembers.
The goal then is to help children integrate and transform their trauma experience without having to recall any facts.  The child will be able to relate to feelings, thoughts, sensations in the body and compulsions to behave in particular ways, even if they do not link this to any past hurts.

One way I have tried to assist integration and help children to make sense of their experience is encouraging the use of ‘third person’ voice.  Play using miniature animals or puppets, drawing or play-doh creates all sorts of opportunities for imagined creatures to tell a story.  For me, the bear cards have been a great resource in shifting children into this safe space; to explore what might have happened for bear to have an angry, scared or sad face, what is happening in his body and what he is driven to do.  The process also fits really well with the idea of ‘externalisation’ in narrative therapy, allowing the child to see that a problem sits outside of themselves, rather than taking up permanent residence inside them.  I have written elsewhere about the use of masks in therapy to assist with externalisation of feelings which are impacting in negative ways on children.

Another indirect way of assisting communication in therapy is through the use of metaphor.  In my experience running group-work programs on Aboriginal family bush camps, I’ve discovered the power of using the tree metaphor to assist people to share their strengths, abilities and skills for getting through hard times.

It is through my discovery of the power of metaphor for communication and the challenge of working with Aboriginal boys, that inspired me to write a children’s therapeutic picture book.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses the tree metaphor to explore the issues of domestic and family violence.  My hope was that by reading this story, Aboriginal boys in particular, might be invited into a safe conversation about their feelings, thoughts and actions in their own lives.

Over the past six months I have been mentoring Yolngu artist and friend, Christine Burrawanga, to create the images for the story.  This is a story that is very close to Christine’s heart and so her strong culture, passion and enthusiasm to make a difference for her people has really shaped the book.

Our hope is that ‘The Life of Tree’ is a key to opening the door to the voices of children which have been locked away by the experience of violence.  Healing from the trauma of violence can be a long journey.  But if that door is opened ever so slightly as a child, perhaps the emotional burden they are carrying, will be lightened just a little bit.

Read Part II – Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice.

The Power of Story in Standing up to Violence: A Child’s Perspective

Patricia readingIn Aboriginal culture, storytelling is a way of connecting with the relationship system, an ancient tradition that has been practiced throughout the generations.  Often it is Elders telling their grandchildren stories about their ancestors, that have great significance for their future lives.

In Western cultures it could be adults reading fairy tales or adventure stories to children at bedtime.

Children are great story tellers too.

If we take the time to stop and listen carefully, they have great adventures to tell.  Children are active little people, learning new skills and taking on knowledge from role models around them.  These things help them grow and develop, and come in handy when times get tough.

When children are living with violence in their families, they are drawing on the skills, knowledge and strengths they have learnt, to help them cope, keep themselves safe and stay strong.  They are standing up to violence!
Children who live with violence in their families and communities, come from all parts of Australia and many different cultural backgrounds.

When I was working as a children’s counsellor in remote Aboriginal communities between 2009 and 2013, I heard many stories of violence and trauma and helped the children document their strengths and abilities in surviving these hard times.  I recently reconnected with one of these boys whom I supported for several years and is now in high school.  He and his Aunty gave me permission to share publicly one of the stories he wrote, in the hope that it might help other children who are also experiencing violence or abuse.

Feel free to download and share this story with any children you may be working with.
A story about Anger

You or your client may also like to send a story back to us (email lucy@metaphoricallyspeaking.com.au).  I am happy to send on messages to the author of this story.  Here are some questions that might guide your message.

  • As you listened to the story, were there any words that caught your attention? Which ones?
  • When you heard these words, what pictures came to your mind about the person and what is important to them (eg. their hopes, dreams, values and beliefs)?   Can you describe that picture?
  • What is it about your own life that helped you connect with these words and pictures?
  • How might you think and act differently, after having heard this story?

We hope by sharing this story, that other voices of children living with violence are heard loud and strong.

I have a dream that we might be able to gather a whole collection of children’s stories of experiences of trauma and resilience.  And that this might be shared with the adults who have used violence or abuse in their relationships.

This may be just the tool needed to help those languishing in our prisons to think about the impact of their behavior on their loved ones and the possibility of a different way of living.