By Michelle Naden
The following is an account of my meetings with a very vivacious and tender 8 year old. I’ll call her Amy so that her privacy is honored. Amy is the oldest of three girls. They live with their mom and dad who are among the most loving of parents I have met. Too, they are playful and helpfully engaged in their children’s lives. But even with such good things going for her, life has been difficult for Amy. She felt challenged by some significant changes in her young life and by the complications of her relationships. Before coming to see me she had lost a good neighborhood friend after a painful struggle between their families. She hated school and didn’t want to go. Overall, Amy didn’t feel very good about herself and she struggled with very BIG feelings that would well up and often erupt into explosions. These had her family tired, confused, sometimes angry, and perplexed about how to help Amy. Explosions were affecting everyone in the family, including Amy, who felt quite dispirited and beaten down when she first came to meet me.
The Use of Story in Therapy
Before continuing with Amy’s story I want to say something about my work so you have a context within which to understand some of the steps Amy and I have taken together.
The idea of “story” is central to how I listen and work with people of all ages. To explain this in a little more detail, the “narrative mode of thought” (White and Epston, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, 1990):
(1) privileges the particulars of people’s lives, and pays special attention to the unique ways they live them. Out of these particulars come the unique meanings that people themselves hold about their lives. These meanings are the “stuff” of therapy conversations.
(2) “Time” is a critical dimension in the narrative mode. As events unfold over time, stories can be told that help to make meaning of these events. These “plots” of people’s stories “place us at the crossing point of temporality and narrativity” (Ricour, 1980), which is a fancy way of saying that paying attention to sequences of time and plot is what makes a really good story!
(3) To enhance the development of preferred stories, “rich” (i.e. poetic and picturesque) descriptions are elicited and conversations always are more exploratory and less purpose-driven.
(4) Narrative exploration acknowledges that stories are co-created between at least two participants. The protagonist or subject (or person consulting a therapist) is always accorded the status of privileged author. Therefore, it is the subject’s words and meanings that are taken as most valuable rather than a therapist’s interpretation or clinical evaluation of them.
Now back to Amy. I quickly realized that Amy was a fabulous artist. Her beautiful flowers put mine to shame and her skillful ways with making things and illustrating her ideas riveted me to the possibility of our work together centering around her creations. Because reading books was her passion, the idea of focusing on the story of her own life made really good sense to Amy. Too, Amy loved to dictate what we should do in any given meeting and so I put this talent of hers to good use and asked her if we might work together on a book that would document our progress with the very tricky problem of Exploding. Here is the result of this dynamic collaboration between us that took place over a period of a few months. It ended up in the form of an actual book that Amy illustrated and carefully dictated to me as I faithfully scribed.
My name is Amy and I am eight years old. I am still having problems with exploding. But Michelle is helping me with them.
I have two sisters. Their names are Sally and Hannah. Sally is one and Hannah is four. Sometimes Hannah can be a pest and she aggravates me. When Hannah makes me mad this is what I used to do:
Sometimes I would get so mad I would even jump on her! When I would hurt Hannah I would feel sad and my mom and dad would be mad. Then he (dad) would almost spank me but he didn’t because my mom stopped him. Everyone in the family was frustrated—except Sally.
Then things began to change in our family. We all went to see Michelle in her office.
We talked about Exploding. Exploding happened when Tired and Hungry got together to make me miserable. It was all because of Exploding. We went to work to get rid of Exploding. Here are some of the things we tried.
We tried playing games with Exploding and chased it away from the house. He went thumping down the street in a cloud of dust.
He’s kind of like a robot to me. Everyone has their own imagination of what Exploding looks like. Everybody is different.
One day things got really, really hard and Exploding went crazy! We were away from home, which is hard for me. So we came up with a new plan so that everyone would be safe. The plan was for me to be able to go to sleep without my mom there and without a fuss. If I could do this I would get to go to Apex, which is a super fun place.
(1) Take my Michelle CD to play at bedtime.
(2) Read my book until I fall asleep.
(3) Take my three favorite animals: Cheddar, Puzzle, and Nuzzle. They will help me get to sleep.
I think I am pretty determined and can do hard things. Even though this won’t be easy I am going to be able to do it!
I really did do it!!!
I took Cheddar and dressed her up in ski clothes.
And NO EXPLODING!!
One day we decided that sometimes I don’t know that Mommy loves me. She surprised me one day with a box and a card. In the box was a beautiful real gold necklace. It was a circle that means forever. Mom said it reminded her of the gold in my heart. If I touch it I remember that my mom loves me and it helps me to feel much better.
Now I am eight years old I understand more. Like not hitting my sister. Like stopping myself, writing it down, talking it out. I like talking it out best.
Exploding is kind of like a ghost now. He’s gone. I‘m not going to pack Exploding on our trip to Apex.
Mom says things are really good at home now. She sees me coming up with solutions when I don’t get my way.
I am much happier now.
Here’s one of the book’s illustrations:
One day, after meeting with Amy and her family, I discovered a very scary picture of Exploding under one of my office chairs. Amy strictly forbade me to include a picture of this horrible problem in her book and so you’ll just have to take my word for how frightening he was!
Witnesses and Celebration
As a part of our book-writing project, I visited Amy’s second grade teacher to interview her about the unique qualities that Amy brought to her classmates and her teacher. All sorts of treasures came out of that conversation and I copied down verbatim what the teacher told me and included a copy in Amy’s book. Amy didn’t say much about these reflections from her teacher but she did begin to express enjoying school and her teacher.
Amy and I decided to have a celebration and to bring her parents and sisters to our final meeting. She decided that we should eat strawberries and have lemon and vanilla cake. Too she wanted strawberry Italian sodas. For entertainment I read her book to the family and we played a card game that Amy decided we would enjoy. Following is a certificate that I prepared to honor Amy’s work. We all signed this as witnesses to Amy’s newly developed story of “Creativity Brought to Tough Problems that No Longer Exist” and entered it into her book that she proudly took with her.
This is to certify that AMY has successfully applied her very significant creative talents to the very tricky area of relationships. Her biggest achievement of talking it through has turned Explosion into a ghost and has her feeling more successful and happy at school and at home. Reading stories has helped her through tough times as well as remembering for sure that her mom loves her—fantastically!!
Amy gave her permission for me to publish her book here. She felt it was a good idea to share her success and strategies with other kids who might also struggle with tough problems like Exploding.
There is one catch, though. Amy would like to hear if anyone finds her experience to be useful in their own struggles with tricky problems!