Family Attachment Narrative Therapy: Telling Healing Stories

Family Attachment Narrative Therapy is grounded in the belief the parents are the best hope to help children who have been hurt in life. No therapist or professional working with the child knows an individual child-or can ever hope to know the child-the way a parent that cares for the child day in and day out does. Parents are truly the experts in their child-they have the specific information about the child's behaviors and are the only ones that can accurately piece together the internal motivations that drive their child's behavior.

If you are parenting an adoptive or foster child, you might be thinking, "If I'm such an expert in this child, then why are we having so many problems?" Parenting an older adopted or foster child can be a challenge. Trauma, such as abuse or neglect experienced early in life, may have affected their internal thoughts and perceptions of external events such that they view their place in the world and the role of others around them very differently. In short, their development may have been altered. This can sometimes make it difficult for parents to interpret the meaning of their behaviors. Nonetheless, as parents you know the idiosyncratic behaviors that make your child unique and with help from a trained professional can quickly learn to view your child from a new perspective.

Living with a child day to day gives parents information that a therapist spending an hour a week with them may not have. Not to mention, the child usually acts differently in a therapy session than they do at home. Powered with this information, parents have an ability to be attuned to the child's unique cues and needs.

This attunement is a highly sensitive state of emotional connection that allows parents to know that a certain facial expression means "I'm about to lose it, get me out of this place!" Or that chattering nonstop means, "Play with me!" and is not just a symptom of some disorder. This attunement is the key to Family Attachment Narrative Therapy. Parents and therapists construct narratives or stories that help children connect to their new family, heal from past losses, abuse and neglect, and learn new skills and alternative behaviors. Parents usually begin by telling Claiming Narratives. These are stories that convey to the child that from the first he deserved to be loved and cherished by responsible parents. Parents lovingly describe to the child what their life would have been like if they had been in this family from the beginning. Claiming Narratives pass on family history, traditions and rituals helping the child feel claimed and accepted.

If you had been our baby Dad and I would have spent months getting the nursery ready for you. I think we would have decorated it with jet planes because you love planes. When you were first born, we would have counted your fingers and toes and kissed the end of your nose. You would have been the most beautiful baby. We would have been there every time you made a noise to check if you were hungry, wet or just wanted to be held.

Once parents begin to sense that a connection is developing, that the child is able to use them as a secure base, therapy progresses to Trauma Narratives, which help the child process what really did happen to them in the past. These stories are typically told in the third person, which provides a safety zone for the child. Many children have been neglected, abused and moved from family to family. Yet if confronted with what may have happened in their birth family, many are quick to deny and defend. Instead, listening to a story told from the third-person perspective about another child or even an animal allows the child to process the difficult material at their own pace. The goal of Trauma Narratives is to desensitize past experiences so that memories no longer trigger strong emotions and destructive behaviors.

Once upon a time a baby dinosaur peeked out of his shell at the world for the very first time. But he was alone. His mother was not very old herself and she was off playing with the some other dinosaurs at the edge of the lake. She didn't even notice him. He was cold and hungry.

As attachment improves and the child has processed past experiences, stories are used to help children learn new skills and behaviors. Developmental Narratives help children grow up. Many have missed key developmental stages and tasks as they spent the important early years in a chaotic or neglectful environment. Successful Child Narratives provide behavior options for kids who are stuck in pattern of opposition, anger and defiance. Parents choose a character with which their child might identify. This character struggles to learn and overcome the problem. A third person narrative allows parents to address difficult behaviors without the child becoming angry and defensive.

Leo had a temper. He woke up with a smile every day but when things didn't go his way; a big black storm cloud grew over his head. One day his mom ran out of oatmeal for breakfast. His smile became a frown and a little cloud appeared over him. Then his sister took his most favorite cup. The cloud grew bigger and blacker. Then he missed the school bus because his shoe disappeared. The cloud grew and grew and grew!

The power of these stories lies in the fact that they individualized-the stories are created by parents that know the specifics about their child's behaviors and internal motivations. Many parents have found Family Attachment Narrative Therapy easy to learn. It is a fun and enjoyable way to help and teach challenging children. For more information about this therapy and other services for foster or adopted children contact the Family Attachment Center at 952-475-2818 or visit our web site at

Published in the Spring 2003 issue of MNASAP Family Voices.