Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Blackhat and Twinkle – Narrative Therapy With Children and Adolescents

Tapio Malinen

Psychotherapy is not just innocent fussing about. The way in which we produce and use knowledge in therapy always has an effect on people’s lives and their feeling of significance. We face different kinds of ethical challenges especially when working with children and teenagers. This is caused by their position in our society and the power relation that inevitably exists between them and adults.

How to make these relationships visible and act in a way that stops their negative effects from preventing the therapeutic work? How to create therapeutic conversations without reproducing existing processes of uniformity? How to discover new things together without guiding the creative process only in the interests of the adults? How to influence people without manipulating them?
Can one do therapy without being a mediator of social control, without – often unconsciously – participating in the standardizing and repressing discourses of the institutions the child or teenager is functioning in at a given time?

I am fully aware that the practices of narrative therapy, like all other practices, are derived from “the unholy trinity of power, knowledge and rhetorics.” (Madigan, 1998) My questions are never neutral. The discourse I am using always becomes a part of the therapy process. The essential question is: am I aware of, and do I express in my work, my values, beliefs, my view of humanity, so that their effects can be evaluated in therapy?

Michael White – the most essential developer of narrative therapy – writes ”since we are all caught up in a web of power/knowledge, it is not possible to act apart from this domain, and we are simultaneously undergoing the fefects of power and exercising this power in relation to others.” (White & Epston, pp.22, 1990) If we assume that power, even in therapy, intrudes on all our attemts to acquire knowledge and that language not only describes reality but also creates it, the therapist only has one option: he or she can try to be powerless by using power in the benefit of, for instance, children.


Different psychotherapies have different basic units of experience as the starting point of their approach. Cognitive therapies focus on logical thinking, systemic therapies focus on the family interaction, psychodynamic therapies focus on the unconscious, and so on. The experience-based basic unit of narrative therapy can be said to be a story. (Sween, 1999) The human being is a creature who creates meanings: we constantly assign different meanings to our experiences. They enable us to make the chaos of our lives meaningful and understandable. This way of organizing our inner views of the world, which is so typical of human beings, can be called a story. Meanings are mediated through linking certain events together in a particular sequence across a time period and by describing ourselves and our identities through these events or themes.

Stories constitute our existence: they not only deal with our lives, they are our lives. When giving meaning to our experiences, when creating our life stories, we are simultaneously living them or living in them. The meanings that we use to describe our relationships and other people’s observations of our lives also shape our views of life, history and the future. We define ourselves in a social mirror that others hold before us. Despite conflicting knowledge, these identity stories are often amazingly stabile. In the narrative practice, one investigates how these types of definitions and stories are built and how they can be defined and rebuilt in a preferred way.

I once had a conversation with Michael White about the theory of the narrative practice. To my surprise, he said, “There’s no theory, just talking about ideas!” (White, 2003). According to him, the narrative practice has no unified theory; it is simply “talking about different ideas”. He does not even see it as a stable therapy approach, but rather as an open developmental process that is constantly changing. The practice has taken its most central influences from poststructural thinkers, such as Michel Foucault (Foucault, 1998) and Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 1978). Other significant influences on the ideas of Michael White and his partner David Epstein include cultural anthropologists Richard Geertz (Geertz, 1983) and Barbara Meyerhoff (Meyerhoff, 1986) as well as literature researcher Edward Bruner (Bruner, 1986) and cultural psychologist Jeremo Bruner (Bruner, 1990). Nowadays, White likes to explore the work of American psychologist William James (James, 1988) and Russian linguist, philosopher and psychologist Lev Vigotsky (Vigotsky, 1999) when developing new interview maps especially for his work within trauma therapy.

The narrative therapy can be said to be more of a philosophy or way of life than a mechanical therapeutic technique. It has its own idea about the nature of knowledge, the social construction of reality, and the generative meaning of language. According to the narrative practice

• Knowledge is always created within relationships. We live in a world of meanings that
is built through language in a certain historical and social context.

• These meanings turn into stories that give significance to our lives and identitites.

• Life is multi-storied. The lives of people that come to therapy are often dominated by a
so-called problem-saturated story, which usually overshadows several other alternative
meanings and stories.

• Narrative therapy does not intend to solve anything, but rather build together preferred
experiences and meanings that have been overshadowed by problems. Described richly,
these meanings and experiences can provide new alternatives and practices into our


A General Look

A narrative therapist listens to stories. The perspective is very different compared to the idea of listening to symptoms or ”facts” or shallow hints of deeper meanings. While listening, we try to understand which aspects of people’s stories are problematic and how they name their problems through their experience and their view of the world. We create space and give time, so that peole can reflect on their own stories, so that they can become their own audience. While working with families, we let one family member at a time tell his or her story while the others act as witnesses to it. Talking and listening take rhythmic turns: the one who has been listening can reflect on what he or she has heard, and after a while, the speaker becomes the reflector.

Working naratively liberates us from the “pollution of purpose”, goals and solutions and especially from the idea that no one has to become a better person. (Heikkilä, 2004) On the other hand, the therapist does not want the so-called modern power to define the therapy. “Disabled”, “maladjusred”, “ADHD”, “dysfunctional family” are all concepts behind which lies an unspoken standard of normality or “gaze”. (Malinen, 2004) It is not until the effects of these normalizing judgements or taken-for-granted ideas have been made visible that people can decide what they really want for themselves and, if needed, separate themselves from what the dominant culture wants from them. The therapist helps people explore the effects of modern power, so that they could live a life that corresponds with their own preferences, not those of internalized control.

Externalising conversations

Ten years ago, when I knew very little about the narrative practice, I met Tanja. She was seven years old and had just started school. Her teacher directed her to me, because she would cry in class every time she had the slightest doubt that she would not be able to cope with something according to her expectations. Tanja would burst into tears several times a day and the teacher was worried about the situation.

I knew nothing at the time about the interview maps of the narrative therapy. However, Tanja and her best friend Etty guided me with gentle determination into the world of externalising conversations. When I asked Tanja what she thought of her own crying spells, she replied, as if reporting the most natural and self-explanatory fact in the world, “It’s all because of Blackhat!”

Tanja started to tell me a story about a leprachaun called Blackhat. She comes into the class and says, “Cry, cry!” and hits her with her magic wand. When asked for more information about this daily visitor, Tanja told me that Blackhat likes bad girls, dark and horrifying places, but cannot stand good girls, flowers, beautiful things and a fairy called Twinkle, who also owns a magic wind. Twinkle tells Tanja, ”You don’t have to cry anymore.”

The girls then told me how they knew when Blackhat had appeared in the classroom and what kinds of effects he had on Tanja. They also drew pictures of both the leprachaun and the fairy. After all this, the girls were both very excited in making a plan with me to vanquish Blackhat. At the end of our first session, I told them that in my experience, leprechauns with black hats can be very cunning, and I asked the girls if they were prepared to be even more cunning than him. Both Tanja and Etty replied, “Yes, yes!”, their eyes gleaming with great cunning. I asked them to make more observations on Blackhat’s movements and especially about what Tanja does when she is able to kick this “horrifying creature” out of the classroom.

In the beginning of our second session, both of the girls excitedly told me that Blackhat had lost some of his power and that Tanja had been subjected to only a few of his appalling tricks during the past week. She described the method she had invented for getting rid of Blakchat. “I just think of Twinkle and then I invite her to sit on my shoulder, and Blackhat cannot stand that.” The girls agreed to go on with this successful vanquishing technique and Etty even promised to blow into Tanja’s neck if she should forget to call Twinkle to sit on her shoulder.

During the third meeting, the girls told me that Blackhat had completely disappeared from the classroom. Tanja thought she could be thankful to her, because without her there would be no Twinkle, who was useful for more than just “vanquishing spells”. “She also gives me good ideas when I need to tell or write a story.”

My practices while working with Tanja were still very strategic and mechanical, and I did not have skills to enrich Tanja’s alternative story and make thicker. However, she taught me – before Michael White – that externalising conversation is not a mechanical technique, but rather a specific way of seeing the world and relating to it in a certain way. At its best, it is an ability to think and use language in a way that makes the problem a problem instead of a person. In other words: my relationship with the problem is often the real problem. And we must remember that problems sometimes have good intentions that one would not recognize if we only “fought” against them or “eliminated” or “destroyed” them.

Externalising conversations are highways to deconstruction. They enable us to understand people’s problems without thinking that the people themselves are problematic or pathological. When working with families, externalising conversations give the family members a chance to experience each other from a new perspective. When we investigate the effects of the problem on people’s lives and relationships with other people, they do not need to see themselves as problematic: they can analyze their relationship with the problem and even consider changing it. This way, the stories people tell do not restrict them as much and the creativity of the family members can be utilized better.

By making externalising questions about the effects of problems, we can also recognize the discourses or macro stories that support the problematic micro stories. When the problem is connected with a wider discourse, it is easier for people to resist it or create a different, more benefitial relationship with it. What “feeds” the problem?Who benefits from the problem? What are the principles and values of the problem? Do you think the problem is common or rare in our society? Why? If children/teenagers wanted to protest in public against the destructive effects of this problem, what would you suggest for them to do? These kind of questions help people to realize how the context of their lives affects the problem and vice versa.

Person’s Relationship With the Problem

Included in the narrative practice are a group of interview maps that we use to build externalising conversations. One of them investigates the person’s relationship with the problem. (Mann & Russell, 2002). In the first phase of this statement of position map the problem is given an experience-near definition. Usually people’s own language and images serve as a base for it. If the name is not born within natural conversation, one can ask questions such as:

• What name would you give to this problem you have been talking about?
• What name would you give to this thing you have been fighting against?
• You mentioned ”sadness”. Is it a good name for this problem, or could some other name better describe your own experience with it?

The second phase is analyzing the effects of the problem on the person’s life. Some examples of possible questions are:

• What does Fear stop you from doing?
• What effects does Panic have on your relationships with your friends?
• Is Panic always equally strong or does its power vary?
• What does It make you think about yourself?
• How is Worry influencing your performance at school?
• How old is Blackhat? When did he come into your life?

When we are done mapping the effects of the problem together, we ask the person to evaluate its effects.

• Are the effects of Panic on your life good, bad, or something else?
• What do you think of Tiredness? What kind of thing is it for you?
• Is Restlessness a pleasant or unpleasant thing in your life?

In the fourth phase – often tightly connected to the third one – we ask the person to provide arguments for their evaluations by asking them why they evaluated the effects of the problem the way they did. A new possibility opens for stories that have not been told before, stories connected to values, beliefs, and intentions.

• Why do you think that the effects of Panic are unpleasant?
• Why do you not want Fear to come to school with you?
• Why do you feel sad when Anorexia stops you from going to the restaurant?
• You said you are not happy with the effects of Foolishness. How do these
effects sabotage the wishes you have for your life?

Along with these type of conversations, experiencing the problem as a separate issue is strengthened. The person’s own position in relation to the problem is also more clearly defined and it often becomes possible to describe what kinds of feelings or what kind of action the problem has caused. Instead of focusing on their internal conflicts, the family members can join in a project against the problem together.

Niko and The Worry

”I could call it The Worry”, replied 13-year-old Niko, when we were negotiating a good name for the problem that had brought him to see me. (Malinen 2005b) His parents had divorced a couple of months earlier. Niko had stayed with his father in their old home and his two big sisters had moved elsewhere with their mother. His father had called me asking for a meeting, because “I think Niko is depressed about all that’s been going on in our family.”

- How long has the Worry been in your life?
- When did It appear?
- Has It stayed the same the whole time or do Its effects vary?
- How widespread are Its effects in your life?
- Does It just stay at home or does it also come to school?
- What has It made you think of yourself?
- Where does It live in your body and how exactly does It feel like?
- What was your life like before It?

Niko told me that the Worry had given him tears. It had made it harder to concentrate at school. Sometimes It had stopped him from sleeping. It had also affected his relationship with his mother and his friends. Niko was especially concerned about his mother, her mental health and financial situation.

After mapping the history and effects of the problem, I asked Niko to evaluate,

- Are these effects in your life unpleasant, pleasant, or something else?

To my surprise, he replied that they had caused good things in his life.

- ”Why?” ”Well, because it’s there, I know that I care about my Mom, and she knows it too.”

Thus, through externalising conversations, we unpacked some negative identity conclusions Niko had brought into our meeting. Furthermore, he told me that the Worry does not like it when the matter is discussed outside the family. It also does not like tears or the observation that Mom does not cry as much anymore and is not as concerned as before.

When we met for a second time, Niko told me he was feeling better, sleeping more, felt more energetic, and was able to concentrate better at school. I asked him how he explains the fact that he was able to make the Worry lose power and gain more himself. Niko replied, “I think it’s because of patience.” The questions I then posed him are one way of deconstructing the identity conclusions connected with the concept “patience” and constructing the alternative story to be as thick as possible.

- When your patience is at its most prominent, what kind of impact does it have on what you do?
- How does it affect your way to be?
- What does it enable you to do in your relationships with other people, especially with your mother?
- In what purpose would you like to use patience in the future?
- Why in this purpose? What does this reveal about what you value in your life?
- How have you kept your contact with patience during all that you’ve experienced?
- Has your patience appeared earlier in your life?
- What hopes or dreams are related to the things that matter to you in life?
- When you were younger, what things did you realize you could think or do, things that already back then told you that you could use patience in the future?
- Which one of your loved ones would be the least surprised to hear what you have done?
- What would he or she tell me about what kind of person you are and what you value the most?
- What do you think he or she thinks about what you have done?
- If your values and beliefs would support you in the future, how would know it?

Niko told me that he wants to use his patience in the future for learning new things, such as new languages. This would be important, because he valued all the possibilities that studying languages can open in life. When asked what dreams this value is connected to, Niko told me he wants to become a world famous golf player one day, and the skill of patience would serve him very well in this endeavour. What kind of lifestyle did this dream represent for him? He replied that he was prepared to strive for a happy life and everything that is included in it. During re-membering (see page 9 in this article), Niko re-joined his father and grandfather into the club of his life2, where patience had been respected and valued for many generations.

I will continue to see Niko and we will continue our conversations in this new, intentional, multi-storied space that we have opened up together.

Stories of Unique Outcomes

A unique outcome can be anything that does not fit together with the dominant story. It can be a plan, an action, a feeling, an expression, an attitude, a personality trait, a need, a dream, an ability or a commitment. (Morgan, 2004) It is often an experience or event located outside the effects of the problem story, and it can open a perspective for a new story. In Niko’s case it was “patience”, and by deconstructing it and describing it in a rich way, an alternative story could be built to replace Worry.

Sometimes children and teenagers offer unique outcomes very naturally (as Tanja did when she told me about Twinkle). Sometimes they are buried in the swamps of problem stories, so that hearing them demands great precision and patience. If, for example, the teenager says, “sometimes I can handle it quite well, but most of the time…” and continues telling his or her problem story, the therapist, attentive and curious, can keep in mind “sometimes I can handle it quite well..” and come back to it later.

Often a unique outcome is developed in the problem story by spontaneously listening in a deconstructive way and asking about the effects of the problem on the life of the child or teenager. If this should not happen, we can also ask, for example, the following questions:

• Can you remember situations where the problem could have stopped you from doing something, but it did not happen? What happened then?
• Is the problem always with you?
• Are there times when the problem controls you or orders you about less?

Usually these questions enable us to open new stories with the central theme being the person’s own effect on the life of the problem. When these stories are described in a richly and thickly, when they are documented and recycled, we are at the core of the narrative practice.

Hanna and the Good Thoughts

Hanna (6 yrs) and her mother had been referred to me by the kindergarten, because Hanna had suddenly started to worry about her own and mother’s health. She often talked about death and she had trouble sleeping at night because of her fears. When we met for the third time, Hanna told me that she had started to think good thoughts in the evenings (thoughts about her friends, what she would play the next day, memories of the summer, etc.), and they made her more calm and diminished her fears. We had the following conversation about it.

Tapio: Could we call all this a small new step you have taken?
Hanna: Yes.
Tapio: What kind of step do you think this is?
Hanna: I don’t know.
Tapio: Is it a step that Worry wants you to take or does it fit in something else?
Hanna: Something else.
Tapio: What else could it fit into?
Hanna: It could fit into Good Thoughts.
T: Good thoughts. In what way would it fit into them?
H: They make Worry more quiet.
T: I see… Good Thoughts make Worry more quiet.
H: Yes.

T: Have you used Good Thinking in any other ways to quiet down the voice of The Worry?
H: I don’t know. Have I, Mom?
Mom: Last night you put your drawing of the power animal under your bed to be close to it. I thought that was using Good Thoughts. And I think you also used them when you asked Tiina how she keeps Worries away.
T: Well, how did you prepare yourself to take these steps that made the voice of Worry more quiet?
H: I don’t know.
T: What do you think of this as a mother? Were you surprised when you saw Hanna put the drawing under her bed, or when you heard her ask Tiina about the ways she uses to make the Worry more quiet? Were you surprised when you saw Hanna do these things?
M: Well, not really.
T: Hmm…what makes you think so? Can you tell me other stories about Hanna that would be somehow similar.. connected to these things she did?
M: Yes. In fact there are quite many stories like that. She has always thought a lot about things and even when she was very small… three or four years old.. she kept amazing us with her thoughts. She asked a lot of questions.. And, for instance when her grandfather died last year and we weren’t sure if we should bring Hanna with us to the funeral.. We had a conversation about it and later on, she came to me and asked us not to take her with us, because then we would have to take care of her and she thought Grandpa would have wanted for us to take care of Grandma instead.
T: So you think this is a good example of how Hanna uses Good Thoughts.
M: Yes. And this was just one example. There are many others..

T: Hanna, what do you think about what your mother has just told me? What did it feel like to listen to it?
H: I dunno really… OK, I guess.
T: Can I make some more questions about Good Thoughts? You said Good Thinking makes the Worries quiet down. How do you do that? What kind of Good Thinking do you use?
H: It’s a strong kind of Good Thinking.
T: And how would you like to use this strong kind of Good Thinking on the Worries?
H: I would like to get rid of them.
T: Why is it important for you to be the kind of person who can get rid of Worries?
H: Huh?
T: Sorry, bad question. I was just wondering what is more important to you in your life than Worries.
H: That I have fun!
(Hanna told me in detail what it is like to have fun.)

T: Do you think it should be like this for all children.. that Worries should not stop them from having fun?
H: Yes.
T: Why do you think so?
H: Because it’s not fair that they stop children from having fun. It’s naughty of them.
T: Is being fair an important thing for you?
H: Yup.

(Hanna now told me several stories of how fairness has shown in many situations in her life.)

T: Now if you saw that the Worries are treating some child unfairly, what would you do?
H: I would tell her to go to the kindergarten teacher and the teacher would let the child draw something.
T: OK. Hanna, if you could remember in the future how important it is for you to be fair and how the Worries take away fun that you value so much, what do you think would happen?
H: I think the Good Thoughts would become stronger.
T: And what effect would that have on the Worries?
H: They would get smaller and smaller until they’re just a little black spot.
T: And if they tried to come back, what would you do to keep the situation the way you want it to be?
H: I would look at my drawings and remember the Good Thoughts.

In this conversation, a kind of scaffolding is constructed, one which helps to secure the change from known and familiar into what is possible to be known, while analyzing things from a different distance. One moves in time between the past, the present and the future. A history of today is created by combining similar events in a way that enables the meanings contained in them to enrich the alternative story and make it thicker.

A story is developed in the landscape of action as well as in the landscape of identity. (Bruner, 1986). In the former, questions are posed that emphasize personal agency, i.e. the experience of being able to talk and speak for oneself. (“How did you prepare yourself to taking these steps? How do you do it? What kind of Good Thinking do you use? If you saw that Worries treat another child unfairly, what would you do?”) In the latter, conclusions are drawn on motivations, values, dreams, principles, commitments, and the meanings of events. (“I wonder what is more important for you than Worries? Is fairness important for you? Why is it important for you to be the kind of person who can get rid of Worries?) In alternative stories, actions and meanings are entangled on many levels over and over again.


Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu has said that people become people through other people. A very significant and touching way of describing the alternative story richly is by linking the people close to you in the so-called club of your life. According to this metaphor, the people that are close to us have had and still have a great significance in how we identify ourselves. A concrete or mental connection with the members of the club of our life gives us an opportunity to re-engage with our histories instead only looking back on them. This club also gives us mental nourishment for building our alternative stories, in which our identities are defined in benefitial ways through local knowledge. When my life is linked with the lives of my loved ones through values, dreams, and common themes, the experience is often very therapeutic.

Here are some examples of questions that can be used in re-membering:

• Which one of the people you know and care about would be the least surprised after hearing what you’ve done?
• What does this person know about you that would have helped him/her predict that you will take this step?
• How has knowing this person affected your life?
• What do you think he/she thinks about what you have done?
• How did he/she know that these things are important to you?
• What has your relationship/your action meant to him/her?
• If you could see yourself with his/her eyes, what would you appreciate the
most in yourself?

Jaakko, Freedom and Independence

A mother called me, because she wanted to discuss her son Jaakko, a 12-year-old boy in sixth grade, who refused to go to school after the autumn break. (Malinen, 2005a)

- He feels sick just from thinking of going to school… Jaakko gets anxiety attacks in the school cafeteria and now he’s even afraid of going to see our friends… He just stays inside and feels miserable.

His parents had contacted a doctor, who had examined him without finding anything specific. The mother had read about “panic disorder” and wanted to know if her son was suffering from it. In the beginning of our first meeting, in my office outside the school, I asked Jaakko and his mother to participate in a guessing game.

- Let’s assume that our meeting is over and Jaakko is feeling satisfied and thinking that it was worthwile coming here, that something clicked in the right direction. What do you think he’d answer, if I asked him what things he found the most benefitial to discuss here?

I asked the Jaakko the same question, this time about her mother. They were both able to guess each other’s expectations and goals. Jaakko and his mother both felt it was most benefitial to deal with a problem called “feeling bad”. It appeared in the family every morning before going to school.

- How long have you had this problem? Has it become easier or harder to bear with time? What do you remember about the time before you started feeling bad? How wide is the impact of the problem on your life? Does it affect what you think about yourself? Has it had an impact on your relationships with your friends? How does it affect your parents?How badly does it weigh on your mind? What part of your body does it live in and how does it feel like, exactly? Do its effects vary or does it stay the same all the time? Are its effects good, bad, or something else? Why?

Jaakko told me that, among other things, Feeling Bad made him think there was something wrong with him inside and…

- Right now It doesn’t want me to go anywhere, but two days ago I did go to the R kiosk and rented a movie.
- What do you think, does Feeling Bad threaten something that is really important to you?

Jaakko told me that he valued ”freedom” and ”independence” in life, and that Feeling Bad was stopping him from meeting his friends and doing things he enjoyed doing.

- What do freedom and independence mean for you on a practical level?
- Well, they mean that I can go see my friends and no one is pushing me around.
- Why is a lifestyle like this important for you?
- Well, because no one wants to be pushed around, of couse!

- When you went to the kiosk and rented the video, did Feeling Bad try to control you or were you
able to do things freely at the time?
- I had other things to think about, and everything went OK.
- How did you prepare yourself for this step? What was on your mind? Did you hesitate? Did you
possibly tell yourself something that helped you in taking this step?
- I just thought that I wanna watch a video tonight, and then I went to the kiosk.
- What skills or qualities did you use in keeping Feeling Bad away from this situation?
- I just kept It inside and was strong and powerful and walked on, and It went away.
- Was this something new or have courage and inner strength been in your life before?

Jaakko told me other stories about situations where Strength and Courage had helped him do things.

- Is there someone among the people you love who also possesses these qualities?
- I think my Dad and Grandpa also have these qualities.

I then guided Jaakko to change roles with both his father and his grandfather, and I interviewed him for a moment as his father and grandfather. Freedom and Independence got their voices heard in many ways through three generations: in the war story of the grandfather, the work story of the father, and in Jaakko’s own experiences.

- What do you think your father and grandfather think about how you’ve defended freedom and independence against the tricks of Feeling Bad? What do you think your actions mean to them?
- I think they would be proud and happy about these things.
-What do you think they’ve seen you do when you were younger that told them that one day, you would defend your freedom and independence so bravely ?

Jaakko told me a story of going fishing with his father when he was five years old. After catching a whopper of a perch, he had been determined to pull the fish out of the water all by himself and had refused his father’s help. He could still remember the look of amazement on his father’s face and the powerful feeling of taming the fish. When we departed, we decided we would meet again at school in two days, and that his father would come too.

Jaakko and his father came to see me at school, like we had planned. This time we talked a lot about the values, hopes, and dreams of Jaakko’s family, particularly those of the male family members. Jaakko’s father was proud of his son for being a link in the long chain that had defended Freedom and Independence in many different ways. After this meeting, Jaakko came to school regularly. We decided to send a letter to his grandfather and tell him what the boy had done; how he had kept the tradition of his family alive.

During the third meeting, where his father and mother were present, Jaakko told everyone he was feeling well and had been going to school for over a week.

- What does this development reveal about you, the heritage of your family, and the lifestyle you have been defending lately? What does this reveal about what you want from life? If the things you value now would support you in the future, how could you tell?

As a sign of his independence, Jaakko told me he no longer needs these sessions. When asked how he would like to name the story, where the family’s tradition had shown itself in his life, he replied, “This has been a life-defending story.” His father promised to call me in two weeks and tell me how things were going. When the family left my office, I sat quietly for a long time. Gratitude, joy, and the feeling of amazement at what it is to be a Finnish man stayed in my body for a long time.

Outsider Witness Groups

When we hear other people tell us how our stories touched them, why they paid attention to certain things, how our stories connect with their own lives, and where it will ”transport” them, we often feel that we are closely connected to this person and our isolation is diminished. What we are is shared in the situation and we can feel a strong sense of connectedness. Because this experience has the power of making us more whole, in the narrative practice we consciously create processes, when people are allowed to hear how their stories have touched other people. This enables us to support redefinings of identities in a significant way.

When we are able to use an outsider witness group (colleagues, school mates, people with the same experiences, etc.), we can ask the members, for instance, the following questions:

• What things in what you just heard touched or moved you the most?
• What is it about your own life or experience that meant that you were touched in this
• Where has what you heard moved you in your thinking or experience of life?
• How is this new place different for you compared to where you were before?

When a group like this cannot be used, the story can be retold in other ways. By talking with just one family member at a time, the others can act as reflectors in turn. A virtual group is also an option. When we ask the person interviewed, who he/she would have liked to be there to hear what he/she has told us. After that, we can ask the person how he/she imagines these people would have resonated with what they heard. We can also ask people to be their own outsider witness group. “If you had been sitting in the corner, listening to what we’ve been talking about, what things so far would have touched you the most?” After this, we can interview him/her in the same way that we would interview a group. (Combs & Freedman, 2004)

Circulating the New Story

When a new, more benefitial story is created in therapy, the power of the dominant story is diminished. A way of continuing the building of benefitial meanings and enriching the alternative story is to recycle it in the person’s social network. We can invite friends, grandparents, social workers, supervisors, or teachers into the therapy session. They can function as an outsider witness group, or they can be interviewed in a more direct way as a part of therapy.

Writing therapeutic letters and different kinds of documents is a great way of making the alternative story thicker. They give children and young people more information on their skills, resources and the meanings of the unique outcomes. They can also serve as homework, encouraging them to do more things that work and are benefitial for their lives.

Here are some examples of therapeutic letters and documents.

Example 1:

Tytti, 13, came to my office together with her mother. She had problems concentrating at school and Anxiety and a Slight Eating Problem had appeared in her life some months before. At the end of our first meeting, I asked Tytti for permission to send her a letter as a conclusion of our conversation. She took it with her to the next meeting and it served as a basis for our new conversation.

Dear Tytti,

I’m writing you this letter, because I promised to, and because our meeting last Friday made an impression on me in many ways.

I rarely meet people at your age with such an open and functional relationship with their mothers like you seem to have. What do you think? How hopeful is your mother right now that you will find your way out of all the problems you’re experiencing? How about your father?

After you left, I was left thinking about how miserable the effects of Anxiety in your life must feel and how much power it has taken from you so far.

It was also great to hear about the three most important things in your life: health, your desire to find a career where people respect you as a person, and your decision to travel to Australia and do something different and independent. I wonder what ways of living do these wishes, values and dreams express? You said that Anxiety is the opposite of all these things and that despite everything, you have been eating because of the future and the people you love. What do you think this says about you as a person and the things that you, despite your problems, consider important and are willing to defend? I wonder if you remember what your life was like before the anxiety. What aspects of that life has Anxiety managed to belittle the most? Are there sides of you that you used to enjoy but that lately have been overlooked? What are they like?

You told me that the picture or story that our society presents of a ”normative” female body irritates you, because you would like to achieve it to feel accepted and control your body independently. On the other hand, you also feel how difficult that would be in your situation, because you would also like to eat because of the things that matter to you. You are truly in the middle of a great internal conflict and it is possible that this is exactly what your Anxiety feeds on.

Or what do you think?

I was also left wondering why problems with eating are more common among women than men in our society. Who is the authority that defines what a female body must be like? How does this defining happen? What is the most effective way in which Eating Problems often manipulate the most capable women of their generation? I was also wondering if you ever live outside of your conflict these days. What is your life like then? What is the colour of your freedom? You may answer these questions or leave them unanswered. I believe that you know inside how you want to deal with this. You may also choose to show this letter to your mother, or not show it to her.

I’m looking forward to our next meeting.

Kind regards,
Tapio Malinen

Example 2:

Jussi, who was on 2nd grade in elementary school, came to my office at school together with her mother. His teacher had also recommended it, because sometimes Jussi would be restless in class and find it unable to concentrate on work. Jussi’s mother wanted to have him tested, “so that we know it’s not something neurological.” After our third session, I sent the following letter to the support group chosen by Jussi. Nasse is Jussi’s teddy bear.

To Jussi, Mom, Dad, and the friends of Valtteri (including Nasse).

My name is Tapio Malinen and I work as a school psychologist in the school of Huhtinen. I have met Jussi and worked with him, because his mother Helena contacted me.

As you may well know, the lives of Jussi and the people around him have for some time been complicated by Wildness. It has brought a kind of “stream” with it, to the extent that during the hours of 6:00 am and 8:30 pm when it usually operates, it has succeeded in disturbing the lives of Jussi and his loved ones in many ways. It has made Jussi cranky, caused fights between his parents and him and his brothers and tested Grandma’s patience. According to Jussi, it has also made it a bit difficult for him to do homework at school.

Because Jussi is a smart, resourceful and normally developed boy (which is also proven by the psychologist’s test), he feels it would be better if he, and not Wildness, had control over his life. Jussi has already noticed that Wildness does not like it if you walk calmly or ask your friends out for adventures.

Dad has noticed that Wildness does not like working in the garage, where Jussi gets to do his own stuff. Mom, on the other hand, has realized that traveling and doing fun things together have been good ways of taming Wildness. Lately – when there has been more time for the family and Jussi – Wildness has indeed diminished and become transparent.

Since Jussi is good at drawing, he has decided to make a cartoon about his life while Wildness reigned and about what happened when he decided to reclaim his life.

Jussi, Mom, Dad, Tuomas, Grandma, Teacher, and Nasse are allowed to read this letter.

Tapio Malinen
Jussi’s friend in the project of dispelling Wildness
(Project = a mission where one performs heroic deeds)

Example 3:

After a class project that had taken a couple of years, we sent the following letter to the parents.

To the parents of the children in class 6 D

During the last few years, the unity and spirit of 6 D has been threatened and worsened by bullying and being bullied. This threat and danger has tried especially the boys in the class, and it has caused a lot of grief and problems with being together.

However, this fall, the pupils have had enough. Judging by the conversations we have had, the hold that Threat has had on us is clearly letting go and the power of the pupils is growing.

We are inclined to believe that the skill that especially the boys have gained in controlling themselves in irritating and provoking situations is a step in that process of ”growing up” that precedes moving up to junior high.

It might be that the girls in class have their own role in this improvement, a role that only they are aware of.
We also feel that there was something about the parents’ instant interference and their parenting skills that has born fruit in the increased self-control of the pupils.

Porvoo, November 5th 1998


Juha Myllyneva
Class Teacher
Maija Halonen
School Cousellor
Tapio Malinen
School Psychologist


Several of the practices used in the narrative therapy have originally been developed while working with children (White, 2000). That might well be the reason that they emphasize local knowledge, everyday creativity and the significance of one’s community. What is also typical of them is a world-view which cooperation, social justice and trust on people’s own expertise have a central position. This type of world view often leads to improvisation, creativity and the constant critical reflection of one’s own work.

While defending this world view and exploring my practices when working with children and teenagers, I try to keep in mind the following questions created by Combs and Freedman (Combs & Feedman, 2004):

Are the stories told in therapy told by the children and young people in their own words, or are they stories that the therapist wants to hear in his or her own professional language? When expanding the consciousness of children on their dominating problem stories, am I acting in a dominating way? Am I evaluating people or am I helping them evaluate how I work as a therapist, how the therapy itself works, and how different methods are working? Does my work as a therapist isolate or connect people? Am I aware of, and do I express, my values, beliefs, and my view of humanity, so that people can evaluate their effects on the therapy? Do my questions support dominating social practices or do they create alternatives? Which is more important, what my colleagues think of me or how children and teenagers experience me?


1. One must remember that a description of therapeutic work is never synonymous with the therapy itself. Each case history describes only a fraction of the complex, contradictory and intimate whole of human interaction. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to seek exclusively rationally for the kind of understanding that would explain why things happened the way they happened. In a living therapeutic process, meanings and understanding have been negotiated in dialogues between people and intuitiveness has also been guiding the action.

2. The notion of the club of one’s life comes from anthropologist Barbara Meyerhoff. She thinks our identities are shaped in the club of our lives. The members of this club are people that mean a lot to us, for example our parents, our relatives, our teachers, our friends, etc. The other members of the club have been and are still very essential for our identities, while others have had a less significant impact. In the narrative therapy, the club of life gets its therapeutic application in the the practice of the so-called re-membering.


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