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Narrative Therapy and 16-25 Year Olds: Exploring What Matters

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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One of the fundamental principles of a narrative approach is to recognize that each person is an expert in their own lives and someone who is capable of change.



The posting below looks at a therapy approach that the authors says is particularly effective with young adults.  It is from Chapter 11: Narrative therapy and 16-25 year olds: Exploring what matters, by Charmian Hobbs in the book Applied Educational Psychology with 16-25 Year Olds: New frameworks and perspectives for working with young people, edited by Brian Apter, Christopher Arnold and Julia Hardy. First published in 2018 by the UCL Institute of Education Press, University College London, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL © 2018 Brian Apter, Christopher Arnold and Julia Hardy. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Narrative Therapy and 16-25 Year Olds: Exploring What Matters


This chapter shares ideas about using a narrative therapy approach when working with young adults. I start by considering therapeutic practice within educational psychologist (EP) work and where narrative therapy might sit. I go on to give an overview of narrative therapy for readers who are less familiar with this way of working. I consider this approach as my preferred way of working with young adults. 

Therapeutic practice in EP work

Therapeutic practice is part and parcel of the everyday work of EPs. Many people, children and adults come to us frustrated distressed, tired, angry, harassed and much more, and through careful listening we offer them a space to talk and be heard. This conversation can be recuperative for them. For some people, a more formalized approach, including one that is manualized, might be offered by some EPs. This might be described as delivering an evidence-based psychological therapy, usually provided over a number of sessions with an evaluation of the outcome. Alongside these approaches are others that are drawing on practice-based evidence. In this latter case ‘what matters in an individual case is whether change takes place or not as a result of an intervention’ (Dunsmuir and Hardy, 2016: 14). So where does narrative therapy fit in? Certainly, close to practice-based evidence, but my response is that for me narrative therapy is a way of thinking and working and would be present in all areas of my practice. 

What is narrative therapy?

Narrative therapy was developed by White and Epston (1990) and is now widely practiced internationally (for example see the Dulwich Centre, One of the fundamental principles of a narrative approach is to recognize that each person is an expert in their own lives and someone who is capable of change. In narrative therapy both problems and actions are spoken of as if outside the person and their dentity. This is known as externalizing. Externalizing conversations are ways of talking that separate the person from the problem so challenging the assumption that this is part of their identity. They lead to rich descriptions of the effects of the concern and the discovery of skills and resources that can be employed in response. These conversations require a shift in the use of language to allow for reconsideration of everyday assumptions and expectations. Using language with an ‘externalizing grammar’ introduces a different perspective to the problem (see Freeman et al., 1997: 57 for full description of externalizing grammar). Externalizing creates a space between a person and a concern; it introduces a sense of agency. A person is no longer defined by a particular description, for example autism, but can begin to ask about the presence of autism in their life: 

What is autism like in your life? Can you describe it? What do you call it? Is it the same with your family and your friends? Is it around all the time? How does it make you feel? How does autism fit in with how you like to spend your time? How does autism fit in with the plans you have for your future?

The narrative approach states that over time, stories shape lives and give meaning to everyday experience. People are selective about what meanings they give or what meanings are given to their own experiences and this comes to frame and reframe their understandings of themselves and how they present to others. This process of selection highlights some stories and obscures others. In narrative practice this is described as thin and thick stories where a thin story is one in which there is factual information, but limited recognition of lived experience and a thick story is one rich in personal detail and context (Morgan, 2000; White, 2007). In conversation we frequently assume an understanding. We have ideas about anger, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and so on. A narrative therapy conversation steps aside from these ideas to genuinely find out about the world of the young person. Curiosity is the key to narrative therapy. ‘Questions are asked from a position of genuine desire to learn about the meanings of the child’s world’ (Winslade and Monk, 2007: 37). In this way conversations that can give details of events people have often repeated many times move to talking about the meaning of these events, what intentions and purposes are shaping these events and what conclusions have been drawn from these understandings. 

Through a narrative conversation people’s preferred stories can be developed and sustained. This is a collaborative process providing both a space in which any stories of difficulty can be heard and an entry point to previously unspoken and unproblematic stories more in keeping with their preferred identity. Narrative therapy is then interested in seeking out the alternative stories that highlight possibilities for change (Freedman and Combs, 1996) and for sustaining hope. Alternative stories can be surprising to both the person and the therapist. Knowledge that was previously unspoken or even unknown can be expressed and explored. Importantly the history of this new understanding is discovered through talking about other times when similar actions have happened. In narrative therapy, stories are ‘events, linked in sequence across time according to a plot’ (Morgan, 2000: 5). When preferred stories are revealed,  similar events can be linked together  and we can make sense of them through the meaning we give to our experience. So through a narrative conversation we might ask you about the work you undertake with children who have some difficulties. You say that it is important to you that all children are seen as equal, and no one should be disadvantaged because of a particular concern. We then ask about where this sense of equality comes from? How come you hold on to this value? You might recall that as a student you spent time with a family who lived with almost nothing,  and you found that very difficult to deal with. To you, it was unfair, unfair that simply because of birth they had so little and others had so much. You decided that this was something you were committed to try and change. Was there anyone who might know this about you? Who would not be surprised about this commitment? You respond by saying your father might know as he had cared for others through very difficult circumstances, and you had tried hard to understand this. Thinking about this you reflect that some ideas of equity and fairness have come from your father’s actions. So gradually through this conversation together we explore the history of commitment to care and equality. 

Why use this approach with young adults?

Working with young adults I hope to support them towards living a more independent life or a life in which they can exercise as much choice as possible. Narrative therapy provides a way of working that is focused on their agency and recognizes the impact of the broader context on young adults who may have experienced difficulties for many years. 

Narrative therapy is informed by social constructionism. Adopting this worldview offers useful ideas about power and knowledge. Much of what we have come to take for granted as ‘truths’ are worthy of reconsideration, of deconstruction. Why do we hold this view? How does this affect the way we work with young adults? To take a relevant example from the history of learning disability, we can perhaps recall that the 1944 Education Act described those with learning disabilities as ‘ineducable’ and it was not until the 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act that made education universal that those with learning disabilities began to receive an education. It is probably unnecessary to say any more about the impact of such views on those young people seen to have learning disabilities, but we could examine current labels and the impact they have on sustaining separateness, othering and oppression. Foucault discusses how language is an instrument of power and those with power come to direct the discourses that shape society (see e.g. Foucault, 1965). Bruner (1986) writes: 

The ability to tell one’s story has a political component: indeed, one measure of the dominance of a narrative is the place allocated to it in the discourse. Alternative, competing stories are generally not allocated space in establishment channels and must seek expression in underground media and dissident groupings. (p. 19)

So, the young people with whom we work are often viewed through the lens of need and difficulty and their stories are often told through and by others. Narrative therapy brings to the fore the possibility of considering the social and cultural impact of the way in which many young adults with difficulties are viewed both in a general and in a particular sense. By separating the young person from their described difficulty, it enables the young adult to consider their relationship with the difficulty, its presence in their life and how this does or does not fit with what is important to them. A narrative therapy conversation through its genuine curiosity can provide a challenge to marginalization and provide a foundation for personal action and agency. 

For the full chapter that goes on to includes a detailed description of a framework for how narrative therapy practice might look for this group of people please send me a request at:



Andersen, T. (1993) ‘See and hear, and be seen and heard’. In Friedman, S. (ed.) The New Language of Change: Constructive collaboration in psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press, 303-22.

Anderson, H. and Levin, S. (1997) “collaboration conversations with children: country cloths and city cloths”. In Smith, C. and Nyland, D. (eds) Narative Therapies with Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford.

Bruner, E.M. (1986) ‘Experience and its expressions’. In Turner, V.W. and Bruner, E.M. (eds) The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 3-30.

Dunsmuir, S. and Hardy, J. (2016) Delivering Psychological Therapies in Schools and Communities.Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Foucault, M. (1965) Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity in the age of reason. Trans. Howard, R. New York: Pantheon Books.

Freeman, J., Epston, D. and Lobovits, D. (1997) Playful Approaches to Serious Problems: Narrative therapy with children and their families. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Morgan, A. (2000) What is Narrative Therapy? An easy-to-read introduction. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

White, M. and Epston, D. (1990) Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Winslade, J.M. and Monk, G.D. (2007) Narrative Counseling in Schools: Powerful and brief. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press