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Systems, Stories and Trauma

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist, Director Queensland Institute of Family Therapy

When I first started working in a child and youth mental health setting three things happened that had a huge impact on my work and direction in life:

  1.  I was invited to join the Family Therapy team
  2. A mentor introduced me to Michael White’s work
  3. I was allocated a caseload including young people who had been affected by trauma

The young people I worked with who had been affected by trauma generally presented with a number of concerns including trauma symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance), low mood and anxiety, emotional dysregulation, and a very negative sense of self that often resulted in relational conflict, substance use, the use of self-harm to cope, and at times thoughts of suicide.  They attracted the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in the mental health setting I thought about them from the perspective of Complex Trauma. 

In the course of getting to know the young people and being allowed into their world I started to understand that within the mental health setting we could diagnose and work on ‘symptom relief’, we could develop strategies to manage the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, learn coping skills and increase distress tolerance, and we could use psychoeducation to learn about what was happening.  For some this was helpful and empowering…..and for some the legacy of the trauma was persistent and problematic and refused to budge. 

The legacy of the trauma seemed at times more powerful and problematic than the ‘trauma symptoms’ (e.g., flashbacks) for some young people and their families/carers.  The legacy of the trauma invited them into negative conclusions about themselves, their identity and capacities, the nature of relationships, their place in the world and the possibility of hope.  Noticing the importance of the legacy of the trauma I started to investigate why and how it was so powerful, drawing from my growing understanding of Family Therapy and connection to Narrative Practice.

Systems and Stories

I realised a couple of key things:

The stories we pay attention to really matter
Of all the things that happen in life and all the stories, we only seem to pay attention to some
Our relationships and context shape which stories we pay attention to
Context is more than family and community, it is broader considerations like transgenerational history and patterns, culture, era in time, and socioeconomic factors. 
Relationships and families are meaning making systems that shape not just the selection of stories we pay attention to, but the meaning we make in those stories
We make meaning through language, in conversation, in relationships

And this gave me great hope.

“Listen for signs of what the person has continued to give value to in life despite all that they have been through, and for any expressions that might provide some hint of the person’s response to trauma” (White, 2004: 47). 

I realised that if it was through conversation in relationships that people make meanings that are unhelpful and erode and undermine their sense of identity, then it is within conversation and relationship that we as helping professionals have the opportunity to:

  • Deconstruct unhelpful problem saturated stories
  • Support people to realise that they are not the problem - the trauma is - and that they can decrease the problem’s influence
  • Help families unite against ‘the Trauma’, to view the trauma as a shared and conquerable event
  • Build a stronger sense of self – a more solid ‘territory of identity’
  • Pay attention to what people give value to, their goals, hopes, wishes, knowledge and skills, dreams and personal principles
  • Help people see that they are the author of their lives and develop alternative, preferred stories – using conversations to shape a new reality
  • Support people to reengage with life in preferred ways

Thinking about identity as a ‘territory’ that had been eroded by the trauma and paying attention to stories that stand outside problem does not mean that stories of trauma and pain are invalidated or displaced.  It means that we find another place for people to stand to give expression to their experiences of trauma without being defined by these experiences.

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