Our initial encounters as humans can be awkward. Whether it is with other parents at a child’s soccer game or arriving early at a party, we all know the feeling. We often start with superficial questions, but if we stay there, conversations quickly become stagnant and uncomfortable.
However, when we invite storytelling, a whole new dimension opens up. Through storytelling, we delve into personal narratives, exploring the journeys and experiences that shape the individual. Within our vast reservoir of memories, we curate and shape our self-narratives, emphasising particular stories of our lives that contribute to our sense of identity. Without even realising, we gravitate towards specific memories and construct a ‘narrative identity’ of ourselves.
Dan McAdams (2011) writes the following;
“Narrative identity is the internalized and evolving story of the self that a person constructs to make sense and meaning out of his or her life. The story is a selective reconstruction of the autobiographical past and a narrative anticipation of the imagined future that serves to explain, for the self and others, how the person came to be and where his or her life may be going.”
When it comes to children with an Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis, it is crucial to consider who holds the authorship of their story. Unfortunately, it is often not the child themselves who takes on this role, but rather a range of well-intentioned adults. Upon receiving a diagnosis, it can be as though the child is handed a predetermined script, dictating the character they are expected to perform. Societal expectations and prevailing attitudes about what a child with ADHD should be like is passed down to them. For example, the classroom teacher may unintentionally be constructing a narrative that reminds the child that they are a disruption. Or it may be that the child begins to learn the script that they bring embarrassment to the family when they go to social events.
In counselling, social workers tend to use a Narrative Therapy approach when supporting children with ADHD. By harnessing the power of storytelling, this therapeutic framework empowers children to reframe their experiences, build resilience, and forge a positive sense of self. Utilising the following techniques and working closely with parents, we are able to support the child to take back the authorship of their diagnosis.
Becoming Their Own storyteller:
When working with children who have an ADHD diagnosis, we approach the therapy with curiosity and collaboration, fostering a safe space for the child to share their stories. We are able to facilitate the expression of the child’s voice through various mediums, including verbal communication, drawing, acting, and even sculpting with play-dough. By giving voice to the child’s story we are able to increase their self-awareness, provide context to their actions as well as locate their community.
The process of externalising ADHD is a fundamental concept in Narrative Therapy that aims to shift the perspective on ADHD by separating the child from the diagnosis itself. Rather than seeing ADHD as an inherent flaw or problem within the child, this therapeutic approach encourages the child to view ADHD as an external entity. By personifying ADHD, children can distance themselves from the challenges linked with the diagnosis. In shifting the child’s language and perception of their ADHD, they can form a sense of agency over their lives where they are no longer passive recipients of the condition but rather active participants in managing the difficulties they encounter.
By using Narrative Therapy, social workers are able to take a proactive approach by encouraging children to explore and notice their own unique qualities. By listening to the child’s story, we are able to bring their attention to moments and experiences where they demonstrated positive qualities such as resilience, creativity and empathy. So often children with an ADHD diagnosis are reminded of their flaws and shortcomings. However, by supporting children to take notice of their strengths, we are helping them foster a sense of self-worth and confidence which can lead to increased resilience and optimism.
Cultivating Preferred Identities:
In our counselling sessions we invite children with ADHD to imagine the kind of person they want to become and the positive qualities they wish to cultivate. This exploration allows the child to move beyond the negative labels often assigned to ADHD and embrace their own narrative. This helps the child to align their behaviours with their preferred identity, allowing for a greater sense of congruence and authenticity in their life. This therapeutic process allows the child to imagine a positive trajectory for their life and then to set goals to align their actions with this preferred identity. As the child begins acting in accordance with this new preferred identity, they are able to establish a new narrative for their life.
Social workers are able to offer Narrative Therapy which can be a powerful framework when working with children with an ADHD diagnosis. Simply, we work towards empowering children with ADHD to rewrite their story and to reclaim authorship of their lives. By engaging in this process, children with ADHD can experience an increase in self-worth and resilience, while simultaneously reducing the burden of shame that is often associated with their diagnosis (Rasmussen et al. 2022).
McAdams, D. P. (2011). Narrative identity. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 99–115). Springer Science + Business Media.
Rasmussen, I. L., Ørjasæter, K. B., Schei, J., & Young, S. (2022). Rise and shine: exploring self-esteem narratives of adolescents living with a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 27(1), 569-581.