What is Therapeutic Life Story Work?

For children who have been removed from the care of their family and suffered many placement breakdowns, their life history can be extremely fragmented, leaving the child feeling lost and with no sense of belonging. This can impact hugely on their well-being and make the child very vulnerable in their present and future.

Therapeutic Life Story Work(often referred to as TLSW) offers children and young people the opportunity to explore, question and understand past events of their life. Within this, it gives them a voice and safe space to feel and express their emotions when making sense of past experiences and the relation it has to their current thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Different to traditional Life Story Work or Life History Work, TLSW is a defined approach pioneered by Richard Rose (2012) that directly involves the child’s primary carer from the beginning of the process to the end.  Working together with the TLSW practitioner, this intervention is designed to strengthen the relationship between the child and their parent/carer through exploring together the child’s history.

If the child is not helped to understand and make sense of the trauma that they have experienced, then it is well known that they carry it around within them, unresolved, forever. This pre-occupation with things that they cannot get rid of, often makes it difficult for a traumatised child to function ordinarily.

Backed by independent research

In 2022, the Therapeutic Life Story Work – Barwon Pilot Evaluation Report 2022 was published. This world-first evidence-based evaluation of Therapeutic Life StoryWork by MacKillop Family Services and Deakin University has described the program as “transformational” in helping children and young people in care to heal from their trauma.

Who Might Therapeutic Life Story Work Help?

A child who is struggling with their identity and making sense of who they are, and what has happened to them in the past. TLSW is most effectively used with children and young people aged between 4 and 17 years
A child who has experienced early life abuse and/or trauma
Foster or adoption placements that are struggling and at risk of breaking down
Children in care or who have been adopted who are asking questions about their past

Why is Therapeutic Life Story Work so important?

Therapeutic Life Story Work enables children who have experienced the trauma of child abuse and neglect and who are struggling with the pain of their past to reflect, develop compassion for themselves and move on. It is a defined approach, designed to introduce the past as markers for the present.

Once these are understood, the child is supported in considering how to move on to make significant changes, as a result of a far deeper understanding and awareness of how their history has been negatively impacting on their present.
In essence, TLSW is not just about the who, what, where, when, why and how, but how a painful past, if not reflected on and worked through, can go on to blight the present and future.

Instead, if we can help the child to think about their history of trauma and loss, to understand its origins and effects, we can identify and understand the ‘ghosts of the past’ so children are no longer haunted by them.

How does Therapeutic Life Story work actually work?

When children have been removed from their birth family, their life history can be very fragmented, and the child will often have a sense of loss and not belonging. This makes a child very vulnerable for their future.
TLSW gives these children a voice and an opportunity to explore their past, and their feelings about it, and see how these are relevant to their feelings today. It helps them to have their questions about their past answered, and so with a greater understanding of their past, they tend to be calmer and more focused in their behaviour.
The process of TLSW aims for the child to reach an acceptance of who they were, who they are and an understanding that they have the power to shape who they can be.

Some Unique Features of Therapeutic Life Story Work

By involving the primary carer, they can hear first-hand the perceptions and misperceptions of the child, providing a unique opportunity for them to attune to their child, strengthening their attachment. The best person to really help a child learn that the world isn’t always a scary place and that grownups can be trusted is the primary carer!
As the primary carer is utilised with a focus on a strengthening of relationships within the placement, there is less likelihood of a placement breakdown
The child has the space to share what pre-occupies their thoughts, presenting questions which enables them to feel much calmer and focused with their thoughts, behaviour and emotions
The child gains a more in-depth understanding and acceptance of their life history, past experiences, and a more positive and healthy self-identity
It enhances the child and primary carer understanding of one another’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours and therefore strengthening their attachments

What does TLSE involve?

Therapeutic Life Story Work has 3 stages:

The Information Bank – This stage involves the careful and in depth gathering of historical information both pre and post birth for the child. Relevant materials are gathered, both written and physical including social services records, birth certificates, photographs etc. The practitioner will then carefully collate all information gathered from the child’s past, exploring what it is helpful for the child to know, what is safe to share and what the child may want to know. This is then placed together in chronological order to form a detailed and factual narrative for the child.

By the collation of their personal histories, it provides a holistic view of their life; their relationships, the immediate environment in which they lived. This narrative then lends knowledge to the child’s trauma and provides insight into the child’s primary attachment and their Internal Working Model, which is how the child perceives themselves, others and the world around them. For many adopted and looked after children the ‘unknown’ of their life history can be extremely fragmented, confusing and often frightening, by taking the time to understand where the child has come from, we can then begin to plan the therapeutic interventions needed within the Stage two – Internalisation.

Internalisation – This is the stage that covers the therapeutic sessions with the child. Through this therapeutic process and the relationship with their carer, the child is encouraged to externalise their thoughts, feelings and emotions and this is what is explored and recorded on the wallpaper. This is always carried out alongside the primary carer and usually takes 18 sessions.

Often, a child may present a variety of behaviours and without knowledge of the child’s history, it is difficult to see the communication behind them.

By supporting the child’s awareness of this and the influences it has upon their present, there is an opportunity to change, move forward and develop a positive sense of self.

Within this stage the narrative is divided into session plans prior to the work commencing, typically over a 12 – 18 session period. Stage two isn’t just about reading a script to the child, careful planning and preparation is used to provide the child with focused therapeutic inventions to help support the areas highlighted within the Stage One process.

When a Therapeutic Life Story approach is conducted with carefulness, thought and sensitivity, it offers a space to start rebuilding the pieces of their lives that have been discarded, lost or damaged. It offers a therapeutic space to enable children to have a voice within their world and have it respected and valued. The ability for them to do this alongside their carer is crucial in building upon their attachments, allowing them to share their trauma experiences in a safe way with a carer who is able to show acceptance to both the child’s inner world and external reality.

Through this therapeutic process and using the attachment to their carer the child can develop further insight into the child’s responses (developed in order to protect and keep themselves safe). Often this can present in a variety of behaviours and without knowledge of the child’s history it is difficult to see the communication behind them. By supporting the child’s awareness of this and the influences it has upon their present, there is an ability to change, move forward and develop a positive sense of self. The experience of this journey supports the therapeutic understanding and care provided for the child within their current placement.

The Life Story Book– The final stage is the Life Story Book, and is completed towards the conclusion of a child’s journey. It comprises the factual information and the work completed by the child within Stage Two. The child is fully involved in selecting the design, fonts, and illustrations. This then helps the child to take ownership over their work and also aids understanding of their journey and its importance.

Following this, some carers choose to follow on from this life story book and explore the child’s journey within their current placement. ‘’Home’’ memory work enables carers to support their child to reflect, revisit and have current progress acknowledged at a time where it is most valuable and worthwhile.

This stage utilises the relationships each child has with their carers and is a space in which children can have progress, achievements and key events acknowledged and recorded and also enables exploration of difficulties and how they can be supported and moved forward.

The importance of the carer completing this work is valuable in promoting good attachment between child and carer through the acceptance of the highs and lows of a child’s journey.

How long does Therapeutic Life Story take?

Typically, TLSW takes place over a 9 to12 month period. The sessions are approximately one hour long and take place on a fortnightly basis.


The direct work with the child and carer usually takes place at the family home.


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