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Specialists in Safety Planning for Children

The 'Words and Pictures' Storyboard

Child and Family Solutions is a Child Protection Consultancy based in Bristol, UK. We provide consultancy and training in the Resolutions approach to safety planning in child protection cases, particularly where abuse is denied.

Our practice builds upon extensive practical and clinical experience in Child Protection work, informed by a Family and Systemic Psychotherapy perspective.

The 'Words and Pictures' Storyboard is a technique within the Resolutions approach that provides a narrative expressly created to help children and adults make sense of events that are otherwise difficult to talk about. The technique assists parents, carers and professionals to find the 'right' words for children.

The format is of simple, hand-drawn cartoon pictures accompanied by short passages of text. The storyboard is developed by the parents in discussion with the Resolutions worker. Once complete, it is presented to the children with the help of the parents, then to the wider support network.

During a risk reduction assessment, the storyboard provides a useful focus for discussion of the events that gave rise to the current concerns about the child's safety.

Making Sense of Past and Present Events

Having a way of making some sort of sense of past and present events is important in the development of children, also adults. The storyboard attempts to create a context in which meanings attributed to events can be shared and a joint narrative agreed, as an explanation of 'How come things are the way they are?' for the child. The emphasis is upon co-constructing a narrative that uses the family's own words, often juxtaposed with professionals' descriptions and explanations. This shared story then creates a firm context for the future.

Co-creation of the storyboard is a process of negotiation and agreement involving significant people in the child's life. Creating the storyboard helps families talk about and communicate difficult information. It provides a focus for those involved, encouraging them to think about the child's need for a coherent narrative. 'Words and Pictures' also creates a foundation of openness that is essential if a meaningful assessment is to be made.

Through the storyboard, the child can understand something of their birth parents' struggles and difficulties, within a positive frame that engenders hope and focuses upon potential family strengths. A 'Words and Pictures' storyboard can be useful even when the child is still a baby, for it offers an explanation for the future and allows adults to share a common understanding of events with a focus very much upon future safety.

Statutory authorities can endorse the narrative because it captures and reinforces the seriousness of the allegations, and a meaningful safety plan can be generated in response to concerns captured in the storyboard.

As well as its use during a Resolutions risk reduction assessment, we find the approach effective in explaining traumatic death, serious domestic violence, concerns about child abuse, alcohol and substance misuse, serious mental health problems, contact disputes and complex early life experiences in adoption or kinship care.

Needing a Shared Narrative

Children in child protection cases often do not understand with any clarity what is happening to them or their family, or why people are so concerned about them - even if it is the child's own allegation of abuse that has initiated the process.

In families facing allegations of child abuse, children are usually very aware that something major is happening: they can see their parents are distressed, and they may be aware of events such as the police arriving at the home or perhaps a parent having to move out. Children may be faced with adult mental health concerns.

Parents may not say much to their children; they may be worried about what to say, how to say it, also where to begin (and end) the explanation of events. Similarly, it is often difficult for substitute and kinship carers (grandparents, aunts, uncles etc.) to explain to children in their care why they are now living with them and not with their birth parents.

So without an explanation from adults the children often make up their own version of events, becoming muddled, anxious and frightened in the process. There can be as many explanations of the situation the family finds itself in as there are family members. Children express confusion and worries to therapists about who is aware of the concerns, who doesn't know, and how much people know.

Our experience is that children can cope with very difficult circumstances if things are explained to them at an age appropriate level and they know of adults who will listen when they can talk about their past, present and future worries.

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A Process for Adults, as well as Children

Developing and agreeing the storyboard's content collaboratively encourages parents and other members of the family to revisit and perhaps reappraise, painful episodes in their past with a specific purpose in mind: to help their children or grandchildren, nephews and nieces.

By enlisting adults in this way to view events using the lens of the children we find that families can revisit events and difficulties from a fresh perspective, sometimes engendering new ideas or ways of seeing things where previously much had seemed static and immovable. While not the primary aim of the storyboarding process, it can nevertheless be an unexpected gift or possibility. The process has a value in its own right – for example, in working with a parent who has mental health difficulties it can be very empowering for them to realise how many people are willing to help them parent their child more effectively.

Parents or grandparents often struggle to talk about some of the topics explored in the storyboard. Possibly these questions have not occurred to them, but often they have been at a loss as to what to say or how to say it. The process of co-creating an agreed narrative in 'Words and Pictures' sessions is a chance to open up communication within the wider network, offering parents and carers support as they share this information with a wider circle of significant people. Entering the process, parents and carers are understandably cautious in entering what is for them unexplored territory; once engaged, however, many find that they can for the first time discuss subjects previously considered taboo within the family. In families where an adult has a mental health problem, the diagnosis can be viewed differently when seen through the eyes of the child.

Inevitably there are occasions where parents or carers disagree or are unwilling to co-operate directly in the process. For example, a couple who are nowadays not talking to each other must presumably at one time have liked each other enough to have children – a message that may be reassuring for the child, although not perhaps what the parents currently wish to recall. Though undoubtedly difficult, we find it is usually possible to negotiate between them in order to agree a narrative that illustrates positive aspects of their relationship as well as problems. This may be due in part to the focus of the work being perceived as for the child's benefit.

Whether the process of co-creation is straightforward or protracted, a consensus upon the content is reached in the great majority of cases; the final draft is then shared with all concerned so that by the time the story is ready for the children, the adults have often heard it a number of times and added or subtracted ideas, such that they feel confident and relatively at ease with what is being said. Helping everyone to speak what had seemed unspeakable, but using language pitched at a 5-8 year old child's level can be containing for everyone whilst remaining clear and to the point.

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Books, Papers & Articles

Margaret Hiles, Susie Essex, Dr. Amanda Fox & Colin Luger
Words and Pictures

The Words and Pictures Storyboard:
Making Sense for
Children and Families

Paper published June 2008 in
Context, the Magazine of the
Association of Family Therapy

Margaret Hiles & Colin Luger
Working with Denial

The Resolutions approach:
working with denial in
child protection cases

Paper published 2006 in
Journal of Systemic Therapies

Andrew Turnell & Susie Essex
Turnell Essex

Working with Denied Child Abuse:
the resolutions approach

Margaret Hiles
Margaret Hiles

Research paper (2002):

How do parents explain the contribution of the Resolutions programme to their task in the parenting and protection of their children?

Last updated: 26 Feb 2013
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