• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 20th October, 2008

Telling stories about the troubles in young lives

It’s hard to get a four-year-old to talk about anxiety, depression and the like. Few very young children are mature enough or have the vocabulary they need to report on their psychological state with much precision or clarity. A common way to gain insight into a child’s interior world is through storytelling. There are many storytelling methods but all involve an interviewer embarking on a story about a potentially upsetting topic and then asking a child questions about the characters it describes and how they are likely to feel and behave.But then it’s hard to know what to make of children’s responses. A young Stephen King might provide quite disturbing observations and yet, by most other standards, be untroubled. So it’s critical to know how children’s answers relate to their adjustment; the connections may be difficult to unpick, but if the relationship is not understood, then the storytelling approach is pointless.Some methods aim to determine how securely children are “attached” to their caregivers. A study conducted by researchers from King’s College London and University of Manchester in the UK and the US University of Rochester examined whether storytelling that aims to assess children’s level of attachment to their caregivers provides reliable clues as to children’s psychological well-being. A total of 113 children (average age was five), from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but all living in a disadvantaged urban area, took part. Each child was told a mildly disturbing story (for example about a nightmare or being lost in a store). Then he or she was asked what the characters were likely to be thinking and feeling. Researchers viewed videotapes of these episodes and noted the content and quality of the children’s responses. Researchers also collected information from children, parents, and teachers on the children’s behavior, their social standing at school, socioeconomic status, and verbal ability.The research team found that children who seemed “disorganized” in their attachment – that is, they gave disorganized, bizarre, or unusual responses to questions about the story – were the most likely to also have other emotional or behavior problems. Disorganization seemed to be a red flag for any child, regardless of their ethnic or economic background. The researchers conclude by suggesting that future research should look more closely at the responses described as “disorganized” to better understand why they might portend problems. They also suggest further research that examines more children and tracks them over time.[For more on current views on attachment theory, see: Attachment theory – time science got over it?]• Summary of “Attachment Narratives and Behavioral and Emotional Symptoms in an Ethnically Diverse, At-Risk Sample” by Annabel Futh, Thomas G. O'Connor, Carla Matias, Jonathan Green, and Stephen Scott in Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 47, Issue 6, pp 709-718.

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