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TitleNarrative Therapy Quotes
Tags Psychology & Cognitive Science Narrative Family Therapy
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Page 4

Standing as an alternative to the diagnosis and treatment of pathology, the focus
in an externalizing conversation is on expanding choice and possibility in the
relationship between persons and problems. Roth and Epston (1996, p. 5) write:

In contrast to the common cultural and professional practice of identifying the
person as the problem or the problem as within the person, this work depicts the
problem as external to the person. It does so not in the conviction that the
problem is objectively separate, but as a linguistic counter-practice that makes
more freeing constructions available.

When they enter therapy overwhelmed by a problem, members of the family may expect
that the clinician will discover further underlying conflicts in their minds or
relationships. Therapists take an active role in shaping the attributions that are
used to describe young persons and families and to explain their problematic
situations, and when a therapist listens to, accepts, and then furthers the
investigation of a pathological description of a child, the child's identity may

When a problem is externalized, the attitude of young people in therapy usually
shifts. When they realize that the problem, instead of them, is going to be put on
the spot or under scrutiny they enthusiastically join in the conversation. Relief
shows on their faces. Their eyes light up, as if to say, "Yeah, that's it, that's
how I look at it. It's not my fault." They are then in a position to acknowledge
that the "problem" happens to be making them and others miserable and to discuss
matters with, at times, remarkable candor.

Although in one sense it is a serious pursuit, we find this practice to be
inherently playful and appealing to children. Maria sent Jenny a valentine card
one year, with the caption "Poo Poo to Fear and Temper" and little drawings of
each on the front. On the back was written "I like talking with you and I like
calling fear and temper names. From Maria." Jenna, a nine-year-old once wrote in
relation to a mask she had made of "The Trickster Fear": 'You're no longer nothing
. . . being nothing made it hard to know you. Once you're named, you can be known
and conquered!"


Aside from their understandable opposition to being blamed or shamed, perhaps
children are showing common sense in resisting being defined by descriptions that
imply that their identities are limited or fixed. Even adults do not find rigid
negative descriptions of themselves particularly motivating toward change. Why
shouldn't children resist a fixed adult-imposed definition or a normative
characterization? After all, identity remains exploratory and relatively fluid
well into adolescence.

Viewing the child as facing rather than being a problem is a helpful start to
preserving the fluidity of identity formation. Externalization seems a natural fit
for many children. It is compatible with the way they typically approach
difficulties in the dynamic learning environment of play. In play, along with
hats, costumes, and accents, multiple perspectives and roles are tried on during
"dressup" and other games. This fluidity allows the child to explore variations of
attitude, identity and behavior--to try out the emotional flavor of the moment or
day. In fact, when a child's play is repetitive, ritualistic, or confined in its
range of roles and behaviors, we may wonder about abuse or other severe
interruptions to developing identity.

For the child, externalization is like playing a game of "pretend." Implicitly, or

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