Building coherent narratives

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A recent paper by Saltzman et al describes an evidence-based method for intervening with families in the armed services.

The paper describes how families respond to and recover from exposure to extreme events and some specific family processes are identified as promoting resilience.

The authors highlight the role that parents can take in facilitating discussions of stressful experiences. Parents can co-construct coherent and meaningful narratives with their children to help them make sense of the experiences. This helps the children develop greater emotional regulation and coping skills.

Paper summary

A brief summary of the key points in the paper which relate to making meaning through co-constructed narratives:

  • We are meaning-making creatures who strive to organise our experiences in ongoing ways to make sense of the events in our lives (eg, Emde, 2003).

  • The need to actively organise and make sense of life experiences is manifest in even very young children and infants in the form of social referencing (Sorce, Emde, Campos and Klinnert, 1985).

  • Evidence suggests that children rely on important others to make sense of situations and to assist in organising their feelings and reactions in a dialogic process of caregiver-child communication (Howard, 1991).

  • Early preverbal forms of dialogic meaning-making give way to later verbal forms that explicitly draw upon the co-construction of a narrative.

  • Bruner (1986) proposes that it is by constructing a narrative that we make an experience knowable, integrate it into our conscious life, and then access it as a memory.

  • This ongoing process results in the elaboration of internal representations or “working models” (Bowlby, 1988) of self, others, and the world, that enable us to interpret our interactions with others, predict consequences, and respond in adaptive ways (Bowlby, 1982).

  • Children of parents who were more elaborative and evaluative in their discussion produced narratives with greater detail about the stressful event and more indications of resolution in relation to its stressful components (Oppenheim and Salatas-Waters, 1995).

Read the paper's abstract.