Anant is an 8 year old boy who was referred to Ummeed because he hadn’t been going to school for the last 3 months. His parents were concerned because they felt he was a bright child, and were confused about how to get him to go to school. Strategies they had used included forcing him to go and explaining to him why he should, but they felt that nothing worked.
I saw Anant for counseling for 4 sessions over a period of 5 weeks, where we worked on externalizing the school-related anxiety, reducing its influence and building an alternative story that fit better with his hopes of being a helpful and responsible boy.
I began my sessions by building rapport and simultaneously asking about the problem story. I used externalizing questions that allowed me to understand the nature of the problem and ways it had been operating in Anant’s life. Some of the questions I asked were:
- What comes in the way of you going to school?
- Does it have a name?
- What does it look like?
- What does it say to you?
- When do you see it coming?
- How long has it been around?
The externalized name that Anant gave to his problem was ‘Danger’. He drew a picture of Danger, which looked like a mean monster with two fangs, sharp fingernails, and four strands of hair standing on the top of his head. He said that Danger usually came at night before bedtime, and whispered in Anant’s ear, “Don’t go to school tomorrow”.
I then asked him some questions to get to know the effects of Danger on his life. Some questions included:
- What happens when he comes?
- What are some things he makes you do?
- What effect does he have on your relationship with your family?
Anant described that when Danger comes, he doesn’t want to go to school, he has frequent fights with his parents because they shout at him and force him to go to school when he doesn’t want to, and he ends up shouting back and hitting his brother.
I then asked him what he thinks about Danger, and whether or not he wants him in his life. He expressed that he wants to keep Danger out of his life because it prevents him from going to school and being a good boy. This was an entry point for me to ask what these meant to him, and why they were important to him. Anant shared that if he doesn’t go to school, he won’t be able to study, which will prevent him from getting a job and eventually taking care of his parents. I used questions to help richly describe his hopes of being a “good boy”. He talked about how he doesn’t like shouting at his mother and wants to be somebody who helps his mother. In thinking about “good boy”, the image of a Helper came to his mind, which he drew for me on a piece of paper – it looked liked a happy man with a lot of hair, holding a circle of stars in his hand. He said that Helper would allow him to put out Danger.
To develop this preferred story, I asked questions such as:
- Have there been examples in the past when this “good boy” has been present and helped your family?
- What skills did you use to do this?
- How did you know how to use these skills?
- How do you want to use these skills in the future?
Our re-authoring conversations brought stories of the steps that Anant has taken to help his family and friends, which we then connected to the themes of what is important to him in his life. We talked about how to bring a stronger presence of Helper in his life and how he can use Helper to put the Danger in a cage. Some strategies that he discussed were chanting, taking deep breaths, and reminding himself of the image of the Helper.
At the end of four sessions, we invited Anant’s mother to come in and hear about the things we had been talking about. Around the time of the third session, Anant started going to school regularly, and is now doing well in his studies.
My work with Anant reinforced the idea that even children have a sense of personal agency, and it is our responsibility as therapists to bring out this personal agency by assuming the role of a guide and not someone who provides solutions. In this context, the concepts of decentered and influential as well as externalizing, two key ideas of narrative therapy, really came to life for me through my work with him. It was empowering to see that change eventually came from within Anant, and I was simply the facilitator of this change.
Mental Health Counselor, Ummeed Child Development Center