Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Reclaiming Imagination from Fear

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Reclaiming Imagination from Fear

Article excerpt

When fear gets a grip on a child's life, it's no fun at all. It can make sleep difficult and the parent's bed very crowded. It can make waking up slow and the mornings grumpy. Fear doesn't like kids having a go at the things they enjoy. Sometimes it keeps them home when they'd rather be at school, at parties or sleepovers. It can also make friendship difficult. Fear can talk parents into thinking the worst about themselves and can make frustration a daily experience. It uses lots of energy and takes children and their carers away from the things in life they usually enjoy.

There is a long tradition of playfulness in narrative therapy (Freeman, Epston & Lobowitz, 1997; White & Morgan, 2006; Castelino & Wilson, 1999; Carey, 2002; Hutton & Knapp, 2005). This article explores playful, imaginative and skillful ways to join with children and their carers to conspire against fear.


Fear in the lives of children often exists in the context of significant trauma, abuse or exploitation. It is therefore important that this possibility is always considered by the therapist. This paper addresses fear that appears to exist outside of the context of abuse, or once safety has been re-established. Fear in the lives of children can also reflect the dominant stories of our culture at any particular time. For instance, in the area where I practice, a much publicised disappearance of a fourteen-year-old boy waiting for a bus has played a significant role in the development of fear stories in many children I meet with. Childhood fear may also be understood in relation to wider societal anxieties including the 'profound insecurity that children may experience in relation to the threat of nuclear war and ecological catastrophe' (White, 1989, p.107). Making visible the contextual background to childhood fears is therefore significant. Externalising practices provide a framework for doing so. They can also spark imaginative processes.

All too often, problems capture children's imagination and use it against them. This is particularly true in relation to fears. The narrative therapy practice of externalising problems seeks to enable children to reclaim their imagination: 'When a child's imagination works against her by creating or perpetuating a problem, she can strive to reclaim it for her own preferred uses' (Freeman, Epston & Lobowitz, 1997, p. xvii).

In the following three stories, Tilly, Dean and MacKenzie demonstrate how they reclaimed their imagination from fear.


Tilly is ten years old and was referred to see me by the family's doctor because of fears she had for her mother's safety, and also night terrors she was experiencing. Tilly enjoys her friendships, loves dancing and is a keen and skillful netballer. She has a beautiful smile at the ready and a love of fun. She lives with her Mum and Dad and her two older siblings, a brother and a sister. Fear moved in when Tilly was seven. This was around the same time the family moved house, and Great Grandma and an Uncle both died. Fear got Tilly wanting to sleep in Mum and Dad's bed and not wanting to sleep over at friends' houses any more. More recently, some new fears had started pushing Tilly around, fears that had Tilly convinced that her Mum would hurt herself or die. These fears arrived around the time that Mum had a knee operation. Together, we began to conduct co-research (Epston, 1999) to discover as much as we could about these fears: when they started, how they operated, what they had Tilly convinced of, and their effects.

In our initial conversation, Tilly told me about how the night fears were mostly about someone being in the house. They made her feel unsafe in her own bed, or on her own, and they wake her up in the middle of the night. These fears had her sleeping in Mum and Dad's bed every night for the past few years. The fears were stopping Tilly from enjoying sleepovers and made it tricky when friends slept over at her house because she felt badly when they slept in her room and she slept with Mum. …

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