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Narrative Family Therapy: Techniques to Heal Relationships

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Narrative family therapy is a therapeutic approach that seeks to help individuals and families understand their lives and relationships by exploring the stories they share.

Developed by Michael White and David Epston in the 1980s, this method focuses on the narratives people create about their experiences and their interactions with others.

Narrative family therapy aims to uncover strengths, resources, and alternative perspectives that can help shape more positive and empowering stories moving forward.

Core Concepts of the Technique

Narrative Therapy

Central to narrative therapy is the belief that people and their problems are separate entities, allowing individuals and families to distance themselves from their challenges. In doing so, they can start constructing new narratives that better align with their values and goals.

Through the process of deconstructing and rewriting their stories, individuals can gain greater control over their lives, ultimately fostering healing and personal growth.

Stories and Narratives

Narrative family therapy is an approach that focuses on the importance of stories in shaping people’s experiences and perceptions of their lives.

Through this lens, individuals and families construct meaning, and the dominant stories that arise can significantly impact their understanding of themselves and their relationships.

In narrative therapy, it is crucial to explore these stories and help individuals see their influence on their lives, empowering them to create new, more helpful narratives.

Externalization and Deconstruction

A vital concept within narrative family therapy is externalization, a process through which problems are separated from clients’ identities, making it easier for them to understand and confront the issue.

This technique encourages a perspective shift, helping clients view their problems as external to themselves and enabling them to deconstruct the dominant narratives’ power.

Deconstruction is a critical element in narrative therapy, as it allows clients and therapists to break down harmful stories into smaller components, examining how they were constructed and their effects on clients’ lives.

This process creates space for alternative narratives and enables people to take steps towards reshaping their lives positively.

Unique Outcomes

One of the primary goals of narrative family therapy is to identify and emphasize unique outcomes – moments or experiences that deviate from dominant problem-saturated stories.

These exceptions can reveal contradictions and potential openings for change in clients’ lives.

By focusing on unique outcomes, therapists can help clients recognize their ability to create alternative narratives that align more closely with their values and aspirations, fostering hope and agency for change.

Stages and Techniques

Narrative Therapy Techniques

Narrative family therapy has been applied to a wide range of issues and populations, including blended families, individuals experiencing mental health challenges, couples in conflict, and more.

The collaborative approach of this therapeutic model engages the whole family, creating a space where everyone’s voice is heard and validated.

As a result, narrative family therapy can bring about transformational change not only in individuals but also in the family system itself, promoting healthier and more resilient relationships for years to come.

Initial Stages

In the initial stages of narrative family therapy, therapists focus on establishing a strong therapeutic alliance with individuals.

Through active listening and empathy, they create a safe space for individuals to share their stories.

The therapist explores the problem-saturated narratives and externalizes the issue by separating it from the individuals or family.

One technique used in this stage is called “re-authoring conversations,” where therapists help clients deconstruct dominant, negative stories and create new, empowering ones.

This is achieved by identifying “unique outcomes” or exceptions to the problem-centered narrative, which lay the foundation for developing alternative, preferred stories.

Middle Stages

During the middle stages, narrative family therapy revolves around rewriting negative narratives and identifying the resources and strengths of the clients.

Therapists employ various techniques to help clients reconceptualize their problems and create new, healthier stories.

Double ListeningThis involves actively listening for the underlying stories of resilience, agency, and courage that are usually overshadowed by the problem-saturated narrative.
Mapping The InfluenceTherapists and clients collaboratively explore the impact of the dominant stories on their lives.

This allows clients to recognize their resistance or efforts against the problem and understand the values they hold dear.
Externalizing ConversationsThe therapists help clients separate themselves from the issue by personifying the problem.

It allows clients to view the problem as something they can address and change rather than a core part of their identity.

Final Stages

In the final stages of narrative family therapy, clients are encouraged to solidify and share their new narrative.

Therapists work with clients to maintain and build upon the gains achieved during the previous stages.

Some key elements in this stage include:

Remembering ConversationsBy reconnecting clients with significant events and relationships from their past, therapists help them foster a new sense of identity and belonging that supports their preferred narratives.
Letter-writingClients are encouraged to write letters reflecting their new narrative, which can be shared with their support network or kept as a reminder of their progress.
Community ReinforcementTherapists encourage clients to share their new stories with loved ones and friends, bringing the community into the therapeutic process.

Throughout the process, therapists use narrative means to therapeutic ends, guiding clients to rewrite their stories in a way that highlights their strengths, values, and resources.

This process allows individuals and families to gain a renewed sense of control, hope, and direction in their lives.

Importance of Narrative Family Therapy

Narrative Family Therapy

Narrative family therapy is an innovative approach to family counseling that focuses on helping families rewrite the stories of their lives and relationships.

Encouraging the clients to externalize the problem aims to separate the issue from the person and their identity.

Blended Families

Research has found narrative family therapy can be particularly helpful for families dealing with conflicts or role strain.

For instance, blended families may face challenges when attempting to combine two separate family systems with their distinct roles, expectations, and histories.

By employing a narrative approach, therapists can aid these families in identifying and understanding the different perspectives and creating a new, unified narrative that integrates their experiences and values.

Possibilities and Roles

The therapist’s role in narrative family therapy involves guiding the family through the process of deconstructing the problematic stories and exploring alternative narratives.

This is typically done by asking open-ended questions, validating the family members’ emotions and experiences, and facilitating conversations wherein new meanings and understandings emerge.

These conversations often lead to a broader range of possibilities and roles for the family members, enabling them to work together in a more harmonious and balanced manner.

Creative Methods

Using creative methods such as art can enhance narrative therapy and encourage the participation of all family members, making it more inclusive and interactive.

Research has shown art can serve as a medium of expression, allowing the family to communicate their emotions and thoughts in a nonverbal way.

This can be particularly helpful when addressing sensitive or difficult topics, as it creates an environment where individuals can share their feelings without fear of judgment or reprisal.

The Therapist’s Role

Narrative Family Therapy

In narrative family therapy, the therapist plays a key role in facilitating the externalization and deconstruction of dominant stories, as well as identifying unique outcomes and potential new narratives.

They actively listen and guide individuals in exploring their experiences while remaining curious, respectful, and collaborative throughout the process.

The therapist should not impose their ideas or prescribe solutions but instead collaborate with clients to construct new narratives that promote growth and healing within the context of the family system.

Therapists can help individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their relationships, and work towards developing new ways of living that better align with their values and aspirations.

Individuals and families can search online directories such as Find-a-Therapist to find a skilled, specialized, and licensed therapist.

5 Benefits of Narrative Family Therapy

Narrative family therapy is a well-recognized therapeutic approach that focuses on helping individuals and families make sense of their experiences by re-storying narratives and finding new meanings in their lives.

This modality offers individuals several benefits, including empowerment, emotional well-being, and fostering self-compassion.

1. Empowering Nature

Narrative Family Therapy

One of the primary advantages of narrative family therapy is its empowering nature.

The approach centers around the idea that individuals are the experts of their own lives and that they possess the ability to rewrite and reframe their personal stories.

By helping clients identify and build upon their strengths, the therapy facilitates a sense of autonomy and control over their lives, promoting a more positive self-image.

2. Positive Emotions

Another significant benefit of narrative family therapy is the promotion of positive emotions.

Through the process of externalizing problems, clients are encouraged to separate themselves from their issues, which allows them to view the challenges in a more detached manner.

This emotional distance can help individuals manage negative emotions more effectively, ultimately resulting in improved emotional well-being.

3. Respect for Values

Narrative family therapy also emphasizes respect for values.

The therapeutic process involves uncovering clients’ deeply held values and beliefs, supporting them in exploring and connecting these values with their actions and experiences.

By recognizing and validating one’s values, clients can gain a stronger sense of identity and self-worth.

4. Self-Compassion

Building on individuals’ strengths, narrative family therapy promotes self-compassion.

By sharing personal stories, individuals learn how to view their past with kindness and understanding. 

This approach helps cultivate an attitude of self-forgiveness and acceptance, leading to a healthier relationship with oneself.

5. Preferred Realities

Narrative Family Therapy

Lastly, narrative family therapy shines a light on individuals’ preferred realities.

This method encourages clients to envision a future in which their goals are achieved and their lives are rooted in positive experiences.

By crafting preferred narratives, individuals can begin to challenge previously held beliefs and work towards a happier, more fulfilling life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key techniques used in narrative family therapy?

Narrative family therapy focuses on separating people from their problems and empowering them to rewrite their stories.

Techniques used in this approach include:

  • Externalizing the problem.
  • Mapping the influence of the problem.
  • Identifying personal resources and alternative stories.

The therapist seeks to deconstruct the old story by asking questions and helping the individual explore alternative narratives that fit better with their values and aspirations.

How does history play a role in narrative therapy?

In narrative therapy, the client’s history and cultural background are important elements to consider.

Understanding how an individual’s experiences and relationships have shaped their beliefs and values provides the context for deconstructing the problem-saturated narrative.

By acknowledging the historical, social, and political factors that influence a person’s story, narrative therapy questions the dominant narratives and promotes alternative perspectives that validate the person’s life experiences.

What are the main objectives of narrative therapy in a family context?

The main objectives of narrative therapy in the family context include:

  • Externalizing and deconstructing problem-saturated narratives that impact family members.
  • Identifying strengths and resources within the family system to help members construct new stories.
  • Encouraging open communication and understanding within the family to facilitate mutual support.

In the process of therapy, family members are encouraged to collaborate and develop alternative narratives that promote healing, growth, and change.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this therapy approach?

Strengths of narrative family therapy include:

  • Empowering individuals and families by separating them from their problems.
  • Focusing on a person’s strengths and resources instead of pathologizing their behavior.
  • Acknowledging the importance of social, cultural, and historical factors that influence a person’s narrative.

However, there are also some weaknesses associated with narrative family therapy:

  • The focus on deconstructing and reconstructing stories may not be suitable for all clients, particularly those who seek more direct interventions or solutions.
  • The approach may be seen as too abstract or complex for some individuals or families to engage with.
  • The success of the therapy largely relies on the client’s willingness to explore and reshape their stories.

Can you provide some exercises or tools used in this therapy?

Some exercises and tools used in narrative family therapy include:

  • Externalizing conversations: Encouraging clients to identify and rename their problem, which helps to separate it from their identity. This process allows them to observe the problem from a distance and explore alternative responses.
  • Letter writing: As a therapeutic tool, clients can write letters addressing their problem, themselves, or a support person. This exercise helps promote self-reflection and solidify new perspectives.
  • Constructing a genogram: A visual representation of the family tree that helps clients identify patterns, beliefs, and stories that have influenced their lives. Using the narrative family therapy model, therapists can help clients explore alternative narratives and identity formation in relation to their family history.


Carlson, T. D. (1997). Using art in narrative therapy: Enhancing therapeutic possibilities. American Journal of Family Therapy25(3), 271-283. Link.

Ong, B., & Buus, N. (2021). What does it mean to work ‘dialogically’in open dialogue and family therapy? A narrative review. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy42(3), 246-260. Link.

Shalay, N., & Brownlee, K. (2007). Narrative family therapy with blended families. Journal of Family Psychotherapy18(2), 17-30. Link.

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About the author

Eliana Galindo
Eliana is a dedicated psychologist from Colombia who has gained extensive experience and made significant contributions in child development, clinical psychology, and rehabilitation psychology.Her work as a rehabilitation psychologist with disabled children has been transformative and compassionate. In the child development field, she creates nurturing environments through assessments, interventions, and collaboration with families.In clinical psychology, she supports individuals overcoming mental health challenges with empathy and evidence-based approaches. Inspired by her experiences, Eliana is motivated to write about mental health, aiming to raise awareness and advocate for a compassionate and inclusive approach to well-being.

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