What are the Pros and Cons of Engaging Youth in Narrative Writing?

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A young man writing.

Narrative Writing Exercises for Promoting Health Among Adolescents: Promises and Pitfalls” (abstract). Elizabeth Taylor, Ernest Jouriles, Rachel Brown, Katie Goforth, and Victoria Banyard. Psychology of Violence, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2016).

What it’s about: Family and youth workers sometimes use narrative writing—a style of writing in which participants often share personal stories—to help young people process both good and bad experiences. Sharing parts of their lives through storytelling can help youth find meaning and purpose in past events, but it can also force them to relive past violence or other traumatic scenarios. In light of these realities, Taylor et al. reviewed the literature on narrative writing to explore its potential mental health benefits and concerns.

Why read it: Narrative writing can be used with young people who have experienced negative life events such as homelessness and violence, but it is important for service providers to know when and if these methods are appropriate. The authors describe particular scenarios in which programs should use caution employing narrative writing, such as working with youth who have experienced sexual assault or other types of violence. 

Biggest takeaways from the research: Taylor et al. shared the following benefits of narrative writing based on their literature review:

  • Prevention. Narrative writing gives youth a positive way to understand past events and cope with their emotions, skills that can be used to build strength and resilience in the face of possible future violence.
  • Versatility. Young people can derive benefits from narrative writing when processing either positive or negative experiences, provided the exercise does not lead to re-traumatization.
  • Ease of use. Narrative writing exercises can be used in multiple types of programs and be short or long in nature.

Among individuals who have experienced trauma due to violence, narrative writing has been shown, in some cases, to have no positive results, and in others, to be more harmful than helpful. The researchers advise programs to consider the following precautions:

  • Consider the amount of time since the traumatic event: For youth who have recently experienced trauma, writing about the experience may not be effective or healing. Ensure enough time has passed, the authors say, before engaging young people in a related writing exercise.
  • Bring in a therapist: Given the overwhelming emotions of a traumatic experience (or experiences), youth may benefit from meeting with a therapist or counselor throughout the writing process.
  • Adjust the timeframe as needed. Young people exposed to violence may need more time than others to work through narrative writing exercises. Give each youth the time and space they need to complete their stories at their own pace.

Additionally, the researchers recommend that service providers embrace multiple types of creative expression for youth, including poetry, art, and music. Staff members should also remain open to sharing their own stories, they add, in order to build a sense of community and trust.

Additional references: Look for more articles about writing and adolescents or expressive therapies in NCFY’s research library.

Read our NCFY Reports on thinking creatively in family and youth work.

You can also revisit this past article on leading youth writing workshops.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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