Articles by Peggy

Overcoming Tough Problems with Kids:
A Narrative Therapist's Approach (cont)

"What can you say when Sneaky Poopy wants to go into your underpants instead of the potty?"

"Don’t go in my underpants, Sneaky Poopy. You go in the potty!"

"That’s a good idea! You aren’t going to let it sneak, are you?!"


It’s been 3 1/2 months and there has been no such problem since.

The short conversation illustrated above embraces the tenets of a Narrative Approach to Therapy. The Narrative Approach is one in which problems (in this case, soiling underpants and constipation) are externalized in conversation to make them less troubling for a person to deal with and talk about. To externalize a problem is to talk about it in the third person, thereby providing distance between the person and the problem. Very often, children and families are experiencing so much pain and frustration from a problem, that they internalize it (i.e. "Joey is the problem"). Dealing with the internalized problem can seem daunting, useless, and shameful. An externalized problem is much easier to talk about and understand, creating opportunities for learning and change (i.e. "Joey is dealing with the tantrums.")

In this case, the externalized problem took on a name, "Sneaky Poopy," which was age-appropriate for my 3-year-old, and helped her feel playfully involved in the solution-making process. Once her identity was removed from the problem through externalization, she was able to change her relationship with it (by outsneaking Sneaky Poopy) and feel a sense of power over it. She was able to find a solution, implement it, and find success. If she had soiled her pants again, instead of feeling shame and guilt, we could have talked together and said something like, "Boy – that Sneaky Poopy was really sneaky that time. It must not like it very much that you’ve been doing such a great job at making sure it goes into the potty." Again, the externalizing conversation allows her to maintain her dignity, feel understood, find solutions to the problem, and continue developing her sense of control in the situation. As these conversations continue, reiterating her role as the one who can outsneak Sneaky Poopy, an alternative story begins to develop in which she is the one able to handle herself in what could have been considered a very stressful and demoralizing situation. In fact, this new story can later be generalized to deal with other circumstances down the road.

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