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Creative life-writing as a pedagogical tool for migrant parents


Children learn about life through stories. Sharing one’s self and family story is particularly important when a parent immigrates to another country and the child loses their close connection to their extended family, community and culture, through which s/he learns about belonging. An immigrant parent is the main storyteller, source of information and also a mediator between the cultures of host and home societies. This paper focuses on the ways in which migrants may reconsider and reimagine their migration and family stories and utilise them as pedagogical tools in communicating an ‘identity narrative’ to their children. I argue that ‘narrative identity’ may be a useful theoretical framework in doing this reimagination and a new interdisciplinary method of intervention can be built upon it to help migrant parents. I call this method ‘creative life-writing as a pedagogical tool for migrant parents’. The main idea is to assist families to support their children in finding their own voices as subjects and confident individuals who have coherent narrative identities.


Remembering the past; Knowing who you are


Human life may be thought of as ‘a process of narrative interpretation’ [1]. Narrative knowing, the use of narratives in making sense of the self, is an inherently creative act and involves a reconstruction of personal experiences through the use of interpretive ‘plots’ that one finds in the repertoire of stories available and learned within one’s culture [2]. Narrative identity is an open-ended, dialogical narrative engagement with the world [3]. It is ‘coherent but fluid and changeable, historically grounded but ‘fictively’ reinterpreted, constructed by an individual but constructed in interaction and dialogue with other people’ [4]. McLean suggests that an identity is not the work of a sole-author, but a ‘collaboration: the co-authored self’ [5]. The narratives of personal experience arise in an ecology where we make use of the stories of our immediate family members and our past generations; all of which are already embedded within the cultural and historical stories of our society [6].


The cognitive and neural processes we make use of to remember the past and imagine or simulate likely future experiences are similar. In other words, how we narrate our identity stories also shapes our future [7].


Therapists state that belonging is a biologically powerful need which has to be established from childhood, and which fosters various neurophysiological behaviours later in life [8]. Adolescents who know and articulate family narratives demonstrate higher levels of identity development and psychosocial wellbeing [9]. A fragmented, damaged, discontinuous personal narrative puts an individual child at risk and makes him/her neuro-developmentally vulnerable to mental (e.g. depression, suicide), physical (e.g. diabetes) and social (e.g. increased substance abuse) problems [10]. Those adolescents who cannot sustain a sense of personal persistence through time, the ones who cannot foresee narrative self-continuity in time have higher risks of suicide [11]. In short, children and adolescents need to know their own familial past and origins, which may be more complicated for migrant children. 


Even if the migration experience embeds trauma, telling the truth to children about their past and present in a coherent and age-appropriate way is important for their general wellbeing. Only then is the child able to understand and accept ongoing events and become more resilient [12].

The ways in which parents tell a story, especially of a potentially traumatic event, and the themes they include in this narrative, have life-changing consequences [13]. Concepts such as redemption and cognitive transformation, which refer to the ability to find positive meaning from negative life experiences, are found to be closely related to psychological wellbeing [14].


Towards a Method: Creative Life-Writing for Migrant Parents

The stories educators tell about their lives are now seen as instrumental to teaching professions. Similarly, psychologists advise parents to use their own life stories as pedagogical tools [15].

The proposed method will involve:


1. Collecting life-story interviews from migrant parents. The analysis of the interviews will identify if and how migrant parents already utilize storytelling to implement a narrative identity; and how the parents evaluate the stories they tell – the level of their awareness of the functionality of storytelling for identity building, belonging and integration. 

2. Holding a creative life-writing workshop with the same migrant parents to train them in techniques of life-writing to construct age-relevant stories for their children in order to help them learn about their backgrounds, families, cultures as well as the cultures of the host society. This way, the children are able to form an integrated narrative of self and a sense of belonging to become confident, resilient citizens who have pride in their own stories of origin. The parents will gain insights and develop awareness of pedagogical and identity building functions of storying events, the self and the family.

Learning these skills will facilitate parent-child discussion of traumatic events or turning points, such as migration, so that the children remember these events ‘accurately’, regulate their affects and can be provided with emotional support in order to find redemptive meanings out of negative experiences. 

The workshops will be held in collaboration with the departments of Psychiatry, Education and Literature (Life-Writing).

The benefits of the workshops should be examined in a longitudinal study with the children of the migrant parents to see if their psychosocial wellbeing improves as a result of this intervention, as compared to a control group. 


Notes and references

[1] Widdershoven, Guy A. M. ‘The Story of Life: Hermeneutic Perspectives on the Relationship between Narrative and Life History’, in Josselson, Ruthellen, and Lieblich, Amia. 1993. Narrative Study of Lives, volume I. London: Sage, 6.

[2] Polkinghorne, Donald E. ‘Narrative knowing and the study of lives’, in Birren, James E.; Kenyon, Gary M.; Ruth, Jan-Erik; Schroots, Johannes J.F.; and Svensson, Torbjorn. 1996. Aging and biography: Explorations in adult development. New York: Springer, 77- 99.

[3] Raggatt, Peter T. F. ‘Multiplicity and Conflict in the Dialogical Self: A Life-Narrative Approach’, in MacAdams, Dan. P.; Josselson, Ruthellen; and Lieblich, Amia. 2006. Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 32.

[4] Ezzy, Douglas. 1998. ‘Theorizing Narrative Identity: Symbolic Interactionism and Hermeneutics’. The Sociological Quarterly, 39(2), 239-252.

[5] McLean, Kate C. 2016. The Co-Authored Self: Family Stories and the Construction of Personal Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5.

[6] Ibid. p. 19. Also see Yakali-Camoglu, Dikmen. 2007. ‘Turkish Family Narratives: The Relationships between Mothers- and Daughters-in-Law’. Journal of Family History, 32(2), 161-178.

[7] See Klein, Stanley B. 2013. ‘The complex act of projecting oneself into the future’. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4, 63-79; and Schacter, Daniel L. and Madore, Kevin P. 2016. ‘Remembering the past and imagining the future: Identifying and enhancing the contribution of episodic memory’. Memory Studies, 9(3), 245-255.

[8] See Bluck, Susan, and Liao, Hsiao-Wen. 2013. ‘I Was Therefore I Am: Creating Self-Continuity Through Remembering Our Personal Past’. International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review 1(1), 7-12; Fivush, Robyn. 2011. ‘The Development of Autobiographical Memory’. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 559-582; and Audley, Shannon R. and Stein, Ninian R. 2017. ‘Creating an Environmental Resiliency Framework: Changing Children’s Personal and Cultural Narratives to Build Environmental Resiliency’. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 7(2), 205-215.

[9] See Fivush, Robyn, and Merrill, Natalie. 2016. ‘An Ecological Systems Approach to Family Narratives’. Memory Studies, 9(3), 306.

[10] See Perry, Bruce D. ‘Foreword’, in Rose, Richard. 2012. Life Story Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Model for Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley, 9-10.

[11] See Chandler, Michael .J.; Lalonde, Christopher E.; Sokol, Bryan W.; and Hallett, Darcy. 2003. ‘Personal persistence, identity development, and suicide: A study of native and non-native North American adolescents – Introduction’. Monographs Of The Society For Research In Child Development, 68(2), 50-61.

[12] See Fahlberg, Vera. 1981. Helping Children When They Must Move. Practice Series (2nd Edition). London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering; and Rose, Richard. 2012. Life Story Therapy with Traumatized Children: A Model for Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley.

[13] Ellis, B. Heidi, and Alisic, Eva. 2013. ‘Maternal Emotion Coaching: A Protective Factor for Traumatized Children’s Emotion Regulation?’ Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 6, 118-125.

[14] See McAdams, Dan P., et al. 2001. ‘When bad things turn good and good things turn bad: Sequences of redemption and contamination in life narrative, and their relation to psychosocial adaptation in midlife adults and students’. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 472-483; and McAdams, Dan P. and McLean, Kate C. 2013. ‘Narrative Identity’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233-238.

[15] Reese, Elaine. 2013. Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child's World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Dikmen Yakali-Çamoğlu

Dikmen Yakali-Çamoğlu holds a BA (Western Languages and Literatures) and an MA (History) degrees from Boğaziçi University, Turkey. She received her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Dikmen has taught courses on the history of western civilization, cultural theory, gender, and communication theories since 2005 and she became an Associate Professor of Communication Studies in 2014.

She is the President of the International Society for the Study of Gender and Love. 


In her current research project in COMPAS she focuses on and explores the self-narratives of the members of the Turkish diaspora in UK and seeks to find out the ways the immigrants ‘narrate’ their migration stories to others, to their families and children.

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