Narrative theory: a career counseling approach for adolescents of divorce.
The ASCA National Model[R] (American School Counselor Association, 2005) suggests that school counselors focus on the three domains of student development: career, personal/social, and academic. Oftentimes, two or more of these areas overlap, as is the case with the effects of family divorce on career planning. School counselors, through individual and group counseling as part of their delivery system (ASCA), can advocate for students and proactively address how divorce affects future career development. The purpose of this article is to describe the career issues faced by children of divorce and offer narrative career counseling as a way for school counselors to help empower adolescents to proactively write the next chapters of their lives.
CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS OF DIVORCE
Approximately 1.5 million children and adolescents in the United States experience parental divorce each year, and 40% of children are predicted to live with a divorced parent before they reach the age of 16 (Haine, Sandler, Wolchik, Tein, & Dawson-McClure, 2003). In 2004, about 1.1 million children lived with a parent who had experienced a divorce in the past year (Kreider, 2007). Dissolution of their parents' marriage is one of the most common stressors that children face (Wolchik, Wilcox, Tein, & Sandier, 2000). Moreover, many children and adolescents of divorce experience a series of transitions and changes, since divorce rates are even higher in remarriages than first marriages (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Overall, the United States has the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world (Hipke, Wolchik, Sandier, & Braver, 2002).
Researchers suggest that adolescents from divorced families have poorer academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes than their peers from intact families (Peris & Emery, 2004). Parental divorce has been associated with maladaptive academic and behavioral outcomes for children, such as depression, anxiety, school dropout, drug and alcohol use, and poor academic performance (Wolchik et al., 2000). Higher levels of misbehavior, more undercontrolled behavior, and less competence also are associated with children whose parents have divorced (Ruschena, Prior, Sanson, & Smart, 2005). The effects on these children often linger into adulthood. In general, children of divorce tend to earn less income and obtain less education over the course of their lifetime (Amato & Cheadle, 2005).
As a group, adolescents from divorced families display lower levels of academic and vocational attainment. They demonstrate lower academic performance and achievement test scores and are 2 to 3 times more likely to drop out of school (Kelly & Emery, 2003). Compared to adults from intact families, those with divorced parents are less likely to have attended or completed college, are more likely to be unemployed and on welfare, and have fewer financial resources (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999).
Additional stressors associated with divorce also impede adolescents' efforts to learn and succeed in school and ultimately their vocational attainment. Divorce often accelerates a downward slide in standard of living and may result in changes in residence, school, and friends. Children are often no longer able to participate in the sports and organizations that they had prior to the separation (Kelly & Emery, 2003). In addition, the economic hardship during and following a divorce can make it difficult for parents to provide resources such as books, computers, travel, and assistance with college tuition to facilitate their children's educational success (Amato & Cheadle, 2005). Thus, many children of divorce face reduced vocationally enhancing resources and opportunities.
However, it is important to note that all children from divorced families are not doomed to poor vocational outcomes. Many demonstrate remarkable resilience. Resiliency has alternately been defined as the ability to bounce back from a traumatic event or situation (Chen & George, 2008) and doing well in the face of adversity (Patterson, 2002). Resilient children of divorce have protective factors in their character or environment that moderate the effect of risk factors, and although parents are important for the well-being of their children, peers, schools, and neighbors also are vital support systems (Rodgers & Rose, 2002). The opportunity to process the experience of divorce helps build resilience in adolescents, and teens given the opportunity to find new meaning in their family situations tend to do better in school and in their future relationships as a result of their meaning-making (Barnes, 1999). By offering support and fostering resilience, the effectiveness of interventions aimed at children of divorce may be enhanced (Greeff & Van Der Merwe, 2004).
Narrative career counseling is proposed as one of those interventions to foster resilience and improve career prospects. Narrative career counseling with adolescents helps them to identify and build on their protective factors as they construct the resources and positive events in their stories.
NARRATIVE CAREER COUNSELING
As the career counseling profession evolves in the 21st century, postmodern narrative approaches are emerging to assist students in uncovering career-related themes and meanings in their personal stories (Brott, 2004). The narrative approach of viewing students as the experts of their own lives is a departure from traditional career theories, especially the classic concept of the counselor-as-expert, matching client traits with job requirements (Bujold, 2004). In narrative career counseling, not only is the student the expert, but also both the author and the main character of the career story (Christensen & Johnston, 2003). This approach assigns a central focus to the role of the environment, culture, and family as major influences in a student's life. Narrative meaning gives form to understanding a purpose to life, combining everyday actions and events into episodic units, providing a framework for understanding the past, and planning future actions (Polkinghorne, 1988). Applying this meaning-making of past events to future actions related to career choice has tremendous implications for adolescents from divorced families.
Cochran (1997) was among the first career theorists to apply general narrative counseling specifically to career. He believed that, unlike the classic trait-and-factor approaches, career counseling should be about meaning-making and personal identity development.
Additionally, Cochran suggested that planning for the future was naturally affected by interactions from the past. Therefore, students construct a narrative, or organizational structure, to explain how they make meaning in their worlds. Once these personal narratives have been revealed, the school counselor can help the students discover potential new meanings that may help them lead more fulfilled and satisfied lives. The linking of the past, present, and future in a narrative form helps distinguish narrative career counseling from other career approaches.
Brott's (2001, 2004) "storied approach" of narrative career counseling explores the students' world through the metaphor of story development using the process of co-construction, deconstruction, and construction. The students inevitably begin counseling with a career-related concern such as postsecondary plans or high school course selection. Rapport is built during the co-construction phase, in which the student and school counselor collaborate to tell the student's life story from past and present experiences, a process of revealing. During co-construction, the counselor listens to and begins to develop an understanding of the student's key experiences, events, people, and words. Because family factors have been related to both developmental problems and difficulties with academic motivation and performance (Peterson, 2002), the way the students choose to tell their story reveals their identity. Assessment techniques--including lifelines, card sorts, life-role circles, and goal maps--are used to help students author their stories (Brott, 2004).
During the deconstruction phase, counselor and student together examine the stories, viewing them from different perspectives. They work to identify patterns and themes and note areas needing further exploration. For example, many adolescents look at their lives through a filter of divorce because the divorce stands out as the formative negative event in their lives (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). In the deconstruction phase, students can challenge that filter and weigh their decisions from a different perspective. In deconstruction, the counselor returns to the initial goals for career-related counseling and helps students view the problem from multiple perspectives.
Finally, during the construction process, the students reauthor their stories in a future orientation. Students accentuate patterns and themes they wish to develop and become aware of those they wish to diminish or eliminate. Again, these themes relate to their initial career-related concerns, but they also reflect their overall life experiences. The school counselor's role is to help students clarify their choices, generate alternatives, and extend their plotlines into the future. The narrative approach reflects a shift from "finding a job to finding one's self" (Brott, 2004, p. 190), which could be important for adolescents from divorced families considering future career barriers and options.
Narrative Career Counseling and Adolescents
The narrative model of career development focuses on deriving meaning from students' lives using the metaphor of a story. By applying concepts from literary criticism (Shaft, 2006), the school counselor can explain the process to adolescents. For example, the student becomes the narrator, author, and main character. The setting includes the students' environments, such as school and both parents' homes. Important characters such as friends, family, and teachers are identified. The action of the story results from trying to reach a goal, use abilities, or find school success. Just as in a novel where characters interact with each other to develop and resolve the plot, students become protagonists interacting with the characters in their own settings to achieve goals and resolve conflicts. The school counselor's role, then, becomes that of an editor (Sharf).
School counselors using narrative counseling must be sensitive to the differences in counseling adolescents versus adults. Narrative career counseling is appropriate and helpful to meet many adolescents' unique developmental needs, for several reasons. First, adolescents have a strong desire for autonomy. Narrative career counseling requires the adolescent to be the primary author and actor. This encouragement to be an active participant is appealing, and as a result, the desire for autonomy is fostered and validated (Furman, Jackson, Downey, & Shears, 2003). Adolescent students can feel as though they are in control of their lives, a feeling that is often missing in children of divorce. Second, adolescents believe that their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes are more accurate than others' interpretations (Furman et al.). Because of adolescent sensitivity to being disregarded (Shepard & Marshall, 2000), they must be allowed to narrate their own story without fear of criticism, even when the counselor does not agree with their viewpoint. Narrative counseling allows adolescents to explore family reflections, recognize their emotions, and, because they are the authors of their stories, express their story from their egocentric viewpoint and evaluate that viewpoint in comparison to where they would like to be. Finally, adolescents are resistant to interventions that may be interpreted as personal criticism (Furman et al.). Mayo (2001) found that life-story narratives helped students search within themselves for answers that were intellectually and personally meaningful. Narrative theory can help foster an atmosphere of respect and avoid leaving adolescents feeling alienated and misunderstood.
Strengths and Limitations of Using Narrative Career Theory with Adolescents
Bujold (2004) identified several difficulties associated with the use of a narrative approach to career counseling. First, counselors cocreating stories must possess skill in applying the approach. This poses potential ethical concerns for those attempting to use the theory without a clear understanding of the process. Second, identifying the underlying motivations of many career choices is not always easy. This is especially true for adolescents who may not be self-aware enough to fully understand their own motivations. Finally, because adolescents develop at different rates, some may not have moved into Piaget's formal-operational stage, which typically begins around sixth grade at age 11 or 12 (Shaffer, 1993). Therefore, some younger adolescents may not developmentally be able to identify career-related themes and patterns in their narratives. It would not be appropriate to use the narrative approach with those adolescents.
However, narrative theory--and especially Brott's storied approach--has immense potential for the school counselor working with adolescents from divorced families. It provides a holistic picture of the student by drawing upon his or her point of view, voice, and experience (Shepard & Marshall, 2000). It allows adolescents to make sense of the impact of the divorce and other events on their career decisions through a method that utilizes them as the expert. The process can build resilience in children of divorce. Finally, through early intervention, adolescents can reauthor their future much earlier, make career-enhancing choices sooner, and potentially avoid the consequences of significant career-limiting decisions. Narrative career counseling seems particularly well suited to significantly impact adolescents' lives.
School counselors using a narrative approach address adolescents' unique developmental needs. A strong desire for autonomy, a view that their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes are more correct than others, and a high sensitivity to personal criticism makes working with adolescents different than working with adults. By meeting the goals of narrative career counseling (identifying a pattern in the students' lives, forming a sense of the students' identities, and learning about the students' goals for the future), school counselors can help adolescents make career-related decisions. To illustrate the potential of narrative career counseling with adolescents, a case example follows. The school counselor used Brott's storied approach to help Jennifer tell her story, identify themes, and create new possibilities for the future.
ILLUSTRATIVE CASE EXAMPLE
Jennifer lived in a midsize town where she was an eighth-grade student at a middle school. Before registering for classes at the local high school, she was required to decide whether to choose the college, vocational, or combination path. During classroom guidance activities, Jennifer took part in lessons on career exploration and completed skills and interests assessments. The assessments confirmed her expressed interest in journalism, but she told her English teacher that she planned to "just go to beauty school." She flip-flopped about her desire to attend college, one day claiming that she was not going but another talking about majoring in journalism. Her grades and standardized test scores showed that academically she was above average. Jennifer's parents divorced 2 years ago, precipitating a move and transfer of schools. She primarily lived in a small apartment with her mother, but regularly visited her father in a town 2 hours away. She was the oldest of three girls and was responsible for watching her siblings after school while her mother worked. She saw her life as divided into two parts: before and after the divorce.
Jennifer participated in a small group for eighth graders from divorced homes led by the school counselor, where she repeatedly expressed worry about her future. The counselor offered to meet with Jennifer individually, and Jennifer agreed. Because Jennifer seemed interested in attending college but hesitant to commit to that high school plan, they met three times to discuss her career options before high school registration.
To begin co-construction, the school counselor asked Jennifer how she would describe herself to someone who did not know her. Jennifer replied that she was friendly, an average student, and liked to imagine situations and create stories about them. She enjoyed using the computers at school (she did not have one at home) to learn about her favorite singers and actors. She also said that she worried "all the time" about the future, whether boys liked her, and if her "sisters would be OK."
Next, the counselor asked Jennifer to create a lifeline of important events in her life. She marked her birthday, the current date, and about two thirds of the way across the lifeline she wrote "Morn and Dad's Divorce!" Below that she wrote "moved to a new school" and drew a sad face. When the counselor asked about it, Jennifer said, "I had to leave all my friends. I mean, I made new friends, but it's just not the same."
She added a family trip to Oregon when she was 10. "It was fun going somewhere new and being a family. I kept a journal of the trip and made up stories about the people that I met." Later she added when she had flown on an airplane by herself to spend a month with her grandmother. "I wrote her a 10-page letter when I got home." Jennifer included several other important dates on her lifeline such as times with her father and successes at school.
By listening without criticism to the way Jennifer described important events in her life, the school counselor developed an understanding of the experiences, events, and people that Jennifer thought were important. Jennifer revealed her interest in writing and going to new places. She also expressed the social effects of her parents' divorce. Jennifer was able to continue processing the events in her life that she felt created dramatic changes for her and her future. Creating a narrative of her life began to empower Jennifer to take control of her future actions. She was allowed to review her experiences without interference or interpretation by others. Because the school counselor and Jennifer had an established relationship, the co-construction phase was fairly brief.
Moving into the deconstruction phase, the school counselor wanted to help Jennifer identify patterns in her story. After Jennifer finished her lifeline, the counselor asked her if she saw any themes. Jennifer at first looked confused, so the counselor asked questions such as, "What was similar about your trip to Oregon and your trip visiting your grandmother?" Jennifer said, "I wrote about it in a journal both times." With some prompting, she decided that friends, good grades, going on trips, worry, and writing/journaling were themes.
Next, Jennifer and her counselor began to examine how Jennifer made meaning in her life. The counselor explained that, often, people created rules or strategies to live by that were influenced by what occurred in their lives. Sometimes these rules helped them and sometimes they held them back. The counselor asked Jennifer if she could think of rules she lived by and what they meant for her. Jennifer considered this for a while and then stated that she felt she was unable to control things in her life. As a result of the divorce, she had to move, leave friends, leave her father, take care of her sisters, and live without money. Therefore, why wish or hope for what she wanted in life since she had no control over these decisions anymore? Her life circumstances decided everything for her.
When Jennifer came to the second session, she looked tired. She said that she had been up late helping one sister with her homework and checking on the other sister who was sick. Her mother, she explained, had taken another part-time job three evenings a week to pay for car repairs. When asked how she felt about taking care of her siblings, Jennifer said, "It doesn't matter. I have to do it."
Continuing with the deconstruction phase, the counselor asked Jennifer how her values related to career. She provided Jennifer with a list of possible values to help her in this process. Jennifer selected creativity, variety, wealth, friendship, popularity, and adventure as very important to her and indicated that location, achievement, and personal development were less important. Next, the counselor asked how her values compared to her parents. Jennifer responded,
Mom would say that location was very important because she doesn't want me to move away. Dad would say that achievement is important. He's always telling me that my grades are important. They would both say that popularity is shallow and doesn't really matter. But I think they would agree that these three [creativity, friendship, and variety] are very important, and they definitely taught me to value adventure. I'm like them in some ways, but in some ways I'm different.
Throughout the rest of this session, Jennifer and the counselor examined multiple perspectives on her life, while the school counselor gently challenged her to identify how being from a divorced family affected her perspective. Because Jennifer had participated in the children-of-divorce group, the counselor used some of those lessons to deconstruct Jennifer's fears about the future and worry about her sisters.
Jennifer began to realize the dramatic effect that the divorce had on her perspective on life. She stated that she used to be more independent and believe that anything was possible, but now she doubted her abilities and worried about her future all of the time. She also indicated that talking about the divorce in group counseling had helped her truly realize that her parents were never going to reconcile. Finally, Jennifer realized that much of her fear about the future stemmed from believing her mother needed her and could not survive without her. When asked to consider things from a different perspective, Jennifer admitted that her parents still supported her and that she still had the ability to be successful in school. She recognized her role in the family as a helper, but not as her mother's parent. Additionally, she acknowledged that the high school offered classes in creative writing and had a yearbook and a newspaper, all of which were of interest. After much discussion, Jennifer stated that her parents' divorce did not mean the end of hope, but rather just a new challenge in her life. She ended the session by noting that she could help with her sisters and still plan for her future.
Jennifer began by talking about her nervousness about registering for high school. She and the school counselor discussed her options in registering, which began the construction phase. After a pause, Jennifer said,
I've been thinking about how much I like writing, and how that computer [assessment] said I could do journalism in college. That sounds cool, but there's no way that my mom or dad could pay for it. I'm afraid to think about it because I'll be disappointed.
The school counselor suggested that she and Jennifer complete a goal map together to explore going to college as a way of reauthoring the future. This activity would help Jennifer clarify her choices, generate alternatives, and extend her story into the future the way she wanted. Under the Obstacles heading, Jennifer listed "MONEY." She added "leaving sisters" and "causing mom stress." Together, she and the counselor listed the following resources for overcoming obstacles: good grades, great writing skills, scholarships and grants, working to pay for school, and having a dream. Next, the counselor guided Jennifer to choose three small steps that she could take before registering for high school. Jennifer wrote, "Tell mom that I want to go," "Write a story about a girl going to college for journalism," and "Put a note on my mirror that says I can do it!"
Jennifer told the counselor that she would keep the goal map in her journal. She said, "Before, I didn't think that college was possible. Now, maybe it is." When she returned with her mother to register for high school, she selected the college path.
IMPLICATIONS AND CONCLUSION
Many adolescents are profoundly affected by their parents' divorce. Like Jennifer in the hypothetical case, they may have moved or changed schools, become increasingly responsible for care of their younger siblings, or view the cost of college to be an insurmountable obstacle. In this case, Jennifer expressed interest in writing and had earned above-average grades, but she did not believe that she could obtain the education required to work in that field. As illustrated through the hypothetical case example, co-construction may help students identify patterns, change previously held assumptions, and see possibilities that had been prematurely dismissed.
Many adolescents from divorced families face academic and vocational impediments that challenge their career opportunities and limit their vision of options to overcome perceived obstacles. With lower academic performance and test scores and an increased risk for dropping out of school (Kelly & Emery, 2003), early career intervention is essential. By deconstructing their stories through examining different perspectives, narrative career counseling offers students a way to act upon their futures instead of" reacting to them, and face obstacles with a plan instead of settling for an easier solution. School counselors can use this method, as demonstrated in the case example, to help their students develop resiliency factors for handling career issues related to divorce.
It should be noted that some adolescents need more guidance in picking out themes and patterns. School counselors must be careful to guide, but not direct, the students' answers. The students deconstruct their own stories as the counselor facilitates the process. Because girls tend to develop cognitively faster and be more verbal than boys (Shaffer, 1993), school counselors also need to consider the student's gender in deciding whether narrative theory will meet the student's needs. Also, many adolescents may choose parental values that are not yet their own, so exploring the impact of parental values with the student may be an important part of deconstruction. Finally, school counselors should recognize that it may take more than one session with a student to complete the three-step process and the storied approach outlined in this article, but it can be a short-term counseling approach. Counselors interested in narrative career theory should consider reading Brott (2001) and Cochran (1997) for further information on this approach.
This article suggests the application of narrative school counseling, especially a storied approach, to career counseling with adolescents from divorced families. Research on using the narrative approach to career counseling with children of divorce thus far is limited, and more research is needed to demonstrate its overall effectiveness with adolescents. However, because research clearly shows the potentially harmful effects of parental divorce on adolescents' future career, school, and other achievements, school counselors must address this need. Narrative career counseling considers the student's perceptions of the divorce and offers a unique way to challenge perceived obstacles, thus building resilience. Narrative theory fits well with the ASCA National Model (2005) as part of the delivery system. It could aid in student planning to help students establish personal goals and develop future plans. As demonstrated in the case example, in as few as three sessions a school counselor and student can potentially reauthor the student's future. This reauthoring may ultimately build resilience in children of divorce, helping them face and overcome barriers to their academic and vocational success.
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Denis' A. Thomas is a Ph.D. student and Melinda M. Gibbons, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. E-mail: email@example.com