Lets talk narrative practice…

Recently in my professional life I stumbled upon the most fantastic person-centred and holistic approach to addressing trauma and I can’t help but share this with you all. I know I have writers who follow me and this methodology is going to just open your hearts and minds to new potential in this industry.

The Tree of Life trauma and hardship workshops developed in Australia by the Dulwich Centre Foundation is my new go to therapeutic intervention. I have long term goals to deliver this in as many remote schools and regional cultural hubs as I possibly can and hopefully I can inspire some of you to take up the cause and also run sessions in your own regions.

Over time, I will add success stories and accounts from workers and communities in Australia who are using the Tree of Life to respond to various forms of trauma and hardship for you on my blog or over on the members page of my website www.authormathomas.com.au.

For more in-depth scholary articles relating to the evidence-based outcomes you can expect by implementing therapeutic writing as a practitioner please see the research tab on the Dulwich Centre website 


The purpose of Tree of Life Narrative Therapy is essentially just to encourage individuals to view their problems as separate from themselves. This is achieved by engaging in respectful, non-blaming discourse regarding the story line and building blocks of the individuals life through the drawing of a tree. This process centres people as the experts in their own lives. It  assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments and abilities that will assist them to reduce the influence of problems in their lives.

Below is an abstract of the process which I have copied from the learning resources on the Dulwich Centre website. If after reading through this exercise you would like to learn more about this activity you can do a free online learning course with the centre, I have included the link for you here.


This exercise helps clients to cope with tragedy and move on with their life. Its aim is to highlight for clients their existing strengths, encourage an alternative storyline to a ‘problem saturated’ narrative and increase a sense of connection with family and community. The exercise involves encouraging the client to build a picture of their life through the representation of a tree. Encourage the client to build their tree from the ground up, talking along the way about each of the elements that make up their tree. You can use what you know about the client to help them as you go.

The Ground

  • The present – Where are the important places in your life now? Who are the important people in your life now? What are the important things happening now?

The Roots

  • The past – Where do you come from? Who do you come from? What are the important things in your history (whether they are good bad or other)? Who are the people, places, animals and things throughout your life that have had a significant impact on you? (e.g. historical events, family members, significant teachers or those of influence, friends, care givers, pets, books, toys, music, toys etc.)

The Trunk

  • You – your skills and knowledge, the things you can do, the qualities you possess, what makes you the person you are (e.g. serious, tolerant, kind, silly, practical joker etc.). What roles do you play in your life (e.g. sibling, son/daughter, partner, parent, artist, environmentalist). What are the acts of kindness you show others? Where did you learn these things? What was important to you about this?

The Branches

  • The future – your hopes, dreams and wishes for yourself (e.g. to have a safe and happy family, to travel, to feel calm, to not have to worry about money, to become a vet, to have new friends etc.)

The Leaves

  • The important, valued people in your life – from the past and present (e.g. family, friends, carers, teachers, other people of significant influence.)

The Fruit

  • Gifts you have received from the important, valued people in your life (e.g. safety, love, support, kindness, education, income, laughter). Why were you given these gifts? What is it about you that meant people gave you these gifts? What fruits have you given to others?


  • By highlighting all the elements that make up the person (not just the problematic elements) you can encourage the client to share stories and support them to see alternate stories. Allow plenty of time for re-telling of the person’s story that includes the hopes, skills, and the things that are important to the person (these get lost with the trauma).
  • If using this exercise with a group, you can create a ‘forest of life’ where you display all of the trees together. You can encourage group members to offer words of encouragement and support for others.

The Storms of Life

  • There are always storms in everyone’s life. Externalise the problems in the client’s life by referring to problems as ‘storms’ or ‘bad weather’.
  • You can talk about: Whose fault is the storm? What effects do the storms have? How do we respond to storms? What can you do during a storm? This kind of externalising of the problem can help create a shift from victimisation to bringing out skills and knowledge the person has to ‘weather the storm’. Being able to do something when the storm hits can reduce the power of the storm.
  • You can also point out that it doesn’t storm all of the time. What are the times when there are no storms? What is happening then?

A tree drawing including many words and images scattered across the leaves and branches

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