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Can therapeutic writing help adolescents with identity formation?  This article examines the questio

‘You sowed a baby and you reaped a bomb. ’

D.W. Winnicott

D.W. Winnicott was a children’s physician in England who pioneered therapeutic approaches with children who were evacuated and relocated apart from their families during WW II . The majority of the youth he treated (and supervised treatment of) had a pre-existing history of trauma.

Even under the best of circumstances, according to Winnicott, an adolescent will exhibit destructive behaviors that challenge their parents and society, but are essential to their becoming healthy adults. Winnicott viewed anti-social behavior as a positive indication of liveliness, response and need and a healthy reaction to loss. Adolescents who are expressing anti social behavior are sending a clear message of their readiness, willingness, and need to be ‘held’ that often goes un-responded to because it is misinterpreted. Winnicott makes it clear that even, or especially those youth who have ‘good enough’ mothering will act destructively in their efforts to establish themselves as adults in the world. The point is that in either case, the role of the adult is to stay with the youth. It is essential not to abandon them during this time.

Holding, as described by Winnicott begins with, ‘the physical holding of the intra-uterine life, and gradually widens in scope to mean the whole of the adaptive care of the infant, including handling’. This concept can be extended to include the function of the family and other available adults, “Holding can be done well by someone who has no intellectual knowledge of what is going on in the individual; what is needed is a capacity to identify, to know what the baby is feeling like.”

Winnicotts’ theory says that the individuation that occurs in adolescence is a replay of an earlier process, which occurs in infancy. “The Adolescent is repeating an essential phase of infancy, for the infant too is an isolate, at least until he or she has been able to establish the capacity for relating to objects that are outside of managerial control. The infant becomes able to recognize and to welcome the existence of objects that are not part of the infant, but his is an achievement. The adolescent repeats this struggle.” For adolescents who’ve experienced trauma, this phase of development can be more rebellious and pronounced, including acts of violence or criminal acts such as stealing. (Winnicott also has a theory about stealing in particular, which I will not discuss here)

Winnicott refers to a ‘richness that develops out of the love hate relationship’. Here in their primary relationships the adolescent learns to navigate the complex and multi-dimensional aspects of relationships. They conduct these initial explorations with their primary care givers, usually the mother, but this can also be the father, a therapist, or even a social group, as in a group home or other residential facility given they are prepared to provide appropriate support.

In working with adolescents who’ve acted out criminally in response to trauma, Winnicott is clear that responses to delinquency consisting solely of punishment and control are not going to result in providing the delinquent youth with the inner resources they need to become healthy adults. The rehabilitative process must involve some reparative aspects of holding for the youth to outgrow their delinquent tendencies.

A greater investment by society necessarily manifests in smaller caseloads allowing the caseworker to engage in a more intimate relationship that extends beyond referrals and monitoring behavior to one of providing a holding environment. As stated by Winnicott in Deprivation and Delinquency, “Good work has to be personal, or it is cruel and tantalizing to both the child and the child care worker. The work is only worth doing if it is personal and if those who are doing the work are not overburdened.” It’s not unusual for contracts and institutions to expect a caseworker to have a caseload of 30-50 clients. It simply is not possible for one social worker to provide adequate support for such a number of traumatized youth.

Prison Writes seeks to work with youth in the juvenile justice system through contributing to a ‘holding’ environment as one part of their support system.

According to Winnicott, “Where loss is suffered a manifest indication of distress is to be expected, and that where no such reaction occurs there may be a disturbance of a deeper kind.” Winnicott interprets the youth’s delinquent behavior as a positive sign of their active, alive, and therefore hopeful insistence on society providing them with the support in ego formation. “Somewhere in the background is a life and death struggle. The situation lacks its full richness if there is a too easy and successful avoidance of a clash of arms.” For Winnicott, the anti social tendency is an important indicator that a child can be helped.

As Winnicott describes in Deprivation and Delinquency, the youth, “Finding the framework of his life broken, he no longer feels free. He becomes anxious, and if he has any hope he proceeds to look for a framework elsewhere than at home.”

What Winnicott tells us about the adolescent is that to form identity they must resist, to some extent, parental and societal expectations. At the same time, the young adult is demanding clarity for the limits of the social, cultural, familial framework so they can be ‘free’, and to be themselves without worry of rejection or repulsion. If they fear their true self will not be tolerated, they will present a false self to protect the true self.

The single most important component of therapeutic writing is that it’s non-critical. This means that all feed back given to the participant must be affirmative. First, people need to feel safe and supported so they can build up their courage, feel free to share their true feelings and experiences, be able to frame those experiences and feelings and move on. This does not exclude developing literacy skills in the process, however, the distinction between therapeutic writing and any other type of writing is significant in this regard. In forming their identity, according to Winnicott, youth must be seen and recognized for who they are as distinct individuals and accepted unconditionally. This is why therapeutic writing is necessarily un-critical. It is not a place for correcting grammar, spelling or punctuation. It is a place where emotional expression of self is supported and affirmed.

Trust and confidence are the foundation of a successful teacher/student relationship. The student must have trust in the teacher and confidence in themselves, and these two essential elements have a symbiotic relationship.

Trust in the teacher allows the student to be honest and vulnerable. Vulnerability is essential to being open to learning. Who can teach a student who has a protective ‘know it all’ barrier? The other barrier that is often presented is an ‘I don’t care’ barrier, which if frequently seen in delinquent youths. A person who doesn’t care is protecting themselves from the vulnerability of being disappointed or hurt. It’s not possible if you don’t care. So, trust is essential for the student to present their true selves and be open to the learning experience. The vulnerability of this trust is balanced by the confidence that a student has in their abilities.

It is my strong belief that if the trauma people have experienced is not addressed, their success in any area, from education to jobs, is going to be challenging and limited. Because trauma impacts all levels of functioning, from sleep habits to the ability to focus on studies, it must be addressed in order for people to have real opportunities for growth and success. It is important that trauma be recognized as one part of a whole person. It’s as significant as the distintion between ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’. Therapeutic writing can help to put trauma in it’s place.

Given the established positive outcomes of therapeutic writing, this outlet can offer a space for the adolescent to create their own narrative, which in turn can contribute to healthy identity formation. Adolescents in the criminal justice system are followed by files of documents that provide a narrative of their lives as told by others, teachers, counselors, judges, and lawyers. By documenting their experiences through writing, adolescents can reclaim the narrative of their lives.

In therpeutic writing, the students efforts are received with a completely affirmative response which in turn builds their confidence. For adolescents who are traumatized, alienated and discouraged, even depressed, the 'holding' environment provides a much needed opportunity to show their ‘true selves’, creating a strong foundation for them to build their ego enough to withstand increased expectations and criticisms that go with advanced learning.


Winnicott, D.W. (1984), Deprivation and Delinquency, New York, Routeledge.

Winnicott, D. W. (1986), Home is Where We Start From, Essays by a Psychoanalyst, New York, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

#writing #youth #prison #rehabilitation

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