Youth Voices Narrative Workshop – Output and Observations

Categories: Access to Justice, child rights, Empathy, youth engagement

In our February post we promised to provide more details about some of the insights coming out of the Youth Voices Workshop in January.  I believe it is too early for true “insights” – they will come from the next stage of our work (discovery). However, I can report on the actual output from the workshop and our observations.

In addition to its other initiatives, the Lab is pursuing the Youth Voices Initiative to support the well-being of youth who experienced their parents’ separation or divorce.  The workshop was part of the “diagnose” stage of the Lab’s design process.  While it is still a work in process, here is a rough graphic of our Lab’s “systemic human-centred design” model.  We adopted the diamond approach[1] and added in some elements that allow us to involve a larger, multi-disciplinary group (including users) in the discover (sensemaking) and design stages.[2]

The objective of the workshop was to draw upon the insight and experiences of young adults who went through their parents’ separation and divorce as children in order to identify issues and themes related to their experiences.  Insights gained from the workshop will be used to:

  • Help Lab participants develop a sense of empathy for youth in this situation
  • Help inform further in-the-field design research
  • Ground the Lab’s work in the lives of those it seeks to assist

We freely admit that the workshop was not intended to be empirical research – it was designed to be narrative storytelling from which insights would emerge to inform the design process.

Our February post described the amazing workshop participants.  They were all young adults who had experienced their parents’ divorce as children.

The first part of the day was storytelling in small groups of four.  One of our Lab group members joined each table in a listening and “light facilitation” role.  There were two rounds of storytelling which generated almost 100 stories in total.  The stories they told were very diverse and compelling.  Our facilitators (Gordon Ross and Jaqueline Antalik from Open Road Communications) did a great job of leading the group through the process with sensitivity, humour and compassion.

The group worked together to analyze the stories and identified:

  • Issues/activities – “what happened?”
  • People/characters – “who was involved?”
  • Themes – “what topics arose from the story?”

A high level summary (interpretation) of the major issues/activities that emerged from the group’s own analysis is (in no particular order):

  1. Communication difficulties
  2. Emotions:
    • Negative feelings and emotions
    • Long-term emotional & psychological issues
    • Feelings of loss / abandonment
  3. Dealing with change:
    • Challenges of adapting to inevitable change
    • Changing living arrangements / standard of living
    • Changing role of the parents

Themes from the stories included the following (there was some overlap with issues):

  1. Economic stressors / depletion of resources
  2. Parenting:
    • Failure to put best interests of the children first
    • Neglecting needs of the children
    • Lack of support for child’s emotional reactions
  3. Children’s feelings of:
    • Disconnection (from people, from meaning)
    • Disempowerment
    • Lack of voice
    • Fear for personal safety / need for protection
  4. Dealing with change including:
    • Changing role of parents / addition of stepparents
  5. Challenges of growing up too fast / increased responsibility
  6. Benefits of personal growth from difficulty

My own observations and impressions of the storytelling process and the sorting and deep analysis that followed included:

  • Separation and divorce have a longer-term impact on the children than some parents expect – even if the separation was done “amicably”.
  • For the children, this is not a one-time event but a process (often, a long process).
  • This is a foundational change in the lives of the children and not something they experience and then “get over”.
  • This is a huge change in all aspects of their lives.
  • The courage of this group was humbling – they were prepared to tell (and therefore relive) events in their lives that were often painful and sometimes terrifying.
  • The storytelling included a wide range of stories with some very traumatic events. The stories were REAL, visceral, and compelling.
  • These youth were willing to be vulnerable (again) in order to help others. At the end of the session a number wanted us to know that they would like to continue to support this initiative if it helped other children.
  • This group demonstrated significant self-awareness, maturity and insights into their own experience and their parents’ behaviours.
  • Some were able, in hindsight, to identify some personal benefits flowing from their experiences including things like increased resilience / grit.

The issues and themes identified by the group, and my observations, highlighted for me the huge need for families experiencing separation and divorce and their children to have access to a variety of supports and services – beyond the usual boundaries of the legal system.  The kinds of issues these children faced were deep and required experience and expertise beyond what lawyers are equipped to deal with.  And yet they are deeply linked to the work of those in justice helping families.

One of the hypotheses of the initiative is that child well-being is directly linked to inter-parental conflict and to the availability of economic resources (poverty).  This workshop confirmed the importance of these two factors.  However, in its discussion at the conclusion of the workshop, the group remaining also identified the importance of supporting the child’s sense of themselves and their own competence (independent of their changing family situation and chaos that creates).  All of these observations need to be explored more fully by a multi-disciplinary group.

The Lab team is completing the last piece of the research plan (expert interviews) and a multi-disciplinary sense-making session is being planned for the fall of 2017.

We would love your comments.

Thank you

Kari D. Boyle, Coordinator

[1] Based roughly on the British Design Council’s Double Diamond approach ( , with an added diamond at the beginning to represent the stage in which the problem is diagnosed and a research plan prepared.

[2] We are very grateful for the knowledge and inspiration from Gordon Ross of Open Road Communications.