John Byng-Hall

John Byng-Hall

John Byng-Hall (1937 to 2020) was a distinguished and pioneering family therapist who established systemic therapy at the Tavistock and Portman in the early 1970s. An associate of John Bowlby, John Byng-Hall integrated attachment theories with his own ideas of family scripts and myths into family systemic therapy. His publications and presentations earned him an international reputation as an original thinker. With Rosemary Whiffen he led the first family therapy training course in the UK at the Tavistock Clinic, until his retirement in 1997.

John Byng-Hall was born in Kenya[1] in 1937[2]. His father worked as a farm manager[3] and amateur vet[4] on a 50,000 acre farm[5] owned by Lord Delamere[6]. His mother worked as a voluntary VAD nurse on the farm and was a keen water colourist.

John and his sister (who was 18 months older than him[7]) grew up in a rich and varied landscape ranging from lakes and savannah through to shrub, forest and volcanoes[8]. The wildlife was equally rich with hundreds of varieties of birds, domestic animals such as sheep and milking cows, and wild animals including: snakes, antelope, aardvark, hyena, monkeys, baboons and leopards[9].

John was two when World War 2 began[10] and his mother taught him and his sister at home by correspondence course[11], supplemented by painting lessons and practical skills such as knitting and embroidery. John’s uncle was killed on D-Day in 1944 and his mother went into a withdrawn state, frequently retreating away from the children to cry[12]. The family were very isolated[13] and the children were only separated from their parents once until they were put into boarding school when John was seven[14]. The school was in a town called Karen after Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa[15].

As a child John explorer the farm on horseback with his sister and by the time he was ten he was a capable shot with his .22 rifle, keeping the family in meat[16]. Like most British families they went on ‘home leave’ to Britain for several months every four to six years going in 1951[17].

As John became an adolescent the family bought a farm of their own, high on the wall of the rift valley, looking down on Mount Menengai, the second largest volcano in the world[18]. Each member of the family lived in a separate dwelling and had to go outside for everything at any time of the day or night[19].

After about a year of living there they began to hear reports of unrest[20]. The Mau Mau rebellion had started. John would sleep with a loaded shotgun under his bed until he taught himself not to sleep and keep watch as a sentinel overnight[21]. Eventually a state of emergency was declared in Kenya[22]. The family took to sleeping together in the dining room of the main house[23]. One of their next door neighbours was killed[24] and another attacked and mutilated[25]. The family took to carrying weapons at all times[26].

The rebellion also affected John’s life at boarding school, with seniors mounted armed guard at night[27], worrying about their parents’ safety, anxiously listening to the radio for news[28]. At the age of 16 John’s father became dangerously ill with a gallbladder infection and John took over the running of the farm for a while[29]. Later that year he and some of the other boys attempted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro[30].

John left school at the age of 18 with the intention of going to Cambridge University to read agriculture[31]. First however, he did nine months National Service in the Kenya Regiment[32], where he was volunteered to be a medical orderly and trained in the essentials of medicine and nursing[33]. John already had an interest in the workings of the body, from his father’s work as a vet, but he became fascinated when his training included watching operations[34].

After completing National Service he set off on an Italian liner for Trieste with three friends intending on travelling in Europe before arriving in Cambridge in September 1956[35]. In the Red Sea he began to feel ill[36]. By the time they reached Suez, at the height of the Suez crisis, his legs were completely paralysed, and by the time the ship was in the Mediterranean the doctor had diagnosed him with polio[37]. The ship made an emergency landing at Brindisi, where he was taken to a small ill-equipped hospital[38]. He was there for three and a half weeks, misdiagnosed as having poluneurosis[39]. One of his friends who had remained with him went to the British Consul, who arranged transport to London, where he was taken to Queen’s Square Hospital for Nervous Diseases[40].

They immediately diagnosed him as having polio[41]. He was there for two months[42], during which time he lost almost all of the muscle in his abdomen and legs[43]. He was then transferred to the Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford for long-term rehabilitation[44]. He spent six months there[45], developing a fascination with the nurse/patient relationship and how illnesses affected people[46]. By the time he left he could walk with crutches[47].

John returned to Kenya for three months convalescence before starting at Cambridge a year later than planned[48]. He stayed in his parent’s apartment in Nairobi and discussed his future with his father[49]. Farming was no longer a sensible career, so John decided to switch to medicine, which delighted his father[50].

In 1957 John went to Cambridge and took up residence in Clare Memorial Court[51]. Adjusting to life in Cambridge was difficult. The training dissecting corpses was physically draining as he had no trunk muscles to support him and had to prop himself up on his elbows, which restricted what he could do with his hands[52]. There were many elements of the medical training that posed massive physical challenges and he was allowed to complete the Natural Science Tripos over three years[53].

After Cambridge John took a place at University College London to do his three years of clinical training[54]. During his training he realised that he did not have the physical capabilities necessary to become an orthopaedic surgeon[55], but it was during his studies there that he was first introduced to John Bowlby’s work[56] and he began to become interested in the psychological dynamic involved in illness and a patient’s journey[57]. He also became interested in the use of new group methods for motivating patients in their recovery[58]. He decided to take some psychiatric training after qualifying[59].

His first house job was at the geriatric unit of University College Hospital and the second was at the paediatric department of Addenbrooks Hospital in Cambridge, also working with children on an ENT ward[60].

Between 1965 and 1968 John Byng-Hall worked as a registrar at Fulbourne Hospital, a mental hospital run on therapeutic community lines[61]. During this time he went weekly for a two year psychotherapy registrar course for registrars at the Tavistock Clinic[62].

After this he decided to train at the Maudsley, where as a junior doctor from a provincial hospital he could hardly comment and became an observer of hospital rituals[63], in particular the Professor’s Conference, which seemed to him preoccupied with professional competition and intellect unbiased by feelings[64].

John worked on the Maudsley’s children’s ward as registrar for six months[65] and while there read the first of John Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment, when it came out in 1969[66].

Towards the end of 1969 John Byng-Hall made his move to the Tavistock Clinic, working part-time there as a senior registrar in the Adolescent Department[67]. During his time at the Tavistock it was under the leadership of Robert Gosling[68], a key figure in group relations[69], and Clinic was known as a Kleinian institution.

In the departmental meetings of the Adolescent Department John was struck by how The Tavistock Clinic was almost like a Maudsley through the looking glass with huge importance given to feelings that had been provoked by patients – countertransference – and a similar degree of competition around who could display the most insightfulness[70].

He also worked part-time at the new adolescent unit at Hill End in St Albans, where he and Peter Bruggen[71] started to use a family approach with adolescents[72] and work with whole families[73]. Family therapy, or systemic practice as it has come to be known[74], grew tentatively from the work of John Bowlby[75]. Systemic thinking can generically be understood as a way of examining the structure or pattern of an organisation and families can be understood as kinds of organisation[76]. Individuals are situated within different systems which impinge on their mental world: family, friends and work based relationships are usually the most immediate, intimate and substantial[77].

In around 1971 John Byng-Hall was one of the people who set up the Family Therapy Workshop in the Adolescent Department[78]. Also in 1971 James and Joyce Robertson were introducing video to the Tavistock Clinic and although the couple’s prestigious history of working with film helped give some validity to its use many frowned on its use for clinical work[79]. However, for family therapy it provided a vital tool allowing them to review sessions, observe what had been done and see the impact in complex multi-person interactions[80].

In 1972 John Byng-Hall was joined at the Tavistock Clinic by Rosemary Whiffen and they became the Co-Chairs of the Family Therapy Programme in 1974[81] and established the first family therapy training in Britain in 1975[82]. This later led to the establishment of the first ever doctorate in family therapy and systemic therapy becoming one of the six official disciplines of the Trust.

In the early 1970s the dominant model of family therapy was structural, with an emphasis on parental authority and appropriate generational boundaries[83]. The family therapists at the Tavistock Clinic were particularly open to integrating with ideas from the outside world[84],[85]. In 1972 Salvador Minuchin took a year sabbatical at the Tavistock Clinic to write his book Families and Family Therapy (1973)[86],[87]. Although his ideas did not influence the early development of family work at the Tavi, it helped give some validity to their approach[88]. From the mid-70s to the 80s many of the world’s senior family therapists were invited to the Tavistock Clinic to lecture[89].

From early on the Family Therapy Workshop were keen to position themselves as participants in the development of new ideas and not just the recipients of outside wisdom[90]. As well as bringing people to the Tavistock Clinic they were enthusiastic organisers of conferences such as those in Cambridge.

When the first family therapy training course was established at the Tavistock Clinic John and Rosemary developed a part of the training that aimed to teach how to teach as a way of ensuring that the course would have a wider impact beyond the training organisation[91]. They enabled practitioners to go on and set up their own groups[92]. They also staged the first International Forum for Family Therapy Trainers in 1979 and published a book about supervision in 1982[93].

The family therapy training course that John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen established in 1975 has gone on to develop a life of its own, giving rise to other notable figures in systemic therapy: Caroline Linsey, David Campbell, Gill Gorell Barnes, and Ros Draper, were able to develop and come to prominence[94]. By the late seventies the Milan Group started to come to prominence following the publication of their seminal book[95] Paradox and Counterparadox[96]. David Campbell and Ros Draper initially ran a live supervision group using the principles of the Milan approach[97], particularly the concept of neutrality[98], and then along with Caroline Lindsay they established a two year family therapy course on the Milan approach which ran in parallel to the existing family therapy course[99]. A split between the two approaches gradually opened up as early family therapy was rooted in a normative model of healthy functioning that is seen as universal, whereas the Milan approach is more concerned with each particular context and the therapist takes a neutral position seeking to discover the ‘local’ meaning families give their own behaviour rather than imposing normative values[100].

John Byng-Hall was a key figure in this development. It could not have happened if not for his establishment of family therapy at the Tavistock Clinic and without his giving the subsequent generation the freedom to explore different ideas that led them from the Milan to the post-Milan approach[101]. In this theories about language, power and discourse were incorporated from theorists such as Michel Foucault and Mikhail Bakhtin[102].

The excitement and energy of this new area of work did not sit well with everyone. From the outset there was a degree of competition between the family therapist group and the more traditional therapists of the Children’s and Parent’s Department[103] and within the wider organisational context family therapy caused tensions as it broke absolutely with Freud’s central psychoanalytic stricture that the therapeutic conversation was solely between patient and analyst[104].

Although John Bowlby had retired from the Tavistock Clinic in 1968[105], during his retirement he published his three major books on attachment and throughout the 1970s research gradually confirmed his theories[106]. During this period John Byng-Hall continued to collaborate with Bowlby, introducing new techniques that were useful to systemic theory, but more importantly turning attachment into a coherent story[107] and developing the concept of the family as a secure base[108].

John Byng-Hall increasingly became interested in narrative, particularly in relation to attachment[109]. He wrote extensively on family belief systems, what families do with their beliefs and how this related to the new research on attachment[110]: ‘Family myths used as defence in conjoint family therapy’[111], ‘Re-editing family mythology during family therapy’[112], ‘Family Legends: their significance for the family therapist’[113] and ‘Evolving ideas about narrative’[114]. He also worked for ten years developing the concept of family scripts[115], which culminated in his book: Re-writing Family Scripts[116]. His work contributed significantly to the way systemic theory has developed a picture of a family lifecycle, points at which change is activated[117]. He was also instrumental in developing the idea of the child as ‘the distance regulator’ between parents[118],[119].

John Byng-Hall retired from the Tavistock Clinic in the autumn of 1977[120]. After retirement he gradually became more and more disabled by what is known as post-polio syndrome, where there further muscle loss thirty or forty years after the initial paralysis[121]. He continued to have an important role, writing and publishing important work throughout the first two decades of the 21st century.

John Byng-Hall died on Friday 17 July 2020 after his health had been failing for some time. He was survived by his wife, Sue, and three sons.


Select bibliography

Byng-Hall, J. (1973). Family myths used as defence in conjoint family therapy. British Journal of Medical Psychology.

Byng-Hall, J. (1985). The family script: A useful bridge between theory and practice. Journal of Family Therapy.

Byng-Hall, J. (1988). Scripts and legends in families and family therapy. Family process, 27(2), 167-179.

Byng-Hall, J. (1991). The application of attachment theory to understanding and treatment in family therapy. Attachment across the life cycle, 199-215.

Byng‐Hall, J. (1995). Creating a secure family base: Some implications of attachment theory for family therapy. Family process, 34(1), 45-58.

Byng-Hall, J. (1998). Rewriting family scripts: Improvisation and systems change. Guilford Press.

Byng‐Hall, J. (2002). Relieving parentified children's burdens in families with insecure attachment patterns. Family process, 41(3), 375-388.

Byng‐Hall, J. (2008). The significance of children fulfilling parental roles: Implications for family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 30(2), 147-162.



[1] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p1, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[2] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p7, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[3] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[4] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p23, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[5] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[6] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p10, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[7] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p1, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[8] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[9] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[10] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p7, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[11] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p6, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[12] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p8, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[13] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[14] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p6, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[15] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p18, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[16] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p5, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[17] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p10, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[18] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p12, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[19] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p12, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[20] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p12, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[21] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p13, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[22] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p13, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[23] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p13, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[25] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p14, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[26] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p14, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[27] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p15, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[28] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p13, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[29] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p19, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[30] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p19, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[31] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p22, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[32] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p22, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[33] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p23, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[43] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p28, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[44] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p29, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[45] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p29, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[46] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p31, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[47] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p29, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[50] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p34, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[55] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p47, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[57] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p46, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[62] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p50, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[68] HV Dicks, 50 Years of the Tavistock Clinic, p289, Routledge, 1970

[69] Anton Obholzer, ‘Robert (Bob) Gosling OBE: Formerly Chairman, Tavistock Clinic, London’, Psychiatric Bulletin, p356-357, Volume 24, Issue 9, September 2000

[70] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p53, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[71] David Campbell, ‘Letting go of attachments’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p72, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[72] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p65, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[73] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p52, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[74] John Hills, ‘Preface’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, px, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[75] John Hills, ‘Preface’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, pix, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[76] John Hills, ‘Preface’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, px, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[78] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p66, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[79] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p66, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[80] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p66, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[82] David Campbell, ‘Letting go of attachments’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p73, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[85] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p67, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[87] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p67, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[89] John Byng-Hall, ‘My story: why I became a family therapist’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p54, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[93] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p69, Whurr Publishers, 2002

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[104] John Hills, ‘Preface’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, pix, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[105] HV Dicks, 50 Years of the Tavistock Clinic, p278, Routledge, 1970

[106] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p70, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[107] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p70, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[108] John Byng-Hall, ‘Creating a secure family base: some implications of attachment theory for family therapy’, p45-57, Family Process, 19, 1995

[109] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p70, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[110] John Byng-Hall and Rosemary Whiffen, ‘The first family systemic training course’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p71, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[111] John Byng-Hall, ‘Family myths used as defence in conjoint family therapy’, British Journal of Psychology, p239-250, 1973

[112] John Byng-Hall, ‘Re-editing family mythology during family therapy’, Journal of Family Therapy, p103-116, 1979

[113] John Byng-Hall, ‘Family Legends: their significance for the family therapist’, in Bentovim et al (eds), Family Therapy: Complementary Frameworks of Theory and Practice, Vol 2, Academic Press, 1982

[114] John Byng-Hall, ‘Evolving ideas about narrative: re-editing the re-editing of family mythology’, Journal of Family Therapy, 20, p133-142, 1998

[115] John Byng-Hall, ‘The family script: a useful bridge between theory and practice’, Journal of Family Therapy, 7, p301-305, 1985

[116] John Byng-Hall, Rewriting Family Scripts: Improvisation and Systems Change, Guildford Publications, 1995

[117] John Hills, ‘Preface’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, pxi, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[118] David Campbell, ‘Letting go of attachments’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, p73, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[119] John Byng-Hall, ‘Symptom bearer as marital distance regulator: clinical implications’, Family Processes, 19, p355-365, 1980

[120] John Byng-Hall, ‘Telling One’s Own Story’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, pxvii, Whurr Publishers, 2002

[121] John Byng-Hall, ‘Telling One’s Own Story’, in John Hills (ed),  Rescripting Family Experiences, pxvii, Whurr Publishers, 2002