Parents, and therapists, have forever marveled at the ability of children’s imagination to transcend everyday experiences. In their new book, Narrative Therapy in Wonderland: Connecting With Children’s Imaginative Know How, David Marsten, David Epston, and Laurie Markham explore how imagination can be used not just to transcend the everyday, but to transform therapeutic problems and a family’s experience of them.

Imagination can transcend structured norms and institutionalized relationships, and that means experiences of unexpected potency can happen. The authors explain, “We define imagination as ‘the ability to deal resourcefully with unexpected or unusual problems.'” And it is exactly this resourcefulness that emerges when children are given the opportunity to harness what the authors contend might be their greatest strength — their imagination. By enlisting their imagination in ways that illuminate their desires, hopes, and goals, children can also learn how to address problems by calling on their strengths and skills.

The authors tell us that narrative, and the use of story, has been historically useful as a vehicle for shaping our understanding of our lives and the world around us. They write, “It is especially after something unexpected has occurred or a narrative value has been transgressed, that we turn to narrative to make sense of events.” By becoming coauthors instead of clinicians, therapists help children engage in a creative process where the child takes the leading role.

As opposed to a typical problem-saturated therapeutic discussion, the authors demonstrate how narrative therapy transforms the process of overcoming problems into an often exciting quest for a child in which the problem is externalized in a way that opens space for a child to enact his own innovative approaches.

Where traditional therapy might ask what is wrong with a child, narrative therapy often asks just the opposite. One example is the wonderfulness interview, where parents are asked to describe what is wonderful about their children, and in doing so, children are given a central — and important role — in the therapeutic process.

Viewing children as multistoried also opens the door for problems to be viewed as multistoried. “In our meetings with children, problems are divested of their sashes and gowns and dispossessed of their rank in the ivory tower,” the authors write. Here, the authors describe how the story of a young boy pulling his hair out is transformed into a story of a young boy who has been tricked by bed bugs to pull his hair out so they could steal it.

Externalizing problems in this way allows for the development of two perspectives: that of the problem, and that of the child contending with the problem. The authors write, “At the very least, we bring to light the problem’s agenda and make room for what may ultimately become known as the young person’s counteragenda.”

By allowing the child to be seen, and become known as someone other than what is portrayed by the problem, the contrast between the designs of the problem and the desires of the young person become clear. It is here, the authors contend, that new possibilities may arise. Many of these possibilities can also be facilitated by a skilled clinician, and the authors give numerous examples of how a child may learn to use mischief to, for example, play a joke on a problem, to cast doubt on the problem, to expose the problem as clueless, or discover it as jealous. “It can be incumbent upon us as practitioners to animate the conversation by means of inventive proposals and sleights of hand, especially during moments when conversations flag and imagination has gone missing,” the authors write.

By redefining problems as things that capitalize on the experiences of children and often lure them into secluded existences, and further, offering an alternative view of children themselves as powerful agents of change, narrative therapy also allows for a relational composition of identity. When the experiences of friends, caregivers, and relatives dovetail with that of a child, a communal response can be a potent therapeutic force.

Narrative therapy, however, faces a formidable opponent in modern day society. Traditional psychiatry relies on distinct labels, categorical diagnoses, and often one-sided views of children and the problems that are strapped upon them, and would rather medicate than investigate. Explaining their approach, the authors say, “Though conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise, problems are not in the least bit intimidated by professional diagnosticians. In fact, they often appreciate the attention they receive and the ways in which they are legitimized and awarded lofty titles. There is no substitute for young people as lead agents, though we can certainly supplement their efforts by taking active supporting roles.”

The vivid transcripts, exquisitely crafted questions, dramatic surprises, and insightful prose of Narrative Therapy in Wonderland demonstrates something children so intuitively know: it is in the imagination that we become the most powerful version of ourselves, a version that transcends our preconceptions, assumptions, and problems.

Narrative Therapy in Wonderland: Connecting With Children’s Imaginative Know How
W.W. Norton & Company, November 2016
Hardcover, 320 Pages
$35.00

Psych Central's Recommendation:
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