Wonderfulness practices are an approach to conversations which can be used by therapists when working with people coming from diverse social locations. This article explores how therapists can use these practices with young people and their families and what these kinds of conversations make possible for them.
What exactly are Wonderfulness Practices?
Narrative practices disrupt the structure of conventional therapeutic interventions for young people and their families, which tend to take on a problem-focused approach. While a traditional intake interview might begin with a description of the ‘presenting complaints’ a family brings to therapy and discussions about possible interventions, a therapist aligned to narrative practices may choose to begin by requesting the family to keep the problem aside for a little while. Instead, almost paradoxically, the therapist may elect to interview the family on their child’s ‘wonderfulness’ or their abilities, skills and know-hows.
The beauty of this approach is that it helps the young person feel less intimidated by the therapeutic setting and makes visible and celebrates stories that are preferred by them. These stories underscore the agency of the young person, as someone who holds particular values and beliefs, and intentionally engages in certain actions and pursues goals on the basis of them. They also provide for information that can be used to further narrative enquiry later in therapy and create rich or ‘thick’ descriptions of the young person’s preferred identity.
Wonderfulness inquiry was formulated by David Epston and the detailed account of the inquiry can be found in the book, Narrative Therapy in Wonderland: Connecting with Children’s Imaginative Knowhow, by Marsten, Epston and Markham (2016)
What does Wonderfulness Inquiry look like?
The interview can be done at the very beginning of therapy, or later as well. It can be introduced to the family with a statement such as, “I know you have come with serious concerns about your daughter—concerns that I want to make sure we get to today. But I’m wondering if, before we turn our attention to the problem, you’d consider something a little different that might serve as useful preparation.”
There is no predetermined structure for this conversation, but the introduction is usually followed by questions about the young person’s values, qualities and skills. Caregivers may also be asked to narrate stories about this ‘wonderfulness’ and provide examples of when this quality appears in their lives. The history of the young person’s wonderfulness is traced and explored in detail, from when it first appeared, its latest appearance, to what its presence might make possible in the future. The conversation also involves an exploration of the young person’s intentions, values, hopes and dreams. Stories fade when there is no one to listen to them, so the therapist may recruit witnesses, by asking who else has noticed the wonderfulness and how it has affected people within the family
What do Wonderfulness Practices Do?
The Wonderfulness Interview creates an atmosphere that unites the family, so they can approach problem together. When problems arrive in young people’s lives, families find themselves positioned within hegemonic discourses about what it means to be ‘a good parent’ and ableist ideals of how a young person ‘should be’. Being recruited by these discourses can result in a significant amount of blame in their lives, and this is especially true for mothers within a cis-heterosexual family structure.
A conversation around the young person’s wonderfulness can create space for conversations about the entire family’s strengths, values, skills and know-hows. It allows them to experience freedom, in the Foucaldian sense, which he describes as an ability to move within different discursive possibilities or put differently- it allows the family to begin exploring preferred ways of being, which they might find more liberating.
At Ummeed, we work with young people experiencing developmental disabilities and their families. The experiences of using the wonderfulness interview in this context can be profoundly liberating for families who are often judged by ableist metrics of success. Wonderfulness inquiry, with these families has resulted in the caregivers seeing their children as unique, having specific skills and know-hows in which they intentionally engage in to pursue their hopes and dreams.
For example, a young person who is not performing well academically in certain subjects is inadequate, and also may blame the parents for the same. A wonderfulness interview might make visible stories about the young person’s artistic abilities, or their caring nature. Often, these values and skills are part of the family legacy, and the therapist and family may discover that the value of being caring or creative ‘runs in the family’. Caregivers may have intentionally taken steps to cultivate these values in their children and a recognition of this paves the way for the family and young person to see themselves in a different light.
Why do Therapists’ use them?
Many narrative therapists hold the wonderfulness interview close to their heart for different reasons. Yashna Vishwanathan speaks about how unique wonderfulness practices are, saying, “It’s different from marvelling at a child’s quality, right? How that interview can aide the therapist in recognising things that the child brings in, which are so vital for that therapy hour and vital for building a thick description of all the skills and all the qualities against problems… So, to think about the child’s skills as vital to a starting point to talk about problems is something that really I think has stood out to me in my experience.”
Daisy Daruwalla, spoke about how wonderfulness can restore the dignity of a young person and she says, “It also helps to genealogically trace links of the young person’s wonderfulness to their parents, ancestors, communities and cultures from where they come. It often brings a sense of humour, playfulness and lightness in the therapeutic conversations which are often very heavy and serious due to the arrival of problems.”
In my own experience, using this approach can be a powerful experience for the caregivers, as well as the young person. I’ve noticed how it allows blame to leave the room and makes space for gratefulness, allowing parents to recognise their child’s unique individuality. My favourite part about wonderfulness practice is the profound impact these conversations can have on a young person’s sense of self – since in some cases, they may never have heard their parents speak about their skills and abilities in such depth.
Is the Wonderfulness Interview always a good place to begin?
It’s crucial to recognise that therapy is not a one-size-fits-all process. Some families are so mired in their problem saturated stories about their child and themselves, that they may not be able to notice or speak about their child’s wonderfulness in the beginning of therapy and should not be expected to. Families come into therapy bringing with them their experiences of privilege and marginalisation- and in some cases, extreme marginalisation may make it difficult for parents to notice preferred qualities and skills in their children and may make the problem saturated story seem like the only narrative that exists. In these circumstances, the therapist would likely choose to honour the problem-saturated story and hold space for the family’s experiences. ‘Double listening’ for cracks in the problem-story and noticing unique outcomes becomes all the more important for later therapeutic work.
Are Wonderfulness Practices Political?
The Wonderfulness Interview is radical, because dominant discourses around improvement and growth indicate that criticism, or ‘pointing out someone’s flaws’ is what guides growth, despite the fact that several theories of psychology indicating that this is in fact a misconception that often tends to do more harm than good for a person’s well-being. As a result of being situated within these discourses, often the only stories well-meaning parents and teachers tell young people about themselves are problem-saturated, and these stories slowly start becoming a part of their identity.
Often educational institutions, religion, the bio-medical model and the conventional nuclear family structure serve as ‘normalising judgements’ or become mechanisms to control the young person and make them fit into certain normative standards of behaviour. A young person experiencing ADHD is socially often judged as ‘badly behaved’ or ‘disruptive’, by teachers in a conventional schooling system and may be punished for the same.
Savneet Talwar, a renowned art therapist has rightly said that, “The core of our [therapeutic] work lies in the shedding of internalised oppression, sexism and victimisation,” and I believe wonderfulness practices can play a vital role in this. In a capitalist, ableist, cis-heteropatriarchal society that is constantly telling young people that they are not measuring up in one way or the other, the Wonderfulness Interview is both a form of celebration and an act of resistance.
About the author:
Farah Maneckshaw is a Junior Therapist at Ummeed Child Development Center. She also works as an independent journalist and writes about mental health-related subjects from a socio-political lens.
In her free time, she plots how to queer everything and watches bad reality tv.