Avoid Magic Outcome Stories

By "magic-outcome stories" I refer to tales that have a problem and an outcome but do not provide the means, processes, skills, or resources to help the child get from one to the other. A number of classic stories, such as Cinderella, have feel-good outcomes but do not show the listener how to reach the outcome.

Cinderella faces problems that may well match many of the problems experienced by our young clients. She encounters sibling rivalry, abuse, a hostile stepmother, and a low level of self-worth. The story provides an outcome fit to match the wildest fantasy of any female child: She is the most beautiful woman at the ball, meets her prince charming, and is rescued from a situation of abuse and poverty. This shift—from where she was to where she wants to be—comes about not because ofany-thing that Cinderella does, but rather through the magic of a fairy godmother. The transformation is the product of the magical appearance, and magical powers, of a fanciful figure. Cinderella, herself, does little to determine her own destiny. It is not something she has the power to replicate or maintain. The story provides no means for the character—or the listener—to lift herself out of her un-desired situation and improve her lot in life.

Many Zen tales have a similar magical-outcome formula. One I have long liked and that I developed into a metaphoric tale in 101 Healing Stories (Burns, 2001, pp. 75—76) is the delightful re-

framing story of the Zen master who came home to find his house burned down. He looked at the charred ruins and declared that at last he had an unobstructed view of the moon at night. As in the tale of Cinderella, there is no description of how the character moved through the processes from one set of circumstances to another. The tale does not tell us how, unless you have the wisdom or spiritual mastery of a high-order Zen practitioner, to move from the process of grief and loss to the reframed attitude of positivism.

Some clinician-authors seem to take a different view about the use of magic in metaphor. Linden, for example, says,

Magic is a very important metaphor. It is full of surprise and it implies that change can happen (Lankton, 1988). When a child's sense ofhim or herself, or ofthe future, has been destroyed because of some kind of traumatic experience, magic is a very powerful antidote. Children understand magic as a way to make things happen that ordinarily cannot happen. It can give children a sense of outcome and mastery in situations which seem hopeless, and does so with delight and joy. . . . The possibility of magic restores hope. (Linden, 2003a, p. 247)

The building of hope is certainly an important function oftherapy. Seligman's work (1995, 2002) highlights the value of hope for children and adults in combating depression and creating happiness. The case of the child with elective mutism that I presented in Chapter 1 shows that magical stories do work, sometimes—in this case, because the child already had the resources to speak, and to speak with certain people in certain circumstances. Generally, however, offering hope without the means is a bit like a parent saying to a child, "You can wish for your desired birthday present but I don't have the money to buy it." Hope without the resources to attain it is likely to heighten disappointment and possibly exacerbate the trauma experiences, so I would want to say, "Offer hope, offer outcome, and if magic stories help achieve that, use them—but with them, also offer the means, steps, skills, or processes that the child needs to make them realistic and attainable." While hope without means may be a false hope, hope with means gives the child replicable resources to facilitate transition and provide empowerment to overcome the problem.

Let me also distinguish between magic-outcome stories and the magic-wand question that is commonly found in brief solution-focused therapy (Berg & Dolan, 2001; Berg & Steiner, 2003). Magic-wand questions (e.g., "Ifyou had a magic wand and could wish for what you wanted most in your life, what would you want?") may be useful to include in therapeutic conversation and therapeutic metaphors as a way to define a child's goal. It is then essential to explore those questions that are going to help the child move toward his or her goal: questions such as "What do you think you can do to have that wish become a reality?" and "When are the times you feel closest to where you want to be?"

It is, of course, possible to create metaphoric tales that incorporate these processes. This I have attempted to do in "Creating a Wish" (Story 80). This tale uses a magic character (a genie in a lamp), has magic in its content, and asks a magic-wand question. At the same time, it seeks to empower listeners in the means to achieve their desired outcomes. In fact, the concept of empowerment is the key issue here. The bottom line with metaphor therapy, as indeed with any form of therapy, is to empower the child or adolescent to find his or her own best solutions. This doesn't happen as much by magic as by appropriate actions.

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