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Three Wishes: A Projective Tool in Understanding the Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences

O’Donnell, Caitlin – 2020

Asking for “three wishes” is a projective tool commonly used by clinicians with children to assess features of their internal world. Despite its widespread use, research on the meaning of individuals’ responses to this tool is limited. Some research has looked at different types of wish responses across demographics such as age and gender; however, no study to date has specifically investigated the relationship of wishes to adverse childhood experiences. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as neglect and abuse, have been specifically connected to later health problems such as obesity and depression (Felitti et al., 1998). To fill in the gap in current literature, this research conducted two studies using an exploratory sequential mixed-methods approach. One examined the wishes of a foster care population and the other examined wishes in a general adult population across a range of early adverse experiences. Our findings are the beginning of understanding common and differing themes between wishes of children and adults. We explore previously unidentified differences such as the desire for reunification and escape in foster children and the centricity of mortality and money in a general adult population. Additionally, we found one theme common across all populations we researched, the wish for attachment and belonging. We also looked at wishes to examine differences across development and early adverse experiences. Across development, we found wish patterns similar to some of the findings of Erik Erikson(Erikson, 1982). Younger children were associated with more material wishes, latency age children with more social wishes (attachment and belonging), and adolescents with more future-oriented wishes (achievement). Adults higher in adverse childhood experiences had greater difficulty generating wishes, wanted escape more, reported fewer wishes for money, and reported more negative feelings after remembering wishes from childhood. We hope this research will help future clinicians pause to contemplate the meaning behind answers to Three Wishes and/or other interventions, to reflect on the evoked feelings, and to notice individuals’ resilience and aspirations in the face of adversity. We hope this study helps clinicians see what an individual’s wish has in common with wishes of others as well as its unique importance for the individual and their treatment. (Author abstract)