When clinicians work with children, it’s easy to notice that they often come from families where patterns of trauma stretch back one or two or more generations. A social history can reveal patterns of alcoholism, mental illness and other life struggles that appear to have haunted that family for generations.
But what do we say after we notice these patterns? Do we discuss these patterns with our clients? If we do, will they conclude that their families are cursed or that solutions to their problems are hopeless?
Family Constellations, a new method of exploring family systems, may help not only to answer these questions but also can offer significant healing for the child and the larger family system.This rapidly emerging approach shows how the focus on our ancestors’ lives can stimulate positive change for many seemingly insoluble problems.
Family Constellations – sometimes called Systemic Constellations – looks at family patterns from an experiential perspective, rather than the traditional family therapy of discussion and assignments. This method is not talk therapy or role playing, but a way to explore unconscious family dynamics in the context of a body-based experience.
Systemic Constellations were developed about 30 years ago in Germany by psychotherapist Bert Hellinger, who noticed that severe traumas and losses influence lives for many generations. Hellinger integrated practices derived from family psychotherapy and indigenous cultures into his approach, which identified reliable steps for transforming these ancestral memories for the good. Although Hellinger initially used his approach with adults, psychotherapists, educators and others are adapting Hellinger’s philosophy for use with children and adolescents, often with significant success.
In the classic style of this method, representatives of a family system are placed in an open space. They client typically observes, and the representatives note body sensations, emotions and urges to move or look. The facilitator may reposition the representatives into an arrangement that seems to bring greater peace to the group. Sometimes the facilitator coaches a representative to voice a healing sentence or participate in a simple ritual.
The method recognizes three principles that support families in functioning well:
- Inclusion rather than exclusion. Everyone belongs to a family, whether alive or deceased, old or young, never born or presently alive in the family.
- Rank should be recognized. Parents come before children, and grandparents come before parents. Previous marriages and significant relationships of parents should be acknowledged for the benefit of the children’s health, for instance.
- Unresolved trauma in past generations will affect future generations unless the trauma is properly acknowledged and addressed.
Bill Mannle, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Branford, Conn., has worked with families, children and adults for years.He has introduced Family Constellations in school settings and at a mental health treatment center for adolescents.
He finds that teens are unusually open to this process and easily in touch with the feelings that surface from the unconscious.
One memorable session with Henry (like others in this article, not his real name) illustrates the speed and ease of the process with teens.
Henry had been attending Bill’s intensive outpatient adolescent group for four weeks. The teen was highly anxious and hyperactive; his family history showed that his mother became pregnant as a teen-ager and had given him for adoption an infant.
In his typical anxious style, Henry hurriedly asked Bill to “do work” in the hallway as the group was gathering. After a round of introductions, Bill explained the process to the new group members. One of the new participants was 15-year-old Gloria, a surly teen whose every other word was a profanity. “I don’t know what the $%&# I’m doing here,” she practically spat out.
Bill started the Family Constellation session with Henry, encouraging him to consider what he wanted from group.
“I’d like to know why my mother gave me away,” he said.
“That’s a big question,” Bill only replied, offering no commentary. He asked Henry to pick a group member to represent his biological mother.
Henry stood up and turned to Gloria and said, “Would you represent my mother?”
Because Gloria appeared unsure of what to do, Bill directed her: “Stand up in front. You don’t have to do anything. Whatever comes, whatever emotions want to show up, just let them come out.”
Bill turned again to Henry, asking, “So what’s your question?”
He looked at Gloria and said, “Mom, why did you give me away?”
The entire room was silent. The blood drained from Gloria’s face. She started shaking. Bill placed his hand lightly on her shoulder to steady her. Tears started welling up in her eyes. Her lips were quivering.
“Just speak whatever comes to you,” Bill encouraged.
Gloria finally spoke. “I wanted you to live.”
Seconds after the words were spoken, Henry calmed. His body suddenly seemed more settled. The other teens were crying. Bill invited Gloria, still in the representation, to breathe and turned to Henry and said, “How’s that?”
“It’s enough. It’s all I need to hear,” Henry answered.
Bill, deciding the session was complete, directed Gloria to “shake off” the representation and return to her chair. Henry’s friends clearly recognized the power of his experience, with one exclaiming, “I’m so happy for Henry.”
Gloria, back in her chair, seemed uncertain about what to do next, and her surly attitude resurfaced. “What the $%&# just happened to me?” she demanded.
Bill says the emotional depth that teens are able to reach is more profound than what he has experienced with adults in similar sessions.
“Adolescents are much closer to life and death than adults are,” he says. “They drop into the depths of pain and sorrow but they are able to come out of it quickly. That’s the power of this work.”
Behaviors of the young person may be addressed when he or she is not present or refuses to attend psychotherapy.
In my practice, for instance, Sarah brought her 13-year-old son Jarred to a family session, identifying frustration about his refusal to do chores at home and fights with his two older sisters. Although Jarred was polite, he claimed there were no problems in the family and that his mother was controlling and unreasonable. A second session consisted of Jarred insisting the same, then refusing to talk further.
Sarah was invited to join the adult group that addressed family problems through Family Constellations. In group, Sarah revealed that Jarred would actually have been the fourth-born child because she suffered a miscarriage after the births of her two daughters, Jarred’s older sisters.
We set up her three children – using adults to represent Jarred, his older sisters and the miscarried child and herself. When Sarah observed the four children standing in order of oldest to youngest, she became tearful, speaking spontaneously to the lost child she had not birthed. She followed my direction for a simple ritual that included taking the miscarried child into her heart.
Two weeks later, Sarah reported that her relationship with Jarred was improving – that he appeared willing to follow directions about chores and homework – and that he and his sisters were arguing less.
As this approach grows in the United States, it is apparent that the versatility, depth and innovative potential continues to expand. Practitioners are developing innovations with the use of small figures, with the creative arts therapies and with equine therapy. What is true – that the focus on our ancestors’ lives and the larger family system – can stimulate positive change for many family situations.