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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Obedient Love: Prekopova, Hellinger, and Konrad Lorenz

The Czech psychotherapist Jirina Prekopova is a strong proponent of the use of physical restraint (“Holding Therapy”) for a range of childhood behavioral problems and even adult difficulties like marital conflict. As I’ve discussed elsewhere (, Prekopova recommends that all parents restrain children daily, face-to-face on the lap when small, or with the parent lying prone on a larger supine child. This period of restraint, accompanied by emotional expression both negative and positive, is thought by Prekopova to release feelings of love in both parent and child and to make children want to obey the beloved parent. Prekopova attributes serious problems like autism and severe oppositional behavior to the absence of loving communication and sees restraint as a corrective measure.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Prekopova presented this method as scientifically based and published several articles claiming to demonstrate its effectiveness. She was able to claim a scientific foundation in part because of the support she received from the Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen. However, over time, Prekopova gradually dropped the emphasis on what remained a very shaky scientific foundation, and moved to an argument in terms of spiritual influences. Czech correspondents tell me that she presently claims that her method was taught to her by her husband, who learned it from an old peasant who was steeped in tradition. She also warns that civilization is being destroyed by lack of family love and traditional relationships. Prekopova is very concerned about the effects of technology on human life.

Toward the end of her “scientific” period, Prekopova became associated with the German therapist/spiritual cult leader Bert Hellinger, who calls his practice Family Constellations or systemic family therapy. (Hellinger’s use of the term Family Constellation should not be confused with this term as it was used in the 1960s by Walter Toman as he attempted to describe effects of parents’ and children’s birth order.)   Hellinger’s treatment mode appears to involve assigning identities of family members, who may be absent or even dead, to people who are present, in the belief that they will then convey the emotions of the absent ones and allow family conflicts of generations back to be resolved. An important concept in Hellinger’s approach is what he calls “orders of love”--- that there is a hierarchy in the family in terms of birth order; that parents give and children receive; that males have the highest position (but work in the service of the female) (

Hellinger’s “orders of love” concept may be responsible for Prekopova’s changed presentation, from positioning herself as a scientist with evidence for the effectiveness of her treatment to her present packaging of Holding Therapy as created not by herself (although as an elderly person she should be near the top of the hierarchy), but instead by a man--  and not just any man, but an old man, a man who understood ancient tradition. This source for Holding Therapy gives Prekopova and her colleagues a spiritual authority that cannot be claimed by a scientific approach, and that in turn allows her to co-opt religious and nationalistic emotion as supporters of her methods.

Holding Therapy has a historical tradition of its own and can be traced back to exorcism and other  early efforts to treat mental illness. Certainly, for what it’s worth, Prekopova did not invent this technique. But what about the framework of “orders of love” and threats of disastrous social change? Did Prekopova and Hellinger invent this? No, like most things under the sun, these ideas are not new, and to explore them fully would be a lengthy proceeding.

However, it may be interesting to look at some similar beliefs expressed by one of Nikolaas Tinbergen’s co-Nobelists, Konrad Lorenz. Famous for his studies of imprinting and social behavior in geese, Lorenz was also willing to discuss human life in ethological terms, and did so in his 1974 book Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins. In this volume, Lorenz presented a belief in the importance of tradition, in the power of early experiences,  in the hierarchical organization of human social life, and in the dangers of breaking innate rules for human behavior. He did not carry these ideas forward to make claims about treatment of mental illness, as Tinbergen did, but articulated some of the concepts  that were foundational for Hellinger and Prekopova.
Here are some examples of Lorenz’s thought:
“Lack of personal contact with the mother during earliest childhood produces—if not still worse effects—the inability to form social ties, with symptoms extremely similar to those of innate emotional deficiency” (p. 48).
“Much in our society-sustaining or society-destroying behavior is the blessing or curse of early infantile imprinting by more--  or by less—understanding, responsible, and, above all, emotionally sound parents” (p. 52). (Interestingly, this statement appears in the context of an argument against the belief that attitudes and behavior are “conditioned”, and of course Lorenz always presented imprinting as different from other forms of learning.)
“[M]other love, self-sacrifice in the interests of family and society” are destroyed by domestication, in animals and humans (p. 55).
Without the environmental pressures for selection that were part of the world in which humans evolved, our behavior may be undergoing “genetic decay” , which Lorenz says animals bred in captivity show. In fish, he says, “the genetic pattern of brood tending is so disturbed that, among dozens of fishes, one  barely finds a pair still capable of caring for their young” (p. 54). Although humans are “child-like” in their adult playfulness and curiosity, if “the progressive infantilism and the increasing juvenile delinquency are, as I fear, signs of genetic decay, humanity as such is in grave danger” (p. 58).
“The modern mother can hardly ever give her full time to her baby and this results, to a greater or lesser degree, in the phenomenon, called by René Spitz, [hospitalism]. Its worst symptom is a severe, irreversible lessening of the ability to make human contacts. All this contributes in a serious way to the decay of human compassion that I discussed earlier. … The contemporary ‘nuclear’ family lacks the rank-order structure that, under more natural conditions,made an old man a venerable figure. … Recognition of superiority in rank order is not incompatible with affection” (p. 71).

There’s lots more of Lorenz, but basically there you have it, the foundation on which Prekopova and Hellinger have based their views. The world is going to hell in a handbasket now that we no longer live “naturally”; nature and tradition will show us the right things to do; people get soft if things are too easy for them; maintaining a strong social hierarchy is the way to do things; and mothers will ruin everything if they don’t spend enough time with their babies.

Historians of psychology have downplayed Lorenz’s involvement with the Nazis, although the ideas stated in the last paragraph are obviously congruent with the Nazi philosophy (as well as with other authoritarian views, including “racial cleansing”). But there seems no doubt that he joined the Nazi party in 1938 and was willing to try for an academic position where the incumbent had been dismissed for reasons probably connected with his wife’s Jewish background.  Are Hellinger and Prekopova appealing to current fascistic mind-sets? This seems very possible, especially in light of Hellinger’s famous  forgiving “letter to Hitler” ( Such possibilities raise concern about Prekopova and Hellinger above the level usual for non-evidence-based alternative treatments.  


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