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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

Talkin' Family Hierarchy (Blues)

The idea of a family hierarchy, a form of organization in which members have different amounts of power and authority to make decisions, is far from unreasonable. Groups do tend to work more efficiently when there is clear leadership, even though they may be more creative and effective in other ways when every member has equal say. And, of course, families characteristically are made up of people of a variety of ages and levels of competence, so there are generally a small number of members who have more ability and more authority to make decisions for the group.

 However, families are also different from other organizations in that members who have little competence may also have more important needs than those who are more competent, so good decisions are often made in the interest of the weakest members rather than just according to the wishes of the strongest. In some ways, the youngest and most vulnerable members of a family have more “power” than the older ones, as the older ones recognize the importance of protecting and nurturing the young. An additional difference between family hierarchies and other groups’ hierarchical organizations is that the family organization is dynamic—it changes as individuals develop and their needs and abilities change. A parent who exercised much power in the family may lose that status with age, and a younger person entering adulthood can and often does attain greater authority in the family group. (Those changes can be even more obvious in times of rapid technological change, where younger people may have mastered skills that older people do not have, or may be less when families have money or political power that is managed by elders and sometimes passes to younger adults only at the death of the older.)

These comments about family hierarchy refer to the actual observable (and ever-changing) organization of families and of the relationships among family members. But there is more to family hierarchy than just the ways families work: family hierarchy is a concept that overlaps considerably with ideological positions. For some families, and especially for their senior members, hierarchy and power differentials within the family represent right ways of life. Such power differentials are not expected to change as family members develop, as the structure rather than the function of the hierarchical organization is cherished. Alterations in the hierarchy may symbolize religious issues, as obedience to parents may be equated with obedience to God; a disobedient child may be seen as moving toward eternal damnation, and parents who allow their children to disobey may themselves be seen as failing in their religious duty. Beyond specific religious belief, too, the family hierarchy may represent the authoritarian organization of the community so valued by certain political groups, and power attained by younger members of a family may appear to be a frightening reminder of chaotic revolutionary movements.

Whatever the reasons for the ideological commitment to an unchangeable family hierarchy, those committed to this kind of hierarchy may use it as an essential touchstone for evaluation of families and individuals. For example, the German “family therapist” Bert Hellinger has claimed that in cases where an older family member has sexually molested a younger one, the younger person should apologize to the abuser for his or her own role in the breaking of the hierarchy through criticism or complaints about an older family member. (Hellinger is known for his work with Jirina Prekopova, a Czech psychologist who had proposed that autistic children can be helped only if their mothers are submissive to the fathers, thereby establishing a strong hierarchy.) In the United States and Britain, practitioners of holding therapy have claimed that children’s emotional attachment depends on their experience of powerlessness with respect to adults. Children in that form of treatment are to call adults names connoting authority like “Mom Sally” or “Dad Brian”. Proponents of parental alienation (PA) have made similar arguments. Richard Warshak, for example, considers it inappropriate for children to address their parents by first names, a breaking of the hierarchy that he feels is best maintained by using names that indicate special importance, power, and status such as Mom or Dad. According to sworn testimony, the PA proponent Craig Childress scolded children for their rejection of their father, which was  related to his violence against their mother, and stated that they should not break the hierarchy by criticizing the father’s actions.

Certainly there are families for whom long-term maintenance of a hierarchy of authority is a basic goal, whether because of religious or of broader political beliefs, or as part of a “therapeutic” approach. As long as no one gets hurt, there is no reason why they should not manage their lives in this way, although they may find that adolescents are forced to break with a family whose support they still need, rather than forego and foreclose their own development. For most families, however, the effort to maintain an unchanging family hierarchy is a waste of time as well as potentially damaging to relationships.  In the ordinary course of events, parents who have given up their own sleep or dinner in order to fulfill the needs of infants will come to say that older children can wait a bit or manage their own needs while the parents sleep or eat. Parents who sympathized with the anger or frustration of the tantruming toddler begin to feel justified in demanding some peace and quiet. And parents, who decided what music lessons or sports participation a third-grader should have, come to realize that the interests and abilities of a teenager ought to shape decisions about schooling and career preparation. 

That families have hierarchies of power and authority is clear, and is important to their effective functioning. But the idea that the structure rather than the function of hierarchy must be preserved is a mistake. People change, so family hierarchies change, and attempting to keep relationships the same forever is a mistake, however understandable may be the wish of some family members that time stand still.  

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