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The Risks of Family Constellations, a Controversial Pseudoscientific Therapy Very Popular in Brazil

The Risks of Family Constellations, a Controversial Pseudoscientific Therapy Very Popular in Brazil

A pseudoscientific method, which became popular when it began to be used in court conflict mediation and is part of the SUS, is criticized by sociologists and psychologists for “violating human rights and reinforcing stereotypes and will ask for forgiveness for everything it has done.” .” This phrase would have been said by a mediator to Pamela (fictitious name) during a family constellation session, a pseudoscientific method widely used in Brazil as a therapeutic practice, even with the approval of the Ministry of Health.




In 2016, Pamela reported her ex-husband after she caught him abusing the couple’s 2-year-old son. The complaint led to a criminal investigation against the man, who was prevented from visiting the boy. He then went to the São Paulo Family Court to seek custody of the child and accused his ex-wife of parental alienation.

And amid the legal impasse over who would keep her son, Pamela was notified during the trial to attend a family constellation session. “I didn’t know what it was, it was a court order, no one told me I couldn’t go. The guy who was driving said he found it challenging to work with a constellation of mothers accusing fathers of abuse, who should be arrested for leaving vulnerable children.”

Proponents of the method say that family constellation is a therapeutic practice that consists of solving a problem or trauma through the representation of the family system. According to the National Council of Justice (CNJ), the technique has been used in Brazil since 2012 to mediate conflicts regarding divorce, custody, parental alienation and alimony.

Sociologists and psychologists warn, however, that it is a pseudoscientific method that not only ignores social sciences and psychology, but also violates human rights, reinforces stereotypes about the social roles of men and women and “can trigger or worsen emotional states of suffering or psychic disorganization”. “.

Despite this, in 2018, the Ministry of Health approved the inclusion of family constellations in the list of complementary integrative practices offered in health centers. Ordinance No. 702 of 2018 describes that “family constellation is recommended for all ages, social classes and without any religious ties or approaches, and can be recommended to any sick person.”

In response to a request made under the Access to Information Act, the ministry announced that in 2022, more than 11,000 family constellation sessions were carried out by SUS throughout Brazil and that the department does not offer practical training to health workers.

The use of this technique, which is not based on science, in public service is contested by professional and academic councils, which warn of the risk of psychological distress for participants and call for its ban.

Session to “recreate the problem”

To deal with the conflicts presented by the “constellates”, the approach uses other people or dolls, who represent the patients as in a kind of theater. The way they behave and position themselves in the session in front of the problem that is recreated would be a representation of the emotions of the “constellates”. The mediator interprets this representation to reach a solution to the conflict. “We don’t have tools to explain this scientifically, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real,” explains the mediator, or “constellator”, Mateus Santos.

In the session Pamela attended, she and her son were supposedly represented by two other people. Her ex-husband would play the role himself. “There was a woman screaming and rolling on the floor. The constellator said I was just like her: crazy,” she says. She says she refused to kneel down and ask the man for forgiveness after the constellator’s order. “I was considered rebellious, mentally ill, a danger to my son.”

Santos says this is not the right conduct for constellators. “It is unethical,” he says. He argues that the technique is effective, but that, in the public health service, the application must be controlled to avoid risks. “Entering the intimacy of a human being at the level of the soul requires the utmost respect. It is a care that must be taken towards the victims.”

In sentencing Pamela’s case, the judge ordered her to stay away from her son, with psychiatric treatment. “I haven’t seen him for 8 years,” says her mother. The judge does not categorically state that the decision was based exclusively on the dynamics of the family constellation, but specifies that there was no conciliation, in addition to taking into account a psychiatric assessment and the father’s complaint that he did not get along with Pamela, which would be alienating.

Poetry for Hitler

The method of family constellations was proposed by the German Catholic missionary Bert Hellinger in 1978. In proposing the approach, he brought together psychological references with his 16 years of experience working in South Africa with Zulu and Taoist readings. He believes that the origin of conflicts in relationships is linked to ancestors and that these problems can manifest themselves in different generations.

With this Hellinger established the three orders of love that would be the basis of the family structure: the right to belong to the family, the hierarchy and the balance between giving and receiving.

Among the most controversial teachings of the “psychoguru,” as he is often called in the German press, is that children who are victims of incest by their father have understanding toward the aggressor and even accept sexual contact: “The solution for the child is for the child to say to the mother: ‘Mommy, for you, I’ll do it with pleasure,’ and to the father: ‘Dad, for Mom, I’ll do it with pleasure,'” Hellinger “teaches.”

The two largest associations of systemic therapy in Germany, the DGSF and the SG, have criticized Hellinger’s methods. “The actual practice of family constellations must also be viewed critically, as it is ethically unacceptable and dangerous for those affected,” the DGSF stated in an official position in 2003, distancing itself from this practice.

Hellinger is extremely controversial in Germany and has already been accused of relativizing Nazism. He is often remembered as the author of a controversial poem dedicated to Adolf Hitler, in which he asks the reader to identify with the Nazi leader, and he even lived for a time in a rented apartment on the site of Hitler’s second office, in Berchtesgaden, in southern Germany.

Risks of the practice

Sociologist Mateus França, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, who studies the implementation of family constellations in public service, warns that the use of the method leads to a violation of human rights, since it shapes judicial decisions and alternative treatments from a conservative perspective that reinforces gender roles and goes against advances in family law.

“It ignores social science and reproduces gender violence by assuming that violent people cannot be excluded from the family system. Another example is that it creates a family stereotype: if an adoption occurs between same-sex couples, one person must assume the male role and the other the female role. It is a step backwards in family law,” she says.

“The blame for the conflict is placed on the woman. These are very dangerous statements, such as that of not excluding the man who attacked her from the family, or that an aborted fetus is missing from the family hierarchy because it is excluded.”

Another concept used by Hellinger is that of the morphogenetic field. Created by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, this field concerns a collective memory that would be captured by individuals of a species. In this way, representatives would have access to the sensations of the constellations.

Physics professor Marcelo Yamashita, from the State University of São Paulo (Unesp), says the argument is a strategy to justify the interpretations offered in the constellation and the conflicts between the parties, but that morphogenetic fields have never been demonstrated. “This pretends to be science and has no support in physics, nor support in scientific experiments, it is something invented, there has never been any evidence of the proof of this hypothesis.”

The physicist says that family constellations meet the requirements to be considered pseudoscience: having an author who has elaborated the argument to justify the practice, avoiding conflicting evidence, and withstanding testing, for example.

Use in public service

França also says that “depending on beliefs is not interesting for public policies, especially when it comes to supernatural issues”. He recalls that efficient public policies need to be the subject of research that attests to their effectiveness and guarantees the safety of the method and the understanding of the risks associated with its application.

Resolution No. 125 of the CNJ allowed courts to apply family constellation as an alternative practice to speed up the resolution of legal conflicts before they reach litigation. Currently, at least 16 courts use this method in hearings and trials. In October, the CNJ initiated a process to limit the use of therapeutic alternatives in the judiciary, such as constellation.

“The idea of ​​speed, of agreement, of reducing the pile of cases is convincing for those who work in Jurisprudence, it is a defensible objective, but it should not be an all against all, we must seek security” modality for those who access the judicial system”, says França. Therefore, the lawyer has proposed a legislative suggestion to prohibit the practice in the public service. Now the text awaits the rapporteur, Senator Eduardo Girão (Podemos-CE), in solidarity with the constellation, to express an opinion on the matter.

This scenario of the spread of family constellations in the public service has motivated a joint note from the Federal Council of Psychology and the academic world. In the document sent to the Ministry of Human Rights, the group specifies that the practice “can trigger or worsen emotional states of suffering or psychic disorganization, thus requiring professional psychological support that is not offered during the sessions”.

The ministry has asked the National Council for Human Rights to evaluate the use of this practice. The council is still analyzing the case.

Source: Terra

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