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Parentification – who is the grown up here?

Sallyann, the young protagonist of our last blog post, is one hard-working little girl (or little boy as the case may be)! Not only does she have to manage the complex demands of growing up in an industrial world, she must constantly assess Mother’s (or the caregiver’s) moods, and guess right what Mother will want at any moment, a quixotic goal for one so young. Especially when Mother’s own disorganized attachment and early childhood trauma keeps her nervous system flipping capriciously between high aggitation (sympathetic arousal), what Sallyann experiences as aggression, and collapse (dorsal vagal arousal), what Sallyann experiences as a fearful absence. Who is the parent here? Sallyann has been placed in charge of Mother’s moods, blamed for Mother’s anger, and is the target of Mother’s internal shame and grief at her own dependency and unmet needs. This child finds herself dancing on a teeter-totter not of her own making. Sallyann is taking care of Mother.

Constellations make visible the reversal in the role of emotional caretaker that the narcissistic parent or caregiver imposes on the child. As a child, this client struggled to care for the narcissistic parent’s own damaged and fragile ego. Shaw’s book, Traumatic Narcissism, (2013) clearly points out the “internalized narcissist” or narcissistic wound this leaves on the child who does not in turn become an externally abusive narcissist herself. The child’s sense of an autonomous “self” has been punctured early, leaving her struggling into her adulthood to find a sense of self, let alone of self-worth.

This “parentification” shows up in the adult client’s story in the initial interview in constellation work (i.e., the “chairwork”) as a lack of a sense of agency, a dissociation from her own feeling states, and a lack of coherence in her sense of her physical self. Parentification as a consequence of such a disorganized-attached, traumatized parent shows up often in stark relief in the arrangement of the client’s family member representatives that she places on the floor. In a healthy family, we often see the representatives for the client’s parents stand so that they literally give the child backing and support as she launches herself into the world. (See Figure 1. Figures simplified to show heads as viewed from the top, with ears and nose indicating the direction the person is facing.)

Figure 1. Healthy family positions


In the case of a trans-generationally narcissistically wounded parent, or trauma-induced narcissist parent, we see the client is often positioned in relation to the parent where she must offer support and care. (See Figure 2 for an example, one of many that show similar role reversal dynamics.)

Figure 2. Parentification


Worse yet, the child may find herself haplessly standing in as a surrogate for the longed-for-yet-reviled family member who wounded the parent, sandwiched between Mother and Mother’s narcissistic tormentor and utterly invisible to her parent. The parent’s anger at the one who wounded them has been unleashed on the dependent, and defenseless child who often does not know the cause for the parent’s inexplicable and inconsistent behavior. This “Bad Child Sandwich” is a “no win” position for the child. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3. The “Bad Child” Sandwich

The narcissistic caregiver was once a child herself

Before the client can begin to find a place for herself, and thus begin to develop a sense of autonomy, she first needs to humanize the parent. The child longs for her parent’s love and attuned attention, and to be seen as a separate “subject” or person, however, the parent seems almost like a mystical being, part demi-god, part demon. The first move the constellation facilitator often makes is one that accomplishes two important shifts at once, (1) removing the child from the sandwich, and (2) revealing the parent’s own wounded child. (See Figure 4.) Here the facilitator does something the child was not able to do for herself and thus gives the adult client a new perspective and a chance to “reappraise” her early experience (Peyton, in press). In this case, the facilitator literally “pulls apart” the enmeshed image Mother had of her daughter and her own mother. For the first time in her life, the child sees beyond the parent-child dyad and discovers that the cause for Mother’s behavior is not herself. I call this pull-apart “shrinking the mythical ogre parent to human size.” She sees that the parent who was so wounding, was herself wounded. This is often a huge relief for the child who has carried around the guilt of being the “cause” of the parent’s unhappiness. The child can finally see for herself, “it wasn’t me Mother was so unhappy and angry with. It was grandmother. I was just there.”

Figure 4. The “Pull Apart” - first move out of the Bad Child Sandwich

Restoring the child’s essential goodness and honoring the child’s contribution

Even though the child has been forced into a role where they are not allowed to develop a separate sense of themselves as an individual, the sacrifice they make to keep the wounded parent (somewhat) functional can be seen and honored. Once the child discovers the long chain of affairs that molded the parent, something constellation work uniquely reveals by allowing a trans-generational perspective to be quickly brought to life, the client is able to consider other possible explanations for the caregiver’s destructive behavior. Often by having a “bad child” to project her inner turmoil on to allows the wounded parent to manage her inability to contain the feelings of hurt, shame, and pain that engulfed her as a child. This allows the wounded parent or care-giver to perhaps function somewhat better than she might have otherwise done. The child’s incredible accommodation to the parent’s needs can be acknowledged with simple sentences from the parent representative to the client’s child’s representative. For example, “I never saw you before. I only saw my own Mother’s rage. Now I see that you did a lot for me. I see I took from you and you gave to me. I am the parent and you are the child. What you did for me is a lot.” Sallyann would dissolve in tears at these words, for all her suffering and walking on egg-shells, to be seen by Mother would be redeeming. The constellation frames her experience in the larger traumatic context that has created the traumatized, and traumatizing, parent.

The beauty of constellations is that the parents may be gone, or too far trapped in their own trauma and disorganization to actually say these words, but the child can feel the rightness of these words, the truth behind them. Once the narcissistic parent can be seen as human, sometimes valiantly trying to do better for their child than they themselves experience, the child’s rage often softens, and what surfaces is an innocent love for the parent as the source of life. Though the parent may not be safe for the client to be with, the client can recover her sense of original goodness, and a budding sense of a separate self.

Constellation work in individual therapy setting

One of the topics that Shaw discusses at length is the fragile nature of the child wounded by a narcissistic parent or caregiver. In the course of psychoanalytic therapy, where the goal is to rebuild the relationship capacity of the client through the safe relationship with a fairly consistent and caring therapist, the client may perceive the therapist’s behavior through the lens of her wounded child. In other words, the client transfers her feelings and reactions from her relationship with the wounding parent to the therapist. This can result in all kinds of confusion, and is a tricky domain for both therapist and client to navigate safely.

Constellation work uniquely tunes the therapist to sense when he or she might be the target of a client’s “projection,” for example, when the “angry Mother” is perceived as acting through the therapist in the client’s eyes. Having participated as a representative many times in the course of his training, the therapist will recognize the experience of being “enrolled” quickly (or at least more quickly, we hope!). Using the constellation methodology, the therapist can choose something other than themselves to represent Mother in the room, a pillow on the floor, or an empty chair, or a pair of shoes. I use colored mats made of craft foam and ask my client to tell me where they feel Mother (or who ever the wounding caregiver is) most strongly in the room, and place the mat there. If the client wants the mat in my lap, I will place the mat in my chair, then literally “take my client’s side”, moving to crouch or sit beside her and facing the mat with her while we sort out what has just happened to trigger this strong reaction from the client. I continue to assure the client I am on her side, and together we can gently unpack the situation from a stance not unlike the “pull-apart” move done on the floor with representatives. If I have inadvertently done something to hurt my client, of course I must own that to maintain the integrity of our relationship. I have noticed, however, that this move allows both the client and myself to stay more integrated and resourceful in unpacking an episode that has caused a temporary breech in our connection. It also seems to allow us to repair the injury more effectively, and to advance our conversation about the original relationship with the parent or caregiver.

In summary, Sallyann, and all those like her, functional in many areas of life, but deeply wounded in others, need not continue to suffer the unresolved wounds left by a traumatized narcissistic parent or caregiver. Many approaches help, including the work so beautifully described by Shaw. Constellation work is a powerful adjunct to these approaches.

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