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Granny's Old Baggage: How your family's secrets are still hurting you (or your children)

'What you don't know can't hurt you' is, as it turns out, utter tripe. The new big thing in the self-help world, Systemic and Family Constellations, is showing us that family secrets are actually profoundly damaging.

This is not just for the poor gay uncle that had to end his days alone in Morocco, or the shunned Edwardian single mother or the bi-polar aunt locked up in an asylum, but for the three or four future generations who unconsciously seek to bring the excluded family member back into the fold. They do this by unconsciously matching the behaviours of the excluded person under the childish and erroneous belief that this will make it better. It does nothing of the sort of course and causes immense suffering.

Described as 'entanglements' by Family Constellations Therapy founder Bert Hellinger, this transgenerational damage is said to occur when unresolved trauma has afflicted a family through a life changing event. This could be murder, suicide, death of a mother in childbirth, early death of a parent or sibling, war, natural disaster, emigration or abuse. A disaster list that has probably hit most families in one way or another over the last hundred years.

So how does this impact us in the present? What we see is that many of the struggles we face and can't seem to resolve by the usual methods: determination, hard work, therapy or trying to ignore it and hope will go away, have their roots in the past. A typical example could be around finding a partner. You've read the books, been on and off the apps and had hundreds of dates, you are in possession of a job and all your faculties, you even forked out for an alarming makeover but you remain resolutely alone. A Family Constellations session would start by finding out about your family of origin and asking questions such as 'was there anyone in your family that had to remain single?' You might ask yourself if there was a relation who's fiancé was killed in the war, or had to stay at home and look after an ailing parent, or who was gay and couldn't live with the person they loved. You might know and the session would start there, and of course you might not know if it had been a secret and the facilitator would continue to explore where the blockage in the family system might lie. We sometimes see that if a sibling has terrible fate, such as a motorbike accident that paralysed them, the other sibling, out of an unconscious loyalty, might find it hard to live a happy life, such as finding a life partner or having children. As Judith Hemming, the UK's doyenne of constellations says: "Constellations works with a whole picture of the individual as part of a larger set of systems – family, community, ethnic group and so on. By seeing ‘what is’, rather than our usual incomplete pictures, it has the capacity to clarify hidden forces that often include previous generations or rejected elements, which may be actively entangling you in the here and now."

When the facilitator has a sense of the key dynamics you would be asked to choose representatives for those people from the other participants and 'set them up', which means to move them to a place in the room, and in relation to eachother, which feels right. You then sit down and the facilitator gets to work. If there was no obvious reason for not being able to find a love match you might be asked to set up a representative for you and a representative for 'a single available person'. Once the constellations starts it's usually clear that the representative for the prospective partner is looking in a friendly way at the issue holder's representative, whilst the issue holder's representative is resolutely looking in the other direction or avoiding the attentions in some other way. The work of the constellation is to explore what the issue holder needs in order to be able to face and see the potential partner. You can read a good description of what happens in a constellation here) and my article about the first constellation workshop I ever attended is here.

Another area that constellations can be hugely helpful with is childhood and adolescent emotional or behavioural problems. When a child's behaviour is alarming you and nothing you do helps or makes any sense this could be a supportive step. Just as every person is unique so is every constellation so it's impossible to make hard and fast rules but there are situations that come up again and again that we can see cause a great deal of distress. The more we know about attachment theory the more we understand about the effects of adoption, it is no surprise that we see many adopted children finding their way to Constellations in adulthood to manage the trauma. The children who follow terminations or miscarriage, or children born from frozen eggs, or IVF can sometimes have issues that are hard to reach or make sense of as they are rooted in pre-verbal trauma.

Hellinger saw that the most vulnerable member of the family would often try to fill the missing gaps, so if a miscarriage or termination hadn't been grieved the next baby along might take on the role of helping the family face that grief. The burden of this is too much for any child to carry and behavioural problems are often the result. It might manifest as an unconscious death wish to join the still-born sibling, which could play out as a sever illness, repeated accidents, depression, self-harm or suicide attempts.

As a parent I have taken concerns about my children as an issue for a constellation and witnessed transformative results. The beauty for me was that I didn't need my child or teen to be present, I could do the work for them, and work it does. Every constellations facilitator has an inbox of success stories from desperate, dysfunctional adolescents becoming happy thriving teenagers, excluded children finding their way back to themselves, a string of miscarriages ending with a beautiful birth. However sometimes the result of a constellation is not about change but coming to terms with what is. We cannot turn back time or change fate. If a child is born with a disability it is entirely unlikely they'll become able-bodied after a constellation, even though the results can sometimes seem magical or miraculous.. But doing the constellation might help the parents see the bigger picture or the blessings in a tragedy, and find a peace with their fate rather than railing against it, which is a positive outcome. Sometimes a person at the end of their life is needing the opportunity to put things right before they go, or to face death without fear, not to be fixed or cured. A warring couple might just need to say goodbye with love and respect.

A huge range of deeply felt problems get brought to a constellation (see list below), and they can also helpful for looking at difficult choices and the possible outcomes of those choices. The work has also been taken into the corporate world is used ' to help leaders in commercial, government, education and public sector organisations to gain insights into and deeper understanding of the hidden dynamics of their organisations and to interpret and use them to achieve transformation' finds research by the Nowhere Foundation.

If this methodology speaks to you, you are invited to get in touch with Emma Pruen ( find out more or for her latest workshop and retreat dates. Her next one-day workshop is here and 2023 retreats are here.


The range of issues people bring to a constellations workshop are many and varied. Some of the topics that arrive frequently include issues arising from:

  • Divorce and merged families.

  • Babies who were miscarried, aborted or given away for adoption.

  • Sexual abuse. incest, rape.

  • ​Health problems.

  • Family members who no longer have contact with the rest of the family.

  • Patterns which get repeated through generations.

  • Addictions.

  • Early deaths.

  • War and emigration.


If you are struggling to shift something, or you recognise a pattern that appears to reoccur in your family through generations, you have health issues that have not been resolved through normal routes, your children are struggling and you cannot find a root cause or solution then constellations could be for you.

FURTHER READING 1. 2. Hellinger,B, Weber,G and Beaumont,H (1998) Love’s Hidden Symmetry. Phoenix: Zeig,Tucker&Co 3.

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