Family systems theory has been around for decades, but there is little discussion of it today. Yet understanding how family systems work can help professionals and parents going through separation and divorce. In this article, I explain some of the basics, some of what happens to family systems in divorce and how to truly help families in divorce. I also point out why the adversarial process of family courts successfully managed family conflicts in the past, but is guaranteed to fail today’s high-conflict family systems (regardless of procedural changes within the adversarial structure) – whereas skillful family mediation and other non-adversarial processes can succeed.

Family Systems Theory

Family systems theory describes families as operating like the solar system: each member of the family has a “pull” on every other member of the family – like gravity pulls planets towards each other and other forces push them away, so that they stay in balance spinning around each other in a predictable orbit. Family systems have many common characteristics, including the following:

They are powerful: Family systems are a powerful source of support. You can take them for granted. Family members will consistently act in predictable ways, so you don’t have to guess each day. You can focus on what your tasks are and respond fairly automatically to each other. In this regard, a family system is like a personality – very predictable, so that you know what you can get from whom, when and where without putting a lot of energy into thinking about it. Family systems have built houses, companies (family businesses are everywhere) and nations (dynasties). For example, most successful Olympic athletes, musicians and actors had strong family support – from a very young age. The family system organized itself around their success.

They seek stability: A family system develops standard ways of doing things. The whole family participates in enforcing its code of conduct, values and roles people play in it. Even young children tell each other, their parents and their toys how they should or shouldn’t behave, which helps them learn the rules of the family system and follow them. Family secrets are kept, so that the family system is not thrown off balance. The more dysfunctional the family, the more rigid the roles to help keep it stable, the more extreme behavior and the more secrets to keep it as stable as possible. Everyone is part of the family system – no member is an “island.”

They create roles: In every family system, everyone develops a role. One member talks a lot and another may be quiet. One person is highly competent at one skill and another is good at something else. In traditional family systems, especially in rural societies, the roles have been very clear-cut. In modern times, roles are more flexible and may overlap, as family members interact with the larger society. This can cause instability, so that the family may spend more time arguing over roles or members may simply leave the family system and have little or no contact.

They are part of larger social systems: Family systems, like “nuclear families” (two parents and their child or children), are part of larger extended families, which are part of communities, which are part of regional cultures, which are part of nations and world social systems. The values, rules and behaviors of these larger social systems strongly influence smaller family social systems. As one changes, so do the others – but not necessarily happily so.

They are resistant to change: In times of threat from outside of a family system, the family can be very powerful, because everyone automatically knows how to behave and what their roles are. Regardless of internal squabbles, family systems can be strong in jointly warding off danger – especially threats to the family system. This includes resistance to positive changes. They maintain the status quo at all costs. They don’t let people change their behavior very much. They are always aiming for stability, like a ship at sea trying to balance itself in a storm.

Today’s Social Changes Regarding Marriage

Since about 1970, there have been dramatic changes in our larger social systems and within families around the world. We are shifting from fairly rigid family structures to quite flexible family structures. Freedom to divorce, gay marriage, multi-racial households, children born to unmarried parents, people living alone and a multitude of other changes are having unpredictable affects on the future of family systems and larger social systems.

In terms of the separation and divorce process (we now speak of “separation and divorce” because so many couples no longer get married), the relationship of Family Court to family systems has changed dramatically in the past few decades.

Individual over the family: Divorce laws gave social permission for people to get divorced at will, simply due to “irreconcilable differences.” If one person wants a divorce, they will have it. This creates an ease of disruption that impacts the whole family system. Rather than having skills to cope with these significant changes, many families instinctively put all their energy into resisting these changes in order to stabilize the family system – either by engaging in abusive behavior or publically blaming each other in an effort to get the public to force them to behave.

Lack of continuity: Families don’t last to raise the children in one household. The average age of children when their parents divorce is around 6 or 7 today. This means that they will be raised in two households longer than they were raised in one household all together.

Equal roles: In the past, one family member was the “breadwinner” and the other raised the children. In divorce 20-30 years ago, one family member often left the family system and the remaining parent raised the children. Now, both parents are expected to work and both want to raise the children. Both need new skills for cooperating in ways they never did before.

The Changing Role of Family Court

From approximately the 1970s to the 1990’s, family courts have been setting divorce policies that define these changes. Parenting is supposed to include “significant time” with both parents. Both parents are supposed to earn an income and child support and spousal support are supposed to adjust for differences in earning ability. Former spouses are free to engage in sexual activity of their own choosing. “Get over it” is a common expression heard in family courts, when one party resists the changes of the other. The individual is primary now. During this time period, the divorce rate rose to about fifty percent of marriages. Courts made decisions, the parties’ followed the court’s authority and new family routines were established.

Starting around the 1990’s, surprising changes occurred. Methods such as mediation and attorney negotiation took over the role of courts in family decision-making. Lawyers and mediators simply educated the parties about the laws that had been established over the prior 20 years and the parties started avoiding court all together.

But at the same time, the remaining cases in family courts started to focus on family violence, restraining orders, child alienation and supervised visitation. These were the families who were unable to make the shift to the “new world family order.” Much of the family violence was perpetrated by men who saw themselves in the traditional role of being “head of the family.” Their violence (often reactive and unplanned) was aimed at keeping their wives in the family and under their control. Much of the alienation and false allegations were perpetrated by women who saw themselves in the traditional role of “in charge of the children.” Their efforts (often unconscious) seemed to be to resist the changes to equal roles in shared parenting.

Why the Adversarial Process Fails Today

Today, the family court process of litigation has been abandoned by most families, who can make their decisions out of court – with or without professional assistance. They have the skills to cooperate at a level that can manage the transitions that go with their new family structures. The families who are going to court today are those who do not have the negotiation skills nor the emotional healing skills to manage on their own. Yet putting them through the traditional litigation process simple exaggerates their resistance to everything – changing roles, loss of partners and shared parenting. Many of these families have one or two parents with personality disorders – which are increasing during this time of rapid change in our society. The adversarial process makes them behave worse and does little to truly understand their underlying problems.

Non-adversarial methods are needed for today’s family court cases. That is why methods such as mediation, collaborative divorce, attorneys assisting in negotiations and judicial dispute resolution are the way of the future – especially for these family systems in pain and resistant to the changes of the larger society. This is why skills training is needed for the whole family to help the whole family system go through these changes and into new forms.

Family systems – especially dysfunctional family systems – will resist family courts until we learn these lessons. This is not to say that there is not a role for family courts – it’s a different role which needs new knowledge and skills for understanding and managing dysfunctional family systems and their common mental health issues today.

Part 2 of this article will focus on managing mental health issues in family court and out of court with non-adversarial methods, including mediation and collaborative divorce.


Bill Eddy is a lawyer, mediator and clinical social worker, and the President of the High Conflict Institute. He is the author of several books including The Future of Family Court: Structure, Skills and Less Stress and Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He is also the developer of the New Ways for Families method of teaching skills to family systems (both parents and the children) and New Ways for Mediation for managing potentially high-conflict families. His website is


By Annette T. Burns, Attorney at Law

It seems that every time a child rejects a parent, or is even somewhat reluctant to spend time with one parent, or makes it obvious that he prefers one parent over the other, parental alienation is alleged.

Being rejected by one’s child has to be devastating. I can imagine why a parent would find comfort in seeking an explanation for the rejection that has little to do with that parent or the child. Finding an explanation in an outside source is self-protection.

It’s not so simple. A child rejecting a parent, even if the child also favors the other parent, does not by itself equal parental alienation. To fall within most professional definitions of “parental alienation”, a child must irrationally reject a parent primarily as the result of negative influence of the other parent. Unfortunately too many people, including attorneys, forget those italicized words. To some, if a child rejects a parent, parental alienation is presumed, and the other parent MUST be to blame.

Professionals working with high conflict couples must remember that a child’s rejection of a parent is NOT prima facie evidence of parental alienation, and remember to look for all three of the elements of parental alienation before jumping to conclusions.

Richard Warshak notes that in the continuum of parental alienation, some (professionals, researchers, parents) will absolutely deny the possibility that a child could be irrationally alienated from a parent. If a child is alienated, then by definition there must be a rational reason. See Bringing Sense to Parental Alienation: A Look at the Disputes and the Evidence. [Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 37 No. 2, Summer 2003].

Others might acknowledge that irrational alienation might occur, but that this is a normal occurrence, and that irrational alienation can exist entirely separate and apart from the influence of the favored parent.

Yet others will argue that a child’s alignment with one parent over the other is a natural by-product of a divorce, or the result of the child’s developmental needs.

Let’s start with the basic requirements of parental alienation (according to Warshak):

  • A child is rejecting a parent
  • The rejection is irrational
  • The rejection is primarily or at least partially due to negative influence from the other parent.

If a situation has only one or two of these factors, it’s likely not parental alienation.

What is irrational? According to Warshak, it’s extreme animosity toward or fear or a parent that is not reasonable or consistent with the history of that relationship.

There are at least two ends to the alienation spectrum. As mentioned above, to some there is no such thing as irrational alienation, so if a child rejects a parent, there MUST be a good reason, and therefore all rejected parents deserve what they get. The other end is the extreme that if a child rejects a parent, it MUST be the fault of the favored parent’s negative campaign.

Do I believe that parental alienation exists? Of course. But when I review a situation where a child is rejecting a parent, I don’t automatically jump to either conclusion — I don’t automatically assume that rejected parent did something to deserve it, and I also don’t automatically assume that the favored parent caused it. I focus on the child; his age and developmental stage; his needs; his social, school and personal life. I am fortunate, as I’m not a mental health professional, that I don’t have to make diagnoses or assign labels. I just have to deal with what’s there. Unfortunately, the parents and attorneys are often so concerned with assigning blame and placing labels that they lose sight of the child and his needs.

When you think about it, only the first factor —- the existence of the alienation itself—is really important when it comes to the child. The child doesn’t care if his alienation is rational or not; he experiences it either way. Factors #2 and #3 are important only for treatment purposes. Therapy for the child will take different directions depending on whether the alienation is rational or not. If the rejection of a parent is based on rational reactions to experiences that the child has had with that parent, the child’ therapy will focus on strategies to deal with the parent’s shortcomings or issues (such as a parent’s personality disorder, different parenting styles, or lack of parenting skills). If the estrangement is based on irrational justification, the child’s therapy can focus on returning the child to a more realistic and accepting view of the estranged parent.

As pointed out by Johnston, the term “parental alienation” focuses on the parent (and fault) rather than on the child. A more helpful and appropriate term, according to Johnson, might be “alienated child”. Children of Divorce Who Reject a Parent and Refuse Visitation: Recent Research and Social Policy Implications for the Alienated Child [Family Law Quarterly, Vol 38, No. 4, Winter 2005] A change in terminology might allow the court system and professionals who are trying to help the family focus on the child rather than blame.


About Unhooked Books
Unhooked Books is the one place for people to find the best and most current information and resources available on personality disorders, high-conflict personalities, divorce, parenting, co-parenting, living healthy, eating healthy, and managing your life. Founder & CEO, Megan Hunter, established one place for people in any type of relationship to find tools to enhance relationships, prevent relationship disaster and handle relationship transition. Her firm belief is that with just a little education, most people can resolve most relationship issues.

Coping with the Holidays

December 13, 2013



Stress can throw anyone off-kilter. But when you have a mental illness, you might be extra vulnerable. “The demands, pressures and expectations of the holidays can be felt more intensely by people with mental illness,” according to Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit, who works privately with individuals and speaks nationally on topics related to emotional health and well-being.

“Having a mental illness is the same as having any chronic illness,” said Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and founder of Explore What’s Next, a comprehensive psychotherapy practice. So it helps to have a plan and take good care of yourself.

Here are nine tips for coping with the holidays.

1. Make yourself a priority.

During the holidays, as we’re hosting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, attending get-togethers and checking off other tasks on our to-do lists, self-care often takes a backseat. But “your health comes first,” said Dr. Aletta, who’s also a Psych Central contributor.

This also means maintaining your routine as much as possible. “Make sure you get the sleep you need and keep up any activities that make you feel good such as exercise or time with friends,” Dr. Mininni said.

2. Avoid feeling guilty.

During the holiday season, many of us want to be many things to our loved ones. And we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we put pressure on ourselves along with a hefty side of stress-inducing guilt.

Remind yourself that pleasing everyone is unrealistic. “Set aside the guilt, push the pause button on it or throw it out completely if you can. Put it on a shelf, in a box, labeled ‘I will talk about this later with my therapist,’” Dr. Aletta said.

3. Keep connected.

If you aren’t feeling well, you might be tempted to isolate yourself. But this will just make you feel worse, Dr. Mininni said. “If you’re not in the holiday mood, consider spending time with a friend or calling a person who cares about you. Connecting with just one person can make you 10 times less likely to get depressed,” she said.

4. Tune into your feelings—and be honest.

You may love your family very much. But if you’re honest with yourself, you might realize that being with them also can be stressful. Coming to this realization, while uncomfortable, will help you figure out better ways to cope, Dr. Aletta said.

5. Identify what you really want to do.

For instance, you might want to spend the entire day with your family or just go for dessert, Dr. Aletta said. “Once being with [your family] is a choice instead of a gun-to-your-head obligation maybe you can relax a bit.”

6. Plan a timeout when stress strikes.

Dr. Aletta encouraged readers to give themselves permission to leave a stressful situation. Your “strategic retreat” may be anything from walking the dog to getting tea at a café to listening to soothing music to having a good cry, she said. Then decide whether the healthier choice is to return to the get-together or go home.

7. Buddy up.

“Have a confidant close by or on speed dial: a friend, cousin, sister or niece who ‘gets it,’” Dr. Aletta said. In fact, “She may need your help to get through as much as you need hers,” she added.

8. Avoid alcohol.

Alcohol can interfere with medication and exacerbate symptoms. It also might spark an altercation or two. “You do not want to be disinhibited when there is even one person in the room who can hit your buttons with an emotional Taser,” Dr. Aletta said. On a similar note, she suggested that readers avoid confronting people in general.

9. Laugh—a lot.

“See the humor wherever and whenever you can,” Dr. Aletta said. That’s because humor heals. (If you’d like some proof, Therese Borchard’s piece on humor is a must-read.)

About Unhooked Books
Unhooked Books is the one place for people to find the best and most current information and resources available on personality disorders, high-conflict personalities, divorce, parenting, co-parenting, living healthy, eating healthy, and managing your life. Founder & CEO, Megan Hunter, established one place for people in any type of relationship to find tools to enhance relationships, prevent relationship disaster and handle relationship transition. Her firm belief is that with just a little education, most people can resolve most relationship issues.

Safe Kids, Smart Parents

November 1, 2013

Halloween is over and the kids are back to school. Here’s to hoping that everyone had a fun and safe trick-or-treating night, but it leads us to think about educating your kids about stranger danger, after having allowed them to ring a stranger’s doorbell and accept a treat.

In Safe Kids, Smart Parents, authors Rebecca Bailey, PhD and Elizabeth Bailey, RN, BC, offer a chapter called “Be alert. The World Needs More Lerts”. They advocate teaching your child to think critically, which includes assessing a situation and deciding how to respond appropriately, and the authors even provide games for you to play with your children that help them do that.

The book is filled with everything you need to know to keep your kids safe, including an age-specific chart on when to tell your kids specific safety-related information, and “the safe kid kit” that is written directly to kids and meant specifically for them. It includes:

I. Just For Older Kids

Ages 12-15

Age 15 and Up

II. More Just for Kids Age 12 and Up

A Word to the Wise, and You Are Wise

What’s a Girl to Do

III. Just for the ‘Tweeners

Ages 9-12

IV. Just for the Younger Kids

Ages 6-9

Ages 3-6

V. The Safety Agreement

For Older Kids

For Younger Kids

VI. Safety Equations

VII. The Safe List

VIII. Resources and Information

IX. What to Do if a Child is Missing

Get your copy while it’s on sale here!

About Unhooked Books
Unhooked Books is the one place for people to find the best and most current information and resources available on personality disorders, high-conflict personalities, divorce, parenting, co-parenting, living healthy, eating healthy, and managing your life. Founder & CEO, Megan Hunter, established one place for people in any type of relationship to find tools to enhance relationships, prevent relationship disaster and handle relationship transition. Her firm belief is that with just a little education, most people can resolve most relationship issues.

In just four quick and easy minutes, this terrific animated graphic explains how adults and communities help children build healthy brains, and how that process can be derailed by toxic stress.

The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative developed the video, with assistance from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the Frameworks Institute.

The only down side is that they didn’t put this on YouTube or Vimeo, which drastically slows down its movement through cyberspace.


About Unhooked Books
Unhooked Books is the one place for people to find the best and most current information and resources available on personality disorders, high-conflict personalities, divorce, parenting, co-parenting, living healthy, eating healthy, and managing your life. Founder & CEO, Megan Hunter, established one place for people in any type of relationship to find tools to enhance relationships, prevent relationship disaster and handle relationship transition. Her firm belief is that with just a little education, most people can resolve most relationship issues.


Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, a largely unheralded piece of legislation that embodied a hopeful vision of what life should be like for people with mental illnesses, addiction and intellectual disabilities: living lives of dignity and sharing in the benefits of our society.

The President’s nephew and former Rhode Island congressman, Patrick J. Kennedy, is organizing the Kennedy Forum October 23 and 24 in Boston to commemorate the anniversary and start a new conversation among diverse leaders to assess what has been accomplished and what is now needed to improve care and achieve equality in all aspects of life. The forum is catalyzing a larger, national conversation in communities around the country.

To coincide with the event, community events are being held in California, Colorado, New York and South Carolina; many others will be held in the coming months. A webcast of the keynote speech delivered at the October 23 gala dinner will be available, as well as short videos that frame several topics being addressed at the conference: prevention and early intervention; research; and community inclusion. For more information, or to sign up to host a community event, contact the Kennedy Forum team at

One of the short videos will feature Greg D. Williams, the director and producer of a new independent feature documentary, The Anonymous People. This film includes moving stories of people whose lives have been transformed by recovery, and documents the enormous societal value that recovery produces. Williams’s own story—he became sober after he nearly lost his life in a drug-related car accident as a teenager—makes an urgent case for early intervention to prevent a later need to clean up after the wreckage caused by addiction.

The film shows the impact of people coming out of the shadows to engage in a new political movement to support expanded research, prevention and treatment for addiction. Community events to view and discuss the film are encouraged and facilitated by its backers. The power of speaking passionately and with one voice is demonstrated vividly in the film. To get involved, go to

A second short video will feature Ashley Counts, a Global Messenger for Special Olympics, who describes the importance of work in her life and how she, as a person with an intellectual disability, has overcome obstacles on the path to reaching her full potential.

A third video addresses the need for research to find better treatments and supports for individuals with mental illnesses and addictions. Michelle Colder Carras, a leader in the Lived Experience Research Network (LERN), makes a strong case for the involvement of “consumers” (individuals who consume mental health and addiction services) to help design research, which would result in better outcomes in the health care system. The goal of personalized and patient-centered health care cannot be achieved without the involvement of those with “lived experience,” argues Carras. She describes how the Internet has made possible the creation of communities of shared interests, supports and values in a way that embodies the core vision of President Kennedy’s concept of community.

Several participants in the Kennedy Forum in Boston are involved in public education campaigns to help erase the stigma surrounding mental health and addictions, and are urging individuals reach out to others who may need their help or support. Michael Thompson, who will speak at the conference on how business can help individuals and their families in the workplace, tells about the suicide of his brother in the “I will listen” campaign of the New York City Metro Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The campaign, described in an October 1 New York Times article, includes local TV spots of Thompson and encourages others to post their own stories. Another conference speaker, Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall, was fined for wearing green cleats during a NFL game to bring attention to Mental Health Awareness week.

These and other efforts to transform public opinion and elevate public policy to significantly improve the futures of individuals with mental illness and addiction and their families are shining lights in an otherwise grim landscape. The “deinstitutionalization” of individuals from the asylums of the past has too often meant homelessness or “re-institutionalization” in our jails and prisons.

A significant reduction in adverse childhood experiences could be achieved by investing in prevention and early intervention, as well as promising treatments, for mental illness and addiction. As Greg Williams says in the Kennedy Forum video, we must correct the enormous imbalance in what this nation spends to clean up after the wreckage of addiction by investing in prevention.


About Unhooked Books
Unhooked Books is the one place for people to find the best and most current information and resources available on personality disorders, high-conflict personalities, divorce, parenting, co-parenting, living healthy, eating healthy, and managing your life. Founder & CEO, Megan Hunter, established one place for people in any type of relationship to find tools to enhance relationships, prevent relationship disaster and handle relationship transition. Her firm belief is that with just a little education, most people can resolve most relationship issues.

It’s “All About Better Parenting Month” at Unhooked Books, where we strongly advocate for prevention. Better parenting lands right smack in prevention-land!

Parenting and Mental Health Connection  Loads and loads of research, not to mention common sense, tells us that parenting is key to better long-term mental health and other improved outcomes as children grow into adulthood. This translates into reduced violence, reduced drug/alcohol and other addictions, higher achievements in education, better relationships, reduced dependence on medical, mental, and financial assistance, all leading to a more productive and healthier society. And it all starts with parenting.

In those early years, attachment and bonding with both parents is so important. Modeling empathy, flexible thinking, moderate behaviors and managed emotions has more impact on children, through mirror neurons, than ever before known. Sometimes even the best parents have difficulty with emotionally intense kids and need a little extra help. The books we offer at Unhooked Books are carefully selected after intensive research to ensure they offer help that has been proven to work. We want to help every parent become a better parent through education and skills-building!

A full listing of books included in “All About Better Parenting Month” is below. These books help with topics ranging from the most basic parenting to dealing with kids who might prove a bit more challenging and those who have to deal with unique challenges. We have books on partnership parenting, co-parenting after divorce or separation, helping kids with parents in conflict, child alienation, dealing with trauma, with bullying, addiction, autism, Asperger’s, emotional dysregulation, addiction and other issues. We know more about parenting now that at any other time in history and we have loads of research to tell us what works and what doesn’t work so let’s not waste the opportunity to put it to work for us!

“Reality” TV and Parenting  You may think this silly, but after watching nearly every episode of shows like Intervention, Hoarders, Rehab, Couples Therapy, Obsessed, and others, I’ve observed that nearly 100% of the people featured have one thing in common from their childhoods – absent, abusive or neglectful parents. Some were intentional and others were not, but the effect was still the same. Wouldn’t it be great if we could put these shows out of business in the next generation by helping young parents be better parents now?

February is  “All About Better Parenting” Month  Throughout February we will have author interviews of our top parenting book picks, and the best news……all parenting books are on sale all month!

This is a complete listing of the parenting books on sale this month. And, let us know if you have a great parenting book you’d recommend. We just might add it to our offering!

7 Things Your Teenager Won’t Tell You

A Smart Girl’s Guide to Her Parents’ Divorce

An Umbrella for Alex

Becoming A Better Parent: Ten Things We Need to Know About Parenting

Between Fathers & Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship

Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents: A Complete Guide to Understanding and Coping When Your Adolescent has BPD

Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce

Helping Your Troubled Teen: Learn to Recognize, Understand, and Address the Destructive Behavior of Today’s Teens

Kids First : What Kids Want Grown-Ups to Know About Separation & Divorce

Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes For Your Child

Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions: Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Help Your Child Regulate Emotional Outbursts and Aggressive Behaviors

Parenting After Divorce : Resolving Conflict and Meeting Your Children’s Needs

Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive

Parenting Your Child with Autism: Practical Solutions, Strategies, and Advice for Helping Your Family

Parents Are Forever

Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently–Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage

Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce

Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

Through the Eyes of Children

Thanks for being a Better Parent!

Megan Hunter
Unhooked Books