Pass the parcel – A story of fractals

3 July, 2020

Last week, my daughter was the first of our family to have a lockdown birthday. A new experience for all of us, she seemed to navigate her way with ease. She knew exactly what she’d like to do to celebrate, and ‘pass the parcel’ was right up there. This good old party favourite didn’t disappoint. There is some strange satisfaction in repeating the same process of passing and unwrapping a layer time and again. Simple, and yet fulfilling and compelling.

Pass the parcel is of course an example of a fractal. First named in 1975 by Mathematician Benoit Mandlebrot, a fractal is a thing which is made up of patterns of repeated form at different sizes and scales. And when you’ve noticed them, they turn out to be everywhere. A broccoli. A Russian doll. A snowflake.

In psychology, we have a term for this kind of phenomenon in the interpersonal realm of relationships; ‘parallel processes’. What is happening in one relationship in a system is replicated in others. One such relational process that is very commonly repeated in our work with children looked after and their adult systems is splitting. Splitting refers to separating people into different sides. Seeing, for instance, one as good and one as bad, or one as right and one as wrong. In our work, this interpersonal shape is repeated again and again. It may even be the archetypal fractal of our context. It makes a broccoli of us.

In a recent clinical discussion our team mapped the splitting fractal at work: A child’s parents have split up. When we try to engage with both around their relationships with their son they tell us ‘If you talk to the other one, I’m not talking to you. You’re with me or you’re against me.’. Now we too are split off in their eyes. The child’s Foster Carer approves of one parent’s ways of doing things more than the other’s, and he takes a side. A split occurs again. The Social Worker feels that we are focussing our attention too much on engaging the parents in the child’s life and should stick to supporting the foster placement. Split. We start to feel that the Social Worker doesn’t understand our work and only we get it. Split. This not that, me not you, him not her, should not shouldn’t, right not wrong.

Some fractals are things of great beauty. How magical is a snowflake or a tree for instance? But some are seriously malign such as our splitting clinical situation described here. So how might we work in these contexts? We can be aware that human systems create repeating patterns and if we can see something ‘out there’ amongst others, we are wise to look at whether it is being repeated closer to home amongst ourselves too. We can also spot the pattern coming our way and choose not to repeat it. Instead, we can introduce difference and change the pattern. Like our pass the parcel, we can refuse to pass on the splits, judgements and exclusion. We can decide instead to pass on inclusion, seeing and valuing the point in all perspectives, and believing that everyone in a child’s life has an important contribution to make.

Fractals are both beautifully simple and infinitely complex. Crack the code of the simple process being repeated and we have the vital key to unlocking the whole complex problem. In systems around children looked after, let’s not engage in splitting any more. The difference which unlocks this particular pattern is togetherness, partnership, inclusion. This is the way to bring down a whole empire of dysfunction.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service