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What is Family Systems Therapy?

Family systems therapy strives to understand how emotional systems operate in family units in order to identify problems, resolve issues and improve relationships. Family members can learn new and more effective options for solving problems and changing reactions through comparatively studying individual and group behavior patterns and how they relate to each other.

This form of therapy is a lot more intricate than simply an approach to helping people develop a healthy family system. Family therapy started over 70 years ago and has used many different approaches and tactics over the years. It can address an entire family unit, be helpful at addressing mental health concerns with one family member, and so much more. Let’s learn more about system family therapy and how it can help family dynamics all across the world.

Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy is a framework composed of interrelated parts and interdependent factors in order to understand individual behaviors within the environmental context. Based on this information, family-level interventions can be implemented and complex relationships can be repaired within the family system. Family therapy started during the 1950s when counselors and therapists began to focus beyond the traditional family unit.

During this time, family therapists expanded their therapy services for all types of familial relationships. This includes heterosexual, interracial, divorced, re-married and extended families. The main goal is to include family members beyond traditional, biological mothers and fathers. Regardless of how a family is composed of individual members or why they call themselves a family, they should be treated equally by family systems therapists.

Family Systems Boundaries

The majority of work in family systems therapy focuses on interpersonal and psychological boundaries. These abstract boundaries cannot be seen or touched, but they directly impact family members’ values, beliefs, perceptions, and judgments. Individual family members form self-concepts based on beliefs regarding who they are in relation to themselves, others, and the other. Family systems therapy focuses on comparatively analyzing family members’ self-concepts.

Psychological boundaries are invisible, but they drastically impact group behaviors and norms. For example, some couples prefer to surround themselves with strategic boundaries that separate them from other people, such as work and hobbies. Other couples will continually overstep normal boundaries to elicit help and support from others, such as through always asking neighbors or friends to babysit. Social hierarchies and boundaries establish the proper functioning of the group. Children sometimes form separate subgroups within a family that form boundaries from their parents.

Family Systems Therapy Advantages

Family systems therapists confront families about situations and lifestyles that cause boundaries to become unhealthy. These toxic situations lead to dysfunctional and unproductive relationship patterns. For example, mothers who complain to their children about their spouse cross traditional boundaries of trust. There are parents who share explicit information about adult topics, such as sexual relationships and mental health problems, with their children. Improper boundaries cause interpersonal problems and emotional outbursts.

Families who allow boundaries to be constantly crossed and challenged will create toxic patterns of interaction that impede communication, self-regulation, and healthy family relationships. Ideally, family members will respond to each other in ways that meet their roles and adhere to unspoken relationship agreements. Patterns naturally develop within the boundaries of the family system, so maintaining predictable and healthy patterns will reduce functionality problems.

Origin of Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapeutic counseling got its start in the 1960s. A psychologist named Murray Bowen was looking into familial patterns of mental illness and emotional issues, such as schizophrenia. He was looking at patterns of development of the disease within families. As a result of his research, he developed a theory about family systems. The premise of this theory is that an individual cannot be separated from their network of social relationships. The goal of the theory was to develop a more scientific or objective way of treating people. He believed that all therapists had personal challenges within their own families, and awareness could help them normalize human behavior when counseling others.

How Family Systems Counseling Differs from Conventional Therapy

In the traditional therapy of individuals, therapists address the person’s inner psyche. The Bowen theory states that it is more beneficial to address the structure and behavior of bigger family systems, not just the individual. He believed that the family system played a big role in a person’s character and personality. Family systems counseling also differs from conventional counseling in its incorporation of the changing behaviors of family members over time.

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Eight Concepts That Form the Foundation of Family Systems Therapy

There are eight interlocking concepts that are central to family systems therapeutic care. These concepts include:

  • Differentiation of oneself
  • Three-person emotional triangles
  • Family projection processes
  • Multi-generational transmission processes
  • Self-administered emotional distancing
  • Sibling positioning
  • Societal emotional processes
  • Nuclear family emotional process

Differentiation of oneself refers to maintaining individuality while also establishing and nurturing other relationships, specifically within the family. The three-person emotional triangles involve two other family members. The family projection process is the parental transmission of anxiety to children. In the multi-generational transmission processes, individuals increase their levels of differentiation between generations.

The self-administered emotional distancing involves a person distancing themselves from their family as a form of self-protection or isolation. In sibling positioning, children assume certain predictable roles within the family unit, such as the oldest child becoming a sort of miniature parent to the younger siblings. The societal emotional processes look at family emotional releases and how they affect society’s emotional processes. With nuclear family emotional processes, Bowen looks at the four main types of nuclear family conflict. Those are intimate partner abuse or conflict, problematic behaviors or concerns in a partner, emotional distancing, and impaired physical or mental functionality in children.

Structural Family Therapy

Structural family therapy is a sub-type of the systems therapy services. It looks at family relationships, patterns, and behaviors during a therapy session. It was designed by Salvador Minuchin. During a therapy session, it involves role-playing.

Strategic Family Therapy

Strategic Family Therapy was developed by Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, and Cloe Madanes. It looks at family behaviors and patterns outside of the therapy session. This type of therapy argues that change can happen quickly if family members are committed to it.

Intergenerational Family Therapy

Intergenerational Family Therapy is a type of therapy looks at how anxiety can be transmitted over many generations of a family. It also examines ways to normalize behavior. During a therapy session, individuals are encouraged to start with feeling statements rather than accusations about their family members.

Genogram Use in Family Therapy

A genogram has been developed for use in family therapy sessions. A genogram is a pictorial representation of a family’s medical history or its interpersonal relationships. It can be used to highlight mental illnesses or psychological disorders, hereditary traits, or issues that affect well-being. The genogram goes back at least three generations. Bowen assumed that it would take at least three generations to show how a mental illness progresses through the members of a family.

Who Can Benefit from Family Therapy

According to Good Therapy, any individual with a mental or behavioral health problem can benefit from family therapy. In particular, it can be a good choice for people who have noticed that their other family members, including those in past generations, have the same problems or similar problems as they do. This type of systems therapy also works for families and couples.

Conditions That Benefit from This Family Therapy Approach

Some conditions that benefit from this counseling approach include eating disorders and food issues. In particular, daughters may pick up disordered eating from their mothers or other female relatives who have a distorted body image. It is important to keep in mind that males can also be affected by eating and food disorders. Schizophrenia can also be treated with this approach. Alcohol and substance abuse or dependency also benefits from t his therapeutic approach. It is widely recognized that substance abuse disorders run in families and affect multiple generations at the same time. Additional conditions that could benefit from this counseling approach include bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression and personality issues, and disorders.

Limitations to Family Systems Counseling

Like every other approach to counseling, family systems has some limitations. One of the limitations is that there is a small base of empirical evidence on the approach. The base of knowledge continues to grow, but much more research into it is needed. More objective information could increase the efficacy and best practices. Another limitation is that it depends on the therapist being a neutral party. Some mental health practitioners believe that when the therapist remains neutral when they are listening to harmful, unethical or other problematic behaviors within a family unit, they are basically giving their approval of it if they do not speak out against it. It is important to keep in mind that the therapist is not there to judge one family member or another. Their goal is to help the individual who came in search of counseling. This approach also requires that both people in a couple participate in the process. If one does not want to, then this approach to therapy may not be effective.

Basic concepts of family systems therapy include conflict triangles, self-differentiation, perception variance, and emotional systems. Family projection processes are the transmission of emotional problems from parents to children and emotional cutoff is the social act of reducing interactions to manage unresolved issues. Family systems therapy provides a deeper understanding of and resolution to problems that originate within the family unit.

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