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Family Systems Therapy

Family Systems Therapy

Family Systems Therapy is a distinct kind of talk therapy developed by Dr. Murray Bowen. It has its own set of rules and concepts and was developed with belief that each family acts as a unit, and that the relationships between individual family members, as well as dynamics within the family as a whole, have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health and psychological state, both positive and negative.

Dr. Bowen further believed that therapists could draw from their own family experiences and past dynamics to better understand and sympathize with their clients.

Family Systems Therapy is not necessarily limited to family or group therapy and can be applied in individual teen therapy as well. That being said, it is more often used in the treatment of couples, groups, and families.

Breaking Down the Family Systems Theory

As a therapeutic concept, the easiest way to understand how Family Systems Therapy differentiates itself from other family therapy programs is to break it down into its most important components, or systems. There are eight systems within the Family Systems Theory. These are:

  • The triangle concept. The triangle concept aims to isolate one of the unique dynamics of a family versus other relationships, such as one-on-one platonic friendships or romantic relationships, which are usually referred to as dyads. The triangular relationship between three individuals within a family means that each person can take on greater interpersonal stress, but it also means that there may be more total tension. As such, one person is often chosen to be the outsider, which can strain familial relationships (i.e., an only child frequently siding with one parent, leaving the other out of the loop).
  • The differentiation of self. The larger the family or group, the stronger the drive towards self-differentiation, especially during childhood and adolescence. This can become a powerful source of motivation to build confidence, but lack of differentiation can also mean becoming more susceptible to criticism and the opinions of others. Identifying an individual’s drive towards self-differentiation within their family can be a predictor for mental health problems.
  • A nuclear family’s emotional process. This relates to Dr. Bowen’s belief that nuclear families draw up conflicts from four different sources or patterns: marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment in the child(ren), or emotional distance/isolation. These are not mutually exclusive patterns – instead, they often co-occur, where one can feed into the next. Understanding, isolating, and addressing these patterns can help break down complicated family issues into targeted problems.
  • The family projection process. This refers to the way personal worries and anxieties can be projected onto family members due to the close proximity between spouses or parents, and their children. For example, a pregnant mother’s worry about how their first child might react to the second may amplify the child’s own anxieties. When the mother begins to overcompensate for her anxieties by exaggerating her attention on the first child, she feeds a complex problem.
  • The multigenerational transmission process. In this facet, Dr. Bowen believes that individuals will seek out partners with similar levels of self-differentiation, or self-esteem, within their respective family and relationship dynamics. This means that people who potentially struggle with their confidence because of childhood relationship dynamics might perpetuate these issues when they grow older, in their future relationships, and with their own children.
  • The emotional cutoff. This refers to the common problem wherein family members who perceive a personal struggle may distance themselves emotionally from the rest of the family, rather than asking for support. They might feel that doing so would spare their loved ones from the stress and anxiety they’re feeling, but in doing so will cause more problems due to inadequately addressing their mental health issues, trying to hide them, or cope with them negatively.
  • The sibling position dynamic. This refers to the common roles attributed to children depending on their position among their siblings. For example, the eldest children are usually expected to show maturity beyond their age, and even wrangle their siblings. In other cultures, the first-born may be awarded preferential treatment and given greater opportunities or fewer menial responsibilities, especially if they are male with predominantly younger sisters.
  • The societal-emotional process. This is the first of the concepts that highlights that the Family Systems Theory can also be applied to non-family groups. In this case, it refers to the way that society at large mirrors some of the dynamics found in smaller families, especially with regards to a society’s response to outside stressors, such as environmental catastrophes, financial distress, or war. Dr. Bowen’s own explanation for this observation rested on the idea of societal regression, and that authority figures would mirror the role of a parent towards the public in times of stress.

The concepts of the Family Systems Theory inform how Family Systems Therapy is structured. A specific problem or set of problems is brought to a therapist’s attention during the beginning of a session. The therapist analyses this problem through the lens of the Family Systems Theory, isolating the different interpersonal dynamics and relationships that contribute to this issue. Then, they can work with family members to identify positive solutions or coping mechanisms for each issue.

Who Can Benefit from Family Systems Therapy?

Bowenian family therapy concepts can be applied in teen therapy, as well as group or family therapy sessions. Even people who aren’t in contact with their parents or siblings can stand to benefit from examining their personal mental health issues through the lens of the Family Systems Theory, but teens – who are often still living with their parents – can especially benefit from Family Systems Therapy.

That being said, there is less evidence and research dedicated to Family Systems Therapy than other established forms of talk therapy, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A therapist might try these other modalities before utilizing Family Systems Therapy.

Family Systems Therapy at the Arrow House

We at the Arrow House provide families and teens with a variety of modalities for mental health therapy. Family Systems Therapy is an invaluable tool, especially for teens with mental health issues. If you want to learn more, contact us via 657.282.4263.