Family Systems Therapy

Updated January 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that supports people in resolving conflicts within their families. It’s based on the research that psychiatrist Murray Bowen conducted in the mid-1950s. The results of this research were developed into family systems theory in the 1960s and eventually laid out in a book, which was published in 1988. According to the theory, a person cannot be fully separated from their family relational system.

Do You Have More Questions About Family Systems Therapy?

The 8 Core Concepts Of Family Systems Theory

Bowen’s theory views the family as an emotional system. Often, people within the family system seek acceptance and validation from one another. When these things aren't adequately given or received, it can cause lasting damage—particularly when children are involved. Family systems therapy aims to address these conflicts and help heal these wounds. There are eight interconnected concepts within family systems theory, upon which family systems therapy is based.

#1. The Triangle

This concept refers to a core, three-person dynamic in a family. Although a base three-person unit is thought to offer more emotional stability than two, a triangle can also be a source of power shifts and conflict.

#2. Differentiation Of Self

The differentiation of self refers to the theory of how we develop relationships within our family as children and adolescents—relationships that then determine parts of our identity. Once a person finds a particular sense of self or self-leadership within their family, it rarely changes.

#3. Nuclear Family Emotional Process

This process is based on the patterns that most influence family structures and family emotionality. It may include family marital conflict, spousal dysfunction, family impairment, and family emotional distance.

#4. Family Projection Process

The family projection process is the one in which parents hand down their emotional difficulties to their children. It includes three steps:

  • The family focuses their attention on their children, worrying that there's an issue that needs to be addressed.

  • The family observes a child's behavior and concludes that their fear is justified.

  • The family begins to act like there's actually an issue that needs to be addressed

#5. Multigenerational Transmission Process

This process refers to how children typically develop similar levels of self-differentiation to their parents. The reason is that they learned how to self-differentiate by observing their parents, meaning that parents and children may have similar levels of self-differentiation for generations—especially since people are also likely to seek out mates with similar levels to themselves.

#6. Emotional Cutoff

This cutoff refers to how a family may distance themselves from one another emotionally in order to lessen the intensity of a conflict. On the surface, it seems like it could benefit the family as a whole. In reality, it can actually cause more anxiety within the family unit.

#7. Sibling Position

This part of the theory posits that a sibling’s position in the birth order impacts their life and the family as a whole. Different positions in the order tend to be associated with different personality types. For example, older children tend to be leaders and middle children tend to be peacemakers.

#8. Societal Emotional Process

This element refers to how society can impact a family system and their emotional lives. Bowen treated parents within the criminal justice system and noticed how external influences could affect families, which is where this aspect of the theory comes from.

What To Expect When Seeking Family Systems Therapy

In family systems therapy, participants meet together with a qualified provider to explore and work toward a resolution for the conflicts they've been dealing with. The goal is to help each person see the perspective of others in an attempt to restore familial relationships and reinforce a healthy, functioning family dynamic. Different people in a family will have different perceptions of how things are, and a good family therapist will be able to see what's happening from all sides in a non-biased way and help all parties meet in the middle.

Family systems therapy is a model that can be used to help families of all types. It can be especially useful for those who are struggling with unresolved conflicts or pain of some kind. Here are some examples of conflicts or challenges that a family may seek the help of a family systems therapist for:

  • Conflict avoidance 

  • Coping with a loss

  • Issues related to children or parenting

  • Substance use issues

  • Mental health concerns

  • Romantic relationships that impact the famil

It’s important to note that finding a therapist who is experienced in this specific methodology is important. Through specific training, they’ll have gained a knowledge of common family power dynamics and communication issues and will be able to guide your family through the challenges you’re facing in a skilled and effective manner.

Do You Have More Questions About Family Systems Therapy?

Online Vs. In-Person Therapy

Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits. That means, in many cases, that it’s up to the individual or family to decide which format works best for them. For those with busy schedules, meeting with a qualified mental health professional online from the comfort of home may be more convenient. In this case, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can be useful. You can get matched with a licensed therapist based on your needs and preferences as imparted in a brief questionnaire. You can then speak with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp therapists.

BetterHelp Therapy & Therapist Reviews

“I cannot say enough amazing things about Monique! I have never done therapy or counseling before and I am so happy and comfortable talking with her. She has helped me with the tools needed for stressful situations and family conflicts. I am so thankful for all of her help! Whether you’ve had therapy before or not I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to and receive help from.”
betterhelp therapist monique harris

“I joined BetterHelp to deal with some family issues. My counselor Joshua helped me understand and assess my family dynamic and helped me learn how to cope and set healthy boundaries with them.”

betterhelp therapist joshua siskin

Takeaway

Family dynamics can be complex. A qualified family systems therapist can be a helpful resource to those who are interested in resolving relational conflicts and building a healthier dynamic together.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started