What Is Family Systems Therapy?

By Sarah Fader

Updated June 04, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that supports people in resolving conflicts with their family or problems that exist within a family unit. All members of the family contribute to the dynamic of whether the family is functioning in a healthy or dysfunctional way.

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Bowen family systems theory views the family as an emotional unit. The members of the group are interdependent on one another. The nature of the family is that the members have deep-rooted emotional bonds. When you feel disconnected from your family, it's likely due to trauma. The family can impact people profoundly. Many times people within the unit seek approval and validation from one another. When those aren't received, it can cause lasting damage, mainly when it involves a child needing a parent's reassurance.

Murray Bowen And His Family Systems Theory

There are eight interlocking concepts within family systems theory. There's an assumption that there's an emotional system that's evolved over billions of years, and the nervous system affects people and how they interact with each other.

The eight concepts are:

  • Triangles - A triangle is a three-person dynamic within a family. A person's behavior within the triangle indicates their wants and needs to sustain attachments to other members of the family.
  • Differentiation of self - we're born with an innate sense of who we are. However, we develop relationships within our families as children and into adolescence that further determine our identity. Once a person finds their sense of self, it's rare that it changes, unless they make a concerted effort to do so.
  • Nuclear Family Emotional Process
  • Marital conflict - When there's conflict in the family, it can be between two partners. Each member of the couple is fixated on the flaws of the other to control the family issues.
  • Dysfunction in one spouse - One partner in the couple puts pressure on the other to behave a particular way. Tension rises in the household, and there is a level of dysfunction between the couple.
  • Impairment of one or more children - Parents excessively worry about one child and his health issues. It creates a divide in the family. The child may be acting out at school, home or both. They might idealize the child or hold a negative view of them, depending on the issues at hand. Whatever the case may be, this child has more immediate needs than their siblings and takes the parents attention away from the other children, which causes conflict and imbalance in the unit.
  • Emotional distance - Members of the family distance themselves from one another to lessen the intensity of the conflict. It seems like it could benefit the family as a whole, but in reality, it causes more anxiety in the family unit.
  • Family Projection Process - The family projection process is the process where parents hand down their emotional problems to their children. It has three steps:
  1. A parent focuses their attention on their children worrying that there's something wrong with them.
  2. A parent observes a child's behavior and concludes that their fear is justified. There's something wrong.
  3. A parent begins to act like there's something wrong with their child. They treat the child as if there's a problem with them.
  • Multigenerational Transmission Process - The process describes the tiny differences in levels of differentiation between parents and children over several generations. There are particular differences in differentiation among all the members of a family over the years.
  • Emotional Cutoff - Emotional cutoff is a process where people in the family struggle to cope with being alienated from one another. There are emotional problems when a child cuts off contact with their parent (for example). It could occur when two siblings are estranged from each other. The concept describes when people in the family are cut off from each other.
  • Sibling Position - Bowen's theory incorporates psychologist Walter Toman's methods. Toman talks about sibling position in the family and how it impacts each member. Depending on the position of each sibling, you will see personality types. For example, older children tend to be leaders, and younger ones tend to be followers.

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  • Societal Emotional Process - The concept of the societal emotional process shows how society impacts families emotional lives. Bowen treated families who had children within the criminal justice system, and he began to notice how this affected the unit.


Interconnectedness is what makes families interdependent.

Emotional interdependence is what helps families stay connected. Members of the family want to feel a sense of togetherness, which is what interconnectedness brings. When there is disconnection or a lack of the members of the family working together, it can lead to problems within the unit. Sometimes family members become overly anxious, and their anxiety can spread to other members of the group. When many of the family members are overwhelmed, the family isn't functioning optimally, and the environment can feel out of control. One person might feel like they have the solve problems within the family, while another person is a scapegoat for those issues. Family dynamics are involved, which is why family systems theory was developed

When Family Systems Therapy Is Used

Sometimes, people develop psychological issues early in life and can benefit from family systems therapy at any point in time. It can be helpful for those with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or eating disorders. It can help people cope with disabilities or support a family member with a disability, whether the condition is a mental or physical health diagnosis.

What To Expect

In family systems therapy, the entire family unit works together to solve problems that are happening between one or more family members. It's essential that the family works together as a team. Each family member will discuss the issues occurring within the family unit and will express how those issues are affecting them. Together, the family explores and resolves the problems they've been dealing with. In family systems therapy, you might participate in role-playing exercises where you switch roles to see how other members of your family feel. The goal is to restore familial relationships and restore a healthy family system that functions well.

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How Family Systems Therapy Works

Murray Bowen developed family systems therapy. Bowen developed family systems theories in the mid-1950s when he worked as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental health. He observed family patterns and noticed that the personalities of different family members and their behaviors correlated to their birth order. For example, the oldest child in a family might act a particular way, and a younger child would most likely behave differently. To understand a family system, it needs to be viewed as a whole rather than observed in parts, so family systems theory and family system therapy rely on considering the entire family unit.

What To Look For In A Family Therapist

It's important to find a licensed family systems therapist who is experienced. They must understand Bowen's family systems theory and family patterns, which include functional and dysfunctional patterns. They must understand power struggles, communication issues, and have experience treating families who experience these issues. The nature of family is that family members have a profound connection with one another emotionally, and the members of the family respect each other's thoughts and feelings. They get under each others skin, and they're often seeking approval from one another. Different people in a family will have different perceptions of how things are going, and a good therapist will be able to see what's happening from all sides. There might be co-dependency within a family, but the goal is to be interdependent. Interdependence helps the family become cohesive and decreases tension. It might be anxiety-inducing to modify family dynamics, and it'll take time. You want to look for a therapist that'll be supportive throughout the process.

What Happens In Family Systems Therapy?

Here are some issues that can be addressed in family systems therapy:

  • Individual conflict with members of the family
  • Death
  • Unemployment
  • Romantic relationships
  • Issues with children
  • Divorce
  • Mental health problems and substance abuse

Family therapists work with a variety of different issues. Family systems therapy helps to bring a family together. Here's an example of an exercise that can be used in family therapy to help the members of the unit express themselves. It's called "Emotional Ball."

Emotional Ball

The emotional ball can give the family and the therapist insight into how each person is feeling at the moment. It's a simple exercise that can be used in family systems therapy. You take a beach ball, and you write different emotions on the ball: happy, sad, angry, lonely. You toss the ball back and forth, and when a family member catches the ball, they describe a time when they felt that emotion.

Who Benefits From Family Systems Therapy?

Family systems therapy is a great model that can help families of all kinds. Notably, the model can help families who are struggling with problems and unresolved conflicts. It's a great model for couples who can't seem to see eye to eye when they're parenting a child who's having issues. Family systems therapy can also help with mental health problems such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression. If one of the family members has a mental health problem, family systems therapy can help the other members to be supportive and also recognize their feelings and concerns. The entire family can benefit from going to family systems therapy. It gives every member a chance to speak their mind and feels supported.

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Seeking Help

If you're looking to improve your relationship with your family, it starts with you. Seeking individual therapy to look at your mental health issues is an excellent way to gain insight into yourself and your family issues. Online treatment is a safe space to speak about your mental health issues. Search the network of therapists at BetterHelp today, and find one who you feel comfortable with, and start working on you.

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