Family Systems Therapy

By Sarah Fader |Updated May 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC
Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that supports people in resolving conflicts with their families. The idea is that a family is an interdependent unit, the members of which contribute to its overall functioning while affecting one another in significant ways. This form of therapy is based off Murray Bowen's research that was 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 published in 1988. According to Bowen’s family systems theory, a person cannot be fully separated from their family relational systems.
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Do You Have More Questions About Family Systems Therapy?
Bowen’s family systems theory views the family as an emotional system. The nature of a family is such that the members of the group are interdependent, and the individuals have deep-rooted emotional bonds. Often, people within the family system seek acceptance and validation from one another. When those aren't received, it can cause lasting damage, particularly when children are involved. 
There are eight interconnected concepts within family systems theory. 

The Eight Concepts Are:


A triangle is a three-person dynamic within a family. A person's behavior within a family triangle indicates a need to sustain attachments to members of a family.

Differentiation Of Self

We develop relationships within our family as children and into adolescence that determine parts of our identity. Someone with a less developed sense of self may be more influenced by family members and more likely to need approval. Once a person finds a sense of self or self-leadership, it rarely changes.

Nuclear Family Emotional Process

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

Family Projection Process

The family projection process is the process where parents hand down their emotional difficulties to their children. It has 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.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

This family process describes the differences in levels of differentiation among immediate family members and family members spanning multiple generations. Differences in differentiation tend to grow among members of a family over the years.

Emotional Cutoff

Members of the family often distance themselves from one another to lessen the intensity of a conflict. It seems like it could benefit the family as a whole, but it can cause more anxiety in the family. 

Sibling Position

This family system has to do with a sibling’s position in the family and how it impacts their life and the family as a whole. Depending on the position of each sibling, you will often see different personality types; for example, older children tend to be leaders, and younger ones tend to be followers.

Societal Emotional Process

The concept of the societal emotional process shows 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 the family system.

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What To Expect With Family Systems Therapy

Family systems theory is utilized in practice in several different ways. In some applications, the entire family works together to solve problems that are happening between family members or to help treat individual concerns. The family systems model allows the members to work together as a team. Each family member can discuss the issues occurring within the family unit and express how those issues are affecting them. Together, the family explores and resolves the problems they've been dealing with. 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 reinforce a healthy family system that functions well by helping each person to see a perspective different from their own.

Other forms of family systems therapy look at how the family communicates, or the way members interact at home. It's important to find a therapist who is experienced with applying family systems theory. This may include knowledge of power struggles and an understanding of communication issues, as well as prior experience treating families using family systems therapy. 

Different people in a family will have different perceptions of how things are going, and a good family therapist will be able to see what's happening from all sides in a non-biased fashion. There might be co-dependency within a family. The goal is to foster a healthy interdependence that allows each member to maintain a healthy sense of self. It might be difficult to modify family dynamics, and this growth will typically take time, so you’ll likely want to look for a counselor who will be supportive throughout the process. 

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
  • Drug use or substance use
  • Mental health concerns
  • Conflict avoidance and resolution
Family therapists work with a variety of different concerns. Family systems therapy helps to bring a family unit together. Here's an example of one of the techniques that can be used in family therapy to help the members of the unit gain skills to better express themselves. It's called the "emotional ball."

Emotional Ball

The “emotional ball” can give the therapist and the family members insight into how each person is feeling at the moment, aka their emotional consciousness. 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 outside: happy, sad, angry, lonely, etc. You toss the ball back and forth, and when a family member catches the ball, they describe a time when they felt a particular emotion. This helps everyone, even adults, to gain insight into how everyone is feeling and, perhaps, why.
Do You Have More Questions About Family Systems Therapy?

Who Benefits?

Family systems therapy is a useful model that can help families of all kinds. Notably, this systems model can help families who are struggling with unresolved conflicts or pain. It's also a model for couples who are experiencing conflict as they're parenting a child. Family systems therapy can also help with individual mental health concerns. If one of the family members in a system has a mental health concern, family systems therapy can help the other members recognize their feelings and their needs. The entire family can benefit from going to family systems therapy. It gives everyone a chance to speak their mind and feel supported within the family unit.

Seeking Help

If you're looking to improve your relationship with your family, individual therapy can be a great start. Seeking individual care for your mental health is an excellent way to gain insight into the inner parts of yourself and to start addressing family issues. Online therapy with licensed mental health professionals is a safe place to speak, feel heard, and uncover and address any concerns that you have. Maybe you feel like you have the protective role of the family or that your core self needs to be evaluated before you go into family therapy. No matter what you want to address, you can match with a qualified BetterHelp therapist and start to work through concerns that are affecting you and your family.

Online therapy—where you can communicate via videoconference, voice call, messaging, or live chat—has been shown to be as effective as in-person therapy. In fact, a study conducted by the Berkeley Well-Being Institute found that 98% of BetterHelp clients made significant progress, 94% preferred BetterHelp to traditional face-to-face therapy, and 100% rated it as convenient (as opposed to just 71%, 60%, and 80% of in-person therapy users, respectively). Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our certified therapists from people who have sought help for their own family. 

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


While families will almost always experience conflict in one form or another, strategies like those developed from Murray Bowen’s family systems theory can help family members communicate and live more harmoniously. With the right help, your family can function better, and you can improve your overall mental health. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between family systems therapy and internal family systems (IFS)?

Family systems therapy, described in this article, describes how the family unit is a complex system and individual functioning cannot be separated from this system. The latter, internal family systems, identifies the sub-personalities (or "parts") within one person. To learn more about IFS, read the FAQs below.

What is IFS therapy used for?

This type of talk therapy, unlike others such as dialectical behavior therapy, can help with general challenges in life, such as relationships with someone, career issues, grief, low self-esteem. By meeting with an IFS therapist, you can chart your own path and see how this approach can be tailored to your own personal needs.

What is IFS trauma therapy?

Developed by Richard Schwartz, Internal Family Systems IFS trauma therapy gives patients an option to have a visual and in-depth self-discovery and self-healing process, using the idea that the mind is made up of multiple sub personalities or "parts." This approach embraces the idea that the mind is inherently multiple.

What are the parts in IFS therapy?

Internal Family Systems therapy focuses in on three extreme roles for therapy: managers, exiles, and firefighter parts. An IFS therapist can help guide your exploration of these roles in relation to your inner self, usually existing underneath the collection of parts. The manager and firefighter parts are considered to be the protector parts.

Can you do IFS therapy on yourself?

Internal Family Systems therapy is an evidence-based method of therapy that should be practiced with a professional, similar to other forms of professional therapy. Depending on a person's mental health conditions and self energy for change, it can be more impactful to have the help of a therapist to guide the healing along. 

How do I practice IFS?

Common methods of the family systems model include: feeling one's heart, maintaining a journal, and using diagrams to make connections and form relationships between the various "parts" or sub-personalities that exist within a person's mind.

Is IFS good for anxiety?

Yes, IFS can be effective for people living with anxiety. Being in an IFS therapist's office or receiving online services allows a person to understand both their internal system as well as their external system. The IFS model will allow the person to look closely at the factors shaping their anxious inner system, and they may come to see progress in other health conditions as well.

How do you integrate parts of yourself?

There are a few different ways to integrate conflicting parts of self, including identifying the problem, choosing hands to represent each part, and asking to speak with the two parts that may be in conflict with each other. Living a more integrated life means you will experience more harmony and balance in your day-to-day.

Does internal family systems therapy work?

A study in 2015 by the NREPP found that IFS is "effective for improving general functioning and well-being. In addition, it has been rated promising for each of: improving phobia, panic, and generalized anxiety disorders and symptoms; physical health conditions and symptoms; personal resilience/self-concept; and depression and depressive symptoms."

How do you conduct self therapy?

There are various ways to do self therapy, but basic principles include: challenging your beliefs, self concept, self thought and self-reflection, understanding the problems or goals you may be facing, and studying your feelings/behaviors. Art therapy is another popular form of self therapy.
Family Systems Therapy Is Personal
Family Systems Therapy is a personal experience, and not everyone will go into family systems therapy seeking the same things. Keeping this in mind can ensure that you will get the most out of online family systems therapy, regardless of what your specific goals are. If you’re still wondering if systems therapy is right for you, and how much therapy costs, please contact us at . BetterHelp specializes in online therapy to help address all types of mental health concerns.
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