What Is Family Systems Therapy?

By Sarah Fader

Updated April 09, 2020

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.


What is a family systems approach?

The family systems approach, or family systems therapy, is a form of family therapy that tackles family issues. A family system is the idea that the actions of the family can affect certain members. If one family member has a mental health condition, the entire family system should be looked at.

Family systems therapy was based on family systems theory. Family systems theory was made by Murray Bowen. Bowen introduced family systems theory in the mid 1950s, and family systems therapy is based on that. According to Bowen, family systems theory says that a person cannot be separated from their family or relationships. Since many therapist clients had problems within the family, the idea is that with family systems therapy, family members should be looked at as well. If one person changes their behavior, it can have an effect on other family members.

What are family systems therapy techniques?

In the Bowen family systems theory, there are several techniques that may be used. Here are a few of them.

Helping The Family To Realize Their Problems Are Normal

One reason why some people may avoid seeking help is that they feel as though their problems are not normal. You may think that you're a dysfunctional family and that everyone else is perfect. With Bowenian family systems therapy, one goal is to help the family realize that their problems are completely normal, and that there is no shame in getting help.

Helping the Family Member Realize Their Reactions

When it comes to family, emotional reactions can make or break them. For example, if one family member expresses their depression, if another member acts cold towards them, the depressed member can feel worse.

Sometimes, the reactions may not be intentional. Bowen family systems theory describes the reactions and explains how they can damage the development of family bonds.

Stop Using Accusatory Statements

Another technique that improves human relationship systems, not just from the family, is to stop using such accusatory statements. One infamous one is using "you" language. One person tries to express how they feel to someone they believed has wronged them, the person may say "you" a lot, which can make the accused feel defensive. Meanwhile, if someone makes "I" statements, or expresses how something made them feel, there can be more common ground.

What are the basic components of a family system?

Family systems have various components that make up the parts of a system as a whole. Here are the components.

  • The members themselves. Every member has their own personality, characteristics, and relationships. By analyzing this, you can get a picture of the structure as a whole.
  • The patterns of interaction. Human interactions can be complex, but there are a series of repetitive patterns that can keep a family functional or cause some drama. By analyzing these patterns, changes can be made.
  • The boundaries. Different families will have boundaries that open or close opportunities. A family is never opened all the way or shut off to the world, but there is a spectrum of openness and closeness that should be analyzed if someone wants to determine how a family is supposed to work.
  • The family as a whole. The individual matters a lot, but individual members, at the end of the day, make up a whole family. In family systems therapy, the whole is more important, as to how the whole operates affects the individual.
  • Family systems influence members through relationship agreement rules. These aren't rules written in a contract or anything, but they're a set of guidelines that will determine how a family member interacts with another, or even outside the family. Sometimes, these rules can be vague, such as "be a good person."
  • The subsystems. These are tiny groups in the family made up of up to three people. For example, three siblings. These relationships can have their own rules and boundaries.

What are the different types of family systems?

In family systems thinking, there are various types of family. These include:

Nuclear Family

With the nuclear family, emotional relationships consist of two parents and their children. It's often considered to be the traditional family, and one you think of when you imagine the American dream. Two parents, their kids, and maybe a pet. However, more types of family have been recognized over the years, despite the nuclear family still being the dominant type.

Single Parent

This consists of one parent raising a child. A long time ago, the idea of a single parent seemed a little taboo unless there was a death in the family. Now, there are many single parents, particularly mothers. Single parents usually don't have the help of the other parent and due to this, they may struggle with finances, time management, and getting other opportunities. Single parents may need to rely on other groups to support them.


These are other relatives who live together, be it due to aging or financial reasons. For example, grandparents living at home. In many cultures, it's common for extended families to be a thing, especially in small communities.

Childless or Childfree

This is a family made up of two people, but no children. These families don't want to have or can't have kids, and may support other family members instead, or have pets. These are increasingly becoming popular as well.


When a parent remarries to a new family, that's the stepfamily. A stepfamily is always a roll of the dice. Some stepfamilies blend in well together. However, there are other times where children may clash with a new stepparent, who may have different values from the original parent, or not treat them as well because they are not their biological child. It's important for every member of the family to work as well as possible if they want to be a successful stepfamily.


These are grandparents who are raising their grandkids. This may be due to the parents dying or not wanting their kid. A grandparent family faces its own set of challenges. Due to their age, they may struggle with raising children, and they may have to take on a new job despite being retired.

Family By Choice

This is a family made up of people who aren't related. Families by choice may consist of people whose families have abandoned them, for example.

What are the 6 functions of a family?

Family can have many functions, but there are six main functions that you can add to it. These include:

  1. Adding new family members. When you start a family, you have to add new members. You can do this through birth, adopting, marriage, and other methods.
  2. Taking care of your family members. Whether it's feeding your kids, helping aging family members, or supporting those who are financially unable to do so, this is an important function in any family.
  3. Teaching children how to socialize. Talking to them, helping them in school, helping them to make friends, and so on.
  4. Helping to teach family members right from wrong and disciplining them.
  5. Being affectionate and supportive towards family members who need it. For example, supporting your child's life choices and helping them when they're sad.
  6. Earning money to support family members. This includes buying goods to support the entire family.

How do you define a family?

A family is defined by a group of people who have a strong bond. They're usually together through blood or marriage. A family can also be defined by a group of people who are unrelated to you, but who you have a strong connection to. Your family of origin, especially if you're the black sheep of the family, may not be considered your true family.

What happens in family therapy?

Family therapy is quite unique in that it can have different paths you can take. Here is a basic outline of what can happen during family therapy.

  • You and your family come in and you explain your problems. Alternatively, you may come in individually. You may give the history of your family, emotional issues you may face, and other problems. A therapist will intervene should the family begin fighting.
  • The therapist will be as objective as possible, not taking any sides, and instead help the family by giving them a list of goals they can strive for. Or, they may help the family to explain why they behave the way they do.
  • Through different sessions, the family will work together to produce the most results. When there is progress, the therapist will acknowledge that. If the family still needs help, the therapist may change their therapy approaches. Just as the development of family members can change, so can therapy approaches.
  • Once the family starts to resolve their problems, they may see the therapist less, and eventually not at all. The family learns to improve their relationship systems through the techniques they learned through the therapist.

Does family therapy really work?

For many people, family therapy can work. There are a few factors that can increase its success, such as:

  • What types of therapy you choose. Some types of therapy may be more beneficial than the other.
  • Another way the family can increase their chances of success is if all of the family members are in it together. If there are a few who refuse to go to therapy, that can be a problem.
  • The family has to implement the advice and goal planning into their family life. If the therapist's advice goes in one ear and out the other, that can be a problem.

How do you structure a family therapy session?

With any type of family therapy, be it family systems, systemic family therapy, structural family therapy, behavioral family therapy, intergenerational family therapy, or any other type, it's important for the session to be structured.

A session is structured just like any other type of therapy. The family walks in and explains their issue. The therapist may ask what the family hopes to get out of the session, and there may be a rough outline as to how they can get there. The first session is always the way to structure future sessions. Just like how life is unpredictable, however, so are the sessions. They may go a little differently than what was originally structured, and that's okay.

What is the full meaning of family?

The full meaning of family is a group of people, usually related by blood or by law, who support one another and show empathy towards their fellow members. Families tend to have their own rules and systems thinking, and tend to work in harmony towards a shared goal.

What is a good family quote?

One good quote is by Jane Howard, who says "Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one."

This is a good quote because it describes the emotional system of which family is, and how you need an emotional system of support no matter who you are. This emotional system doesn't even have to be your actual family, but a network of people.

What exactly is a family?

A family is a group of people who are related by blood or by law. It can also be used to refer to a group of unrelated people who have a strong bond with one another. A family can be made of immediate members or extended. It's a term that can have a bit of subjectivity in its definition. Some see family as an emotional connection and being more than blood, while others may have a strict definition of the word.

What are the goals of family therapy?

Family therapy, at the end of the day, is about helping the family as a whole. To do this, the therapist may accomplish different goals. These goals can include:

  • Family conflict resolution through therapy interventions.
  • Teaching the family therapy techniques to help manage any anger or miscommunication.
  • Writing down a list of therapeutic goals and helping the family to accomplish them.
  • To help identify problematic family behavior and family processes and work hard to remedy that.
  • Helping the family to resolve any communication issues.

What are the benefits of family therapy?

A family therapist can give a family many benefits. Here are a few of them.

  • Improved family relationship systems. If family relationships are strained due to certain disagreements or other issues, a therapist can help.
  • One way a therapist can do this is to help a family understand one another's problems. For example, a teenager may have problems communicating how they feel, and a family therapist can help them to express how they feel. A therapy session of this kind could get a little heated, but with the therapist as a mediator, everything can work out.
  • A family therapist can help the family reach their goals. A therapy session may consist of having the family write down their goals and teaching everyone how they can reach them.
  • One benefit of family therapy is it can also double as individual therapy. If there's something a family member doesn't want to say to the rest of their family, that family member can talk to a therapist one-on-one.
  • It helps the family understand certain problematic family patterns. Family patterns can be hard to notice because they come so naturally, but with enough mindfulness and therapy, you can change any family patterns.
  • Helping the family manage mental illness. Often, family functions may be hindered due to depression, anxiety, and other issues. A family therapist can educate everyone on a mental health issue and teach empathy.
  • Family therapy can help estranged members repair their bonds, or how to live without each other should the relationship be too toxic.
  • Helping family members learn the roles within the family.

No matter which approach to family therapy you choose, it can be beneficial.

What is the goal of strategic family therapy?

Strategic family therapy actually has three main goals:

  • Solving problems. Every family unit has problems, be it in family life or outside of it. Strategic family therapy helps solve any problems that happen, either through communication, working together, or thinking outside of the box.
  • Achieving goals. Every family has their own goals, be it a shared goal or individual goals. This form of therapy helps families achieve as many goals as possible. If different goals conflict, the therapist may work hard to see how the family can reach a compromise.
  • Stop dysfunctional behaviors. Every family, even strong family members, may have behaviors that are less than desirable. Strategic family therapists will help the dysfunctional family identify behaviors they need to work on and help them make progress. Soon, the dysfunctional family becomes functional.

What are boundaries in family systems theory?

The concept of boundaries in family systems therapy is quite interesting. First, there are the internal and external boundaries. You probably have different boundaries with your family than you do with your friends and family.

These boundaries can regulate information and movement in the family. For example, some family members may have strict boundaries, and others may have boundaries that are more lenient. For example, an authoritarian parent versus a permissive one.

As for information, boundaries in family systems therapy help people decide what they can and cannot speak about. For instance, some families don't discuss their personal politics with one another, while other family systems are much more open. Some people benefit from family boundaries, such as being able to discuss whatever they want, while others may have a hard time expressing themselves.

What are the key concepts of structural family therapy?

Is family systems therapy evidence based?

Family systems therapy is an ever-growing way to help a family member and their family as a whole. But interestingly enough, there isn't too much empirical evidence to support this theory. This doesn't mean that it's incorrect, and there is some evidence to back it up. However, more research on family systems therapy does need to be done.

What is the goal of family systems therapy?

The goal of family systems therapy is to find out how the family as a whole affects individual members of the family. By teaching the family how their systems work, they can learn how to work in harmony and bring each other up, not knock each other down. Often, helping individual family members soon evolves to helping all members of the family.

What is family function?

Family function is the purpose of the family and how they behave. Families can have different functions, but the majority of their functions include taking care of children, providing for one another, having set goals and values, and other functions.

What makes a family strong?

Here are some things that we believe make a family strong.

  • Willingness to work out any problems or differences. Living together, every family is going to argue or not agree on everything. It takes a strong family to resolve conflict or agree to disagree on certain issues.
  • Support. If you're financially in trouble, you have no worry about talking to a family member to get some assistance.
  • Sticking up for one another. If someone is bothering any family members, the other family members
  • Common goals or values. A good family should work with each other towards a common goal, or family members should share similar beliefs.

Is the nuclear family the ideal family?

The nuclear family is considered by many to be the ideal family structure. This is because there are two parents who provide for the child, and these parents are the biological or adoptive parents, not a new family who was introduced for marriage.

Of course, life isn't ideal. Many parents are single, remarried, or are there are other circumstances where the family is a little different than ordinary. If one parent is abusive or toxic, the nuclear family may not be ideal. There are so many circumstances when it comes to the family unit and what makes a healthy family.

What are the characteristics of a family?

Families can have some unique characteristics, but there are a few general traits that most strong families share. These include:

  • Communication. Even if a family is always apart from one another, they still have open communication. Family members should be open to talking to other members about most issues they have. If there are any issues within the family, they will work hard to resolve them.
  • Support. One's family should support one another, be it financially, verbally, or any other way they can. If there is a member of the family who needs help, members will assist them in any way they can.
  • Shared values. While a family can disagree on some things, they tend to have some shared values that unite them. Family values can evolve over time, and may not be from the family of origin. Generational influences on family values can evolve over time.

What makes a family a family?

This is a question that has a bit of subjectivity to it. Families are related by blood or by law, but some people will find family in their friends or community. Pets can be family, and so can other people who don't make up the traditional family.

In the end, a family can be a group of people who you share close, intimate ties with.

How Do I Find a Therapist Who Can Help My Family?

If you need to find a therapist to help your family, here are a few tips.

  • First, find a therapist who specializes in family therapy. It can be family systems therapy or another type of therapy. A general therapist may be able to help as well, but if you find a therapist who is a family therapist, all the better.
  • When you find a therapist who you think is right for the job, look at their reviews or testimonials from clients. This way, you can decide if the therapist is right for you.
  • When you find a therapist, set up a phone interview or brief session. This can help you determine whether or not they can help you. There are a few red flags you may run into when you try to find a therapist for your family. For example, the therapist should be as non-biased as possible. If you find a therapist and they end up seeming a little biased towards you or someone else, this could be a problem.
  • Make sure to find a therapist who specializes in working well with more than one person. Any family therapist should be good at this.
  • If you can't find a good family therapist locally, try to find a therapist who works online. This is especially useful if your family has conflicting schedules.

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