Family Systems Therapy

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Family systems therapy

Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that supports people in resolving conflicts between family members or within their families. It’s based on the research that psychiatrist Murray Bowen conducted in the mid-1950s on family systems and how they impacted his patients. 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 Bowen Family Systems Therapy, a person cannot be fully separated from their family relational system.

Core concepts of family systems theory

The Bowen Family Systems Theory is based on human behavior and views the family as an emotional system or emotional unit. In Bowen’s view, human relationship systems have evolved over time and are important to survival. Often, individual family members 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 within a family's emotional system and help heal these wounds. There are eight interconnected concepts within family systems theory, upon which family systems therapy is based, the eight interlocking concepts include:

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 between one family member and another.

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 family member finds a particular sense of self or self-leadership within their family unit, it rarely changes.

3. Nuclear family emotional process

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

4. Family projection process

The family projection process is a family systems therapy process 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 creating family patterns in self-differentiation—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 how the family functions 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

Societal emotional process 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.

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What to expect in 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 of this type of family therapy 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 family members will have different perceptions of their relationships, 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 popular model in the family therapy field that can be used to help families of all types. This form of family therapy can be especially useful for those who are struggling with unresolved conflicts or pain of some kind that is impacting family relationships. Here are some examples of conflicts or challenges that a family may seek the help of a family systems therapist:

  • Conflict avoidance 
  • Coping with a loss
  • Issues related to children or parenting
  • Substance use issues
  • Mental health concerns (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety)
  • Romantic relationships that impact the family

If you or someone you know is experiencing substance use disorder or other mental health concerns, help is available. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline is available 24/7 and can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

Finding a therapist who is experienced in family therapy—family systems therapy, in particular—is important. Through specific training, a qualified therapist will have typically gained knowledge of common family power dynamics and communication problems and will be able to guide your family through the challenges you’re facing in a skilled and effective manner.

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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 family member, or the family unit, to decide which types of therapy work 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 and 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. While BetterHelp does not offer family systems therapy, connecting with a licensed therapist as an individual can be a helpful method for soothing struggles related to family.

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