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Family Systems Therapy

make and female therapists wearing western gear with arms around each other in front of a swimming pool

How often do we think about the things that make our family the way it is? Family systems therapy is based on the idea that each family is a unique social system with its own structure and patterns of communication. The personalities of each family member, core beliefs and values, and the influence of extended family all interact to make up the dynamics of our family. Each family member is profoundly impacted by the family system. As a result, a change in one member of the family will affect the family system and the other family members.

In family systems therapy, therapists help families identify how their family functions and how families function in general. Family therapy also helps all family members work on their problems together, and teaches families how to manage conflict and change in healthy ways. If a family member has behavioral issues or mental illness, family therapy focuses on strengthening the family as a whole, rather than just focusing on the troubled member. During a course of family therapy, family members can learn strategies to resolve issues causing problems. Each family member learns to take responsibility for his/her actions and, if needed, alter behavior to improve the family system. Family systems work focuses on making paradigm shifts among family members so that they see themselves, each other, and their roles in more effective manners. Rather than just changing behaviors, the treatment is aimed at changing the unspoken rules of engagement between individuals.

Family therapy is action-oriented, so therapists will often give assignments to family members. The number of sessions needed depends on the severity of the problems and how willing family members are to engage in the process.

3 Important Facts

  • Psychologist Murray Bowen introduced family systems theory in the 1960s.
  • Research suggests that family therapy can be as effective or more effective than other forms of treatment.
  • Family therapy approaches typically includes family structure therapy (looking at the family’s structure), strategic family therapy (examining family processes, such as communication or problem-solving), or intergenerational family therapy (looking at generational influences on family behavior).

Signs to Look For

Family therapy can be very effective for any family where one or more members is experiencing behavioral or emotional distress. Families dealing with an eating disorder, conduct disorder, depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental illnesses may especially benefit from family therapy. Families with a high degree of conflict or poor communication skills may also benefit from family therapy. Sometimes family therapy is needed after a significant change has taken place, such as a divorce or remarriage. Families where one or more members has different religious, cultural, or other beliefs and values than the other family members might also find family therapy useful in managing conflict.

What Are My Next Steps?

If you think your family could benefit from family therapy, find a therapist trained and experienced in family systems theory and therapy. Also, make sure the rest of your family is willing to participate; effectiveness of family therapy is reduced when one or more family member refuses to participate.

Common Questions and Answers About Family Systems Therapy

How do I know if I need family therapy or individual therapy?

Family therapy can benefit most families who are dealing with tough issues. However, sometimes individual therapy may also be needed to help a family member cope with his/her symptoms or behaviors. A therapist trained in systems theory can use systemic principles in individual therapy sessions. Your therapist can help you determine the best course of action for you and your family.

What are the main goals of treatment?

Goals of treatment may vary depending on your family’s unique needs, but the main goal of family therapy is to achieve harmony and balance within the family system. This may involve building communication and problem-solving skills. Or it could involve learning to manage conflict.

How can I get the most out of family therapy?

You can improve your therapy experience by showing up for sessions, being honest during your sessions, completing homework assignments, seeking solutions to the problems presented in sessions, recognizing your part in family patterns of interaction, and by being patient and not giving up.