Updated on November 15, 2023
5 min read

Is Family Systems Theory the Right Approach for Addiction?

Family systems theory is a powerful tool for understanding the complex dynamics within the family system. It looks at how families interact and work together as an interconnected system. It also highlights how a member's behavior can impact others.

From identifying communication patterns to understanding family relationships, these principles are critical for those examining and promoting positive growth within their households.

This blog dives into the basics of family systems theory. It also explores why it's such an effective means for helping families reach their full potential.

What is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory (FST), a fundamental element in structural family therapy, is a theory on human behavior that views the family as a unit instead of a group. Dr. Murray Bowen first proposed it in the 1950s.

It argues all personal issues are family issues. It also focuses on how the feelings of family members can influence each other.

What is the Goal of Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory aims to improve communication within the family structure. This makes it a cornerstone of effective family therapy.

It’s typically applied to treat psychological conditions in children and adolescents. Moreover, it enhances all family members' mental and emotional health.

Who Benefits From This Type of Therapy?

Any family with communication issues or dysfunctional relationships can benefit from this therapy. Families that have experienced trauma, loss, or separation can also reap its rewards.

These issues can cause dysfunction in the nuclear family, leading to many issues in children and adults. It's especially true when there's a communication issue that family members find difficulty overcoming.


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How Does Family Systems Theory Work?

Professionals apply the family systems theory to group therapy. Each person voices their concerns directly to the healthcare professional. This allows other family members to listen without triggering a need to defend themselves.

The exact focus of any given family systems theory varies based on the situation. In the case of a child or adolescent, a healthcare provider may focus on their parents. This is due to an adult's higher emotional impact on a child.

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What Are The Four Subsystems in Family Systems Theory?

Bowen’s theory breaks the family unit into four subsystems based on the nuclear family concept. These subsystems often include:

  • Persons
  • Marital relationships
  • Parent-child relationships
  • Siblings

The four subsystems interact in many ways, resulting in the complex social dynamics of a nuclear family. How these subsystems interact will depend on each one’s boundaries, roles, and rules.

Effects of Subsystem Interactions on Individual and Family Dynamics

An example of such an interaction is how personal boundaries can influence spouses' interactions. Their relationship can greatly affect their child’s perspective, such as how they view love.

The siblings’ dynamics will also affect their roles in the nuclear family. The eldest child may assume more responsibility while the youngest develops less independence.

These learned roles will affect how each child interacts with their other family members. It can also influence the way they perceive themselves.

What are the Interpersonal Factors that Affect a Family?

Some key concepts influence the dynamics within the family's emotional unit. These include:

Family Projection Process

The family projection process describes how parents may transmit their emotional problems to their children. Children can inherit strengths and weaknesses from their relationships with their parents, affecting their personal development.10

For example, if a parent struggles with insecurity, their child may inherit this issue through parent-child interactions. Eventually, the child begins to struggle with personal insecurities, too.

Emotional Cutoff

The emotional cutoff is the intentional limiting of family interactions. This happens when a member or whole family becomes too emotionally taxing for a person.

Examples include physical or emotional distance. It can also be a general avoidance of certain sensitive topics. Emotional cutoff means familial issues are rarely solved.

Emotional Distance

Emotional distance can occur when two or more family members cannot connect emotionally. This can be due to a lack of shared interest, time apart, or traumatic events.

Family Systems Therapy and the Genogram

Mental health professionals use a genogram to chart the interpersonal relationships of family members. A genogram is a diagram displaying a family’s medical history that includes these factors:

  • Hereditary history
  • Physical history
  • Psychological history

Bowen used genograms to assess any behavioral or mental health problems. He would interview each family member to learn the family’s history spanning at least three generations.

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Strengths and Weaknesses of Family Systems Therapy 

Every treatment option has advantages and disadvantages. Family systems therapy is no different.

These are the strengths of family systems therapy:

  • Improve communication 
  • Stabilize emotional system
  • Strengthen family relationships and cohesion
  • Foster a healthier environment for children 
  • Reduce emotional cutoff
  • Promote a non-medicinal form of treatment
  • Introduce a new way of viewing family problems
  • Support from experts

On the other hand, these are the weaknesses of family systems therapy:

  • Increase short-term tension due to voiced personal complaints
  • Can be ineffective on unwilling participants
  • Can be unproductive with inpatient treatment
  • Can cause traumatic triggers
  • Can be emotionally overwhelming
  • Doesn't treat issues that don’t directly connect to the family

Limitations of the Family Systems Theory

Many therapists and patients in treatment have agreed that family systems therapy is effective. However, there's limited empirical evidence to back the approach. While the evidence grows, more data is necessary to confirm its efficacy.


Family systems therapy is based on Bowen’s family systems theory. Its goal is to improve family members’ communication with each other.

While there’s limited empirical evidence, many therapists and people agree it can effectively treat health and emotional problems. Family systems therapy is successful when all members actively participate in treatment.

It can benefit any family with communication issues, dysfunctional relationships, loss, or trauma. Moreover, Bowen’s theory breaks the family into four subsystems. These interactions can affect personal and family dynamics.

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Updated on November 15, 2023
10 sources cited
Updated on November 15, 2023
  1. Zerbe et al. “Benefits and limitations of Bowen therapy with psychiatric inpatients.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1989.
  2. Fundamentals of Family Theory.” Atlantic International University, 2019.
  3. Brown, J. "Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Technique.” The Family Systems Institute, 1999.
  4. Kerr, M.E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000.
  5. Varghese et al. “Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2020.
  6. Slesnick et al. “Family systems therapy for substance-using mothers and their 8- to 16-year-old children.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 2016.
  7. Jakimowicz et al. “Bowen Family Systems Theory: Mapping a framework to support critical care nurses' well-being and care quality.” Nursing Philosophy, 2021.
  8. Briggs et al. “Subsystem in Family Systems Theory.” Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy, 2017.
  9. Watson, W.H. “Family Systems.” Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition), 2012.
  10. Family Projection Process.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, n.d.

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