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Updated on September 27, 2022

Family Systems Theory

What is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory (FST) views the family as a unit instead of a group of individuals. It was first proposed by Dr. Murray Bowen 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.

For example, if one member is stressed, that can affect the entire household. FST refers to this as social contagion.


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What is The Goal of Family Systems Theory?

The goal of family systems theory is to improve communication between family members. It’s typically applied to treat psychological conditions in children and adolescents. It also works to better the overall mental health and emotional problems of all members of the family.

How Does Family Systems Theory Work?

Family systems theory proceeds on the basis that all family members are part of an overall unit. As such, they each have specific functions, interactions, and duties.

Each of these factors can cause anxiety. An example would be the family member everyone else relies on feeling stress due to always being asked for advice.

The theory is designed to encourage differentiation of self. This is the ability to separate individual feelings from group feelings.

Doing this allows for a more conscious approach to familial and social issues.

Family systems therapy uses group therapy to facilitate better communication. It uses group therapy to facilitate this.

Individual family members may voice their concerns directly to the healthcare professional. This allows for other family members to listen to the stressors 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 the higher emotional impact an adult has on a child.

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What Are The Four Subsystems in Family Systems Theory?

Bowen’s theory breaks the family into four subsystems based on the nuclear family concept. These systems interact with each other in a number of ways.

  1. Marital

The marital relationship between two people can trickle down. For example, an argument between parents can affect the mood of the children.

  1. Parent

Couples with children are also parents. In this role, they're responsible for how children may perceive their interactions. Repeated marital conflict can cause issues with how a child may express love later in life.

Parents are also responsible for the multigenerational transmission process

This is how labels within the family affect the child's perception of self. For example, if a parent treats a child as being incompetent, the child will believe they are incompetent.

And when that child grows up and has children of their own, they may be more likely to believe one of their children is incompetent as well.

  1. Sibling

The sibling dynamic is an element defined by interactions between siblings and those viewed as siblings. Bowen’s family system theory suggests a predictable pattern of characteristics based on sibling position.

For example, the elder child will seek more responsibility and leadership. The younger child, meanwhile, may develop shyly and with a less independent nature.

It’s worth noting that the sibling position isn’t governed by age. If the younger sibling is seen as the responsible one, then they will self-identify as such.

Traditional gender role expectations can also play a part. For example, a younger boy may assume the role of protector of his sister.

  1. Extended Family

Extended family includes any family member not within the nuclear family. This typically applies to aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

Extended family members are a significant part of the multigenerational transmission process.

Emotional bonds may be formed between members of the extended family that inhabit the same sibling positions (ex: An uncle and a nephew).

Family Systems Therapy and the Genogram

Mental health professionals use a genogram to chart the roles of family members.

This is a pictorial representation of a family’s medical history and interpersonal relationships.

It can display psychological factors, hereditary features, and other issues that may affect psychological health.

Bowen used genograms for assessment and treatment. He would first interview each family member to learn the family’s history going back at least three generations.

Bowen used this information to assess any behavioral or mental health problems.

What Are The Interpersonal Factors That Affect a Family?

Each of the subsystems are influenced by a number of key concepts.

These include:

Family Projection Process

This is the projection of parental emotional problems onto the children. This may be caused by multigenerational transmission or sibling position, but it doesn’t have to be.

For example, the parent believes they themselves are insecure and fears that their child will be insecure. What follows next is a series of parent-driven events to ensure their child is not insecure. While not intended, the child now worries about being seen as insecure.

Emotional Cutoff

This is defined by an intentional limiting of family interactions. This happens when a member or whole family becomes too emotionally taxing for that 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 are unable to connect emotionally. This can be due to a lack of shared interest, time apart, or traumatic events.

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Pros and Cons of Family Systems Therapy 

Every treatment option has pros and cons. Family systems therapy is no different.

These are the pros of family systems therapy:

  • Increased communication 
  • Stable emotional system
  • Strengthens family relationships and cohesion
  • Healthier environment for children 
  • Lessens emotional cutoff
  • Non-medicinal form of treatment 
  • Supported by experts
  • Introduces a new way of viewing family problems

These are the cons of family systems therapy:

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

Limitations of the Family Systems Theory

Bowen’s family systems therapy is a popular choice of treatment that many therapists and patients in treatment have agreed is effective. However, there is limited empirical evidence to back the approach.

While the evidence is growing, more data is necessary to confirm its efficacy.

Who Benefits From This Type of Therapy?

Any family with issues surrounding communication or dysfunctional relationships can benefit from this therapy.

Dysfunction caused by a breakdown in the roles within the nuclear family emotional system can cause a number of issues within children and adults alike.

Families that have experienced any form of trauma, loss, or separation can also benefit.

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  1. Zerbe, K.J., and J.E. Fabacher. “Benefits and limitations of Bowen therapy with psychiatric inpatients.National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1989.
  2. University, Atlantic International. “Fundamentals of Family Theory.AIU, 2019.
  3. Brown, Jenny. “Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Technique.The Family Systems Institute, 1999.
  4. Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.
  5. Varghese, Mathew et al. “Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 62,Suppl 2 : S192-S200.
  6. Slesnick, Natasha, and Jing Zhang. “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 vol. 30,6 : 619-29.
  7. Jakimowicz, Samantha et al. “Bowen Family Systems Theory: Mapping a framework to support critical care nurses' well-being and care quality.” Nursing philosophy : an international journal for healthcare professionals vol. 22,2 .

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