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What is Family Systems Theory?

Family systems theory is a therapeutic approach to several child psychology and general family issues. The term was first coined by Dr. Murray Bowen in the 1950’s and is defined by its use of the family, as an interdependent social construct.

Family systems theory views the family as a unit as opposed to a group of individuals. Through this viewpoint, a personal issue is seen as a problem of the unit not the individual.  Furthermore, the family members influence each other. This is documented as an emotional contagion in which one family member’s feelings or mood are felt by the entire emotional unit.

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What is The Goal of Family Systems Theory?

The overall goal of family systems theory is to improve clear communication of a family unit. 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 works under the basis that all family members are part of an overall emotional unit. As such, they each have specific functions, interactions, and duties. Each of these factors can cause stress or anxieties. A common example would be the family member saddled with the most emotional burden may feel anxiety due to always being the advice giver or listener. 

Family systems theory is designed to encourage a certain level of differentiation of self. Differentiation of self is the ability to separate individual feelings from group feelings. This allows for a more conscious approach to familial and social issues. 

Family systems therapy is centered around open, clear communication between all family members. In some cases, to help better communication in a group therapy setting, an individual 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. 

However, the exact methods of any given family systems theory can vary based on family factors. For example, in the case of a child or adolescent patient, a healthcare provider may instead focus most on the adults' care. This is due to the higher emotional impact an adult has on a child. 

What Are The Four Subsystems in Family Systems Theory?

Bowen’s family systems theory breaks the family into four subsystems based on the nuclear family concept. Modern mental health professionals use a genogram to chart the roles of family members. The communication between these subsystems and interpersonal communication between each system's participants are the primary focus of most family systems-based therapy.

  1. Marital

The marital relationship between 2 individuals can create a trickle down effect to other family members. For example an argument between these 2 individuals can affect the mood of the children or immediate family members.  

  1. Parent

In this role, individuals are often responsible for how the child may perceive interpersonal relationships. Repeated marital conflict for example can cause issues with how an individual may express love later in life. Parents are also responsible for the multigenerational transmission process. 

This process is characterized by the repetitive familial labels and identities within the family system and the perception of self within children across multiple generations. For example, if a parent treats a child as being incompetent then the child will believe they are incompetent. Furthermore, when the child grows up and has children of their own they may be more likely to believe one of their children are 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 responsibility and leadership, whereas the younger child may develop shyly and with more co-dependent natures. 

It’s worth noting that the sibling position isn’t strictly synonymous with age. I.E. if the younger sibling of two is seen or treated as the responsible one then they will self-identify as responsible and assume the sibling position generally associated with being first born. Another example would be the historical parental view of daughters versus sons. Regardless of age, daughters were treated as delicate and sons as tough. This means sons may assume the role of protector despite being younger. 

  1. Extended Family

Extended family includes any family member not within the individual’s family of origin. This typically applies to aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Extended family members are also a significant part of the multigenerational transmission process. 

Emotional bonds may be formed between individual members of the family that inhabit the same sibling positions. I.E. A first born uncle and first born nephew. 

Family Systems Therapy and the Genogram

A genogram provides a pictorial representation of a family’s medical history and interpersonal relationships. It can be used to display psychological factors, hereditary features, and other issues or past events that may affect psychological well-being and health.

Bowen used genograms for assessment and treatment. He would first interview each family member to learn of the family’s detailed history going back at least three generations. Bowen used this information to assess any critical data and any behavioral or mental health problems spanning across generations.

He first believed it took three generations for symptoms of schizophrenia to display within the family, though he later changed this estimate to ten generations.

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What Are The Interpersonal Factors That Affect a Family?

Each of the subsystems are influenced by a number of key concepts within family relationships. These concepts change family identity, self identity, and members' roles and functions within the whole family. The following is a list of the most prominent factors: 

  • Family projection process — the family projection process deals with the projection of parental emotional problems to the children. 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. Regardless of whether or not the child was or wasn’t at the beginning. The result is the child now worries about being seen as insecure. The family projection process can be caused by multigenerational transmission or sibling position but it doesn’t necessarily need to be caused by either. 
  • Emotional cutoff — emotional cutoff is defined by an intentional limiting of family interactions. This is caused when a family member or even a whole family becomes too emotionally taxing for an individual. Emotional cutoff can be achieved by physical or emotional distance and a general avoidance of certain sensitive topics. However, due to the emotional cutoff, any familial issues are rarely solved. 
  • Emotional distance — emotional distance occurs as more than a symptom of an emotional cutoff. Emotional distance can occur when two or more family members are unable to emotionally connect. This can be due to lack of shared interest, time apart, or traumatic events. 

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
  • Creates stable interdependence and family cohesion 
  • Strengthens family relationships
  • Creates healthier environment for children 
  • Lessens emotional cutoff
  • Suggested by healthcare professionals
  • Non-medicinal form of treatment 
  • 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 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 base is growing, more data, especially from objective sources, is necessary to confirm its efficacy.

Another criticism of the family systems theory is the neutrality of its practitioners. Some mental health professionals believe that by staying neutral, unaffected, or silent, practitioners involved in family systems therapy may provide unspoken approval to any harmful behaviors patients in treatment may be exposing to themselves or others.  

Who Benefits From This Type of Therapy?

Dysfunctional families can benefit greatly from family therapy. Any family whose issues are caused by lack of communication, understanding, or dysfunctional family dynamics can benefit from family systems theory. 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. 

Additionally, families that have experienced any form of trauma, loss, or separation can also benefit from family therapy.

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Zerbe, K.J., and J.E. Fabacher. “PubMed.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1989,

University, Atlantic International. “Fundamentals of Family Theory.” AIU, 2019, Brown, Jenny. “Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Technique.” The Family Systems Institute, 1999,

Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.

Varghese, Mathew et al. “Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 62,Suppl 2 (2020): S192-S200,

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 (2016): 619-29,

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 (2021),

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