Supporting the Family

Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals resolve their problems in the context of their family units, where many issues are likely to begin. Each family member works together with others to better understand their group dynamic and how their individual actions affect each other and the family unit as a whole. One of the most important premises of family systems therapy is that what happens to one member of a family happens to everyone in the family.

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When It’s Used

Many psychological issues begin early in life and stem from relationships within the family of origin, or the family one grows up in, even though these issues often surface later on in life. Families in conflict, as well as couples and individuals with issues and concerns related to their families of origin, can benefit from family systems therapy. This treatment approach can be helpful for such mental health conditions as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, personality disorders, addiction, and food-related disorders. Family systems therapy has also been shown to help individuals and family members better control and cope with physical disabilities and disorders.

What to Expect

During family systems therapy, the family works individually and together to resolve a problem that directly affects one or more family members. Each family member has the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about how they are affected. Together, the family works to help the individual in distress and to help relieve the strain on the family. Family members explore their individual roles within the family, learn how to switch roles, if necessary, and learn ways to support and help each other with the goal of restoring family relationships and rebuilding a healthy family system.

How It Works

American psychiatrist Murray Bowen began to develop his family systems theory in the mid-1950s while working as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health. Based on his knowledge of family patterns and systems theory, which looks at the parts of a system (such as individual family members) in relationship to the whole (the family), Bowen believed that the personalities, emotions, and behaviors of grown individuals are a result of their birth order, their role within their family of origin and the coping mechanisms they have developed for dealing with emotional family issues. To understand the family system, the family must be viewed as a whole, and that what defines a family is more than the people who make it up but also how they interact with each other to create a unique family dynamic.

What to Look for in a Family Systems Therapist

Look for a licensed, experienced mental health professional with a background and understanding of family systems and dysfunctional family patterns, such as power struggles and communication problems. In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background and relevant experience, look for a therapist with whom you and your family feel comfortable working on personal and family issues.

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Harris MA and Mertlich D. Piloting home-based behavioral family systems therapy for adolescents with poorly controlled diabetes.Children’s Health Care. 2003;32(1):65-79.    
Courtois CA and Ford JD, ed. Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide. Chapter 19: Family Systems Therapy. Ford JD and Saltzman W. 2009, Guilford Press.
Brown J. Bowen. Family Systems Theory and Practice: Illustration and Critique. The Family Systems Institute.  
Brief Interventions and Brief Therapies for Substance Abuse. Chapter 8—Brief Family Therapy. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville, MD. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(US); 1999.
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