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Family Systems Therapy And Family Systems Theories

Family Systems Therapy is undergirded by a variety of theoretical approaches all of which focuses on human problems which result from relationships. As individuals we are encouraged to be autonomous, independent, make our choices and accept the consequences of these choices. This individualist stance seems to contradict the reality that we are born into families and spend our lives attached to a family either our own creation or one into which we are born. It is within these families that we learn, grow and develop. It is to these families we turn in times of hardships or triumphs.

Family Systems Theories postulate that individuals are best understood within the context of their family. Like a living organism, families have properties which none of the individuals have, these properties are destroyed when members of the family are considered as individuals. Family systems theories shift the focus from individuals to the patterns in their relationships. Nichols 2009…p102. The behaviors manifested in one family member are linked to the behaviour of other members and may be a hallmark of how the family system functions not just symptoms of one member’s maladjustment.

The difficulties of the presenting family member may, according to Corey 2009… p.412

Serve a function and purpose in the family

Be unintentionally maintained by the family

Be a function of the family’s inability to operate productively

Be a symptom of the dysfunctional patterns handed down across generations.

This kind of approach is very different from the framework of individual psychology which conceptualizes human problem in an intrapsychic framework.

The body of knowledge known as Family Systems Theory arises from observations by counselors as they work with individuals and their family. According to family system theories families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals. They do not exist in isolation whatever affects the individual affects the entire system.

Perhaps the most fundamental concept of how families operate is that the family is a system which has a tendency to “maintain stability by using information about its performance as feedback” Nichols (2009)…p98. In this theoretical framework a family is considered to be cybernetic. At the heart of cybernetics is the feedback loop which determines whether the current operation of the system is acceptable and if not attempts to make the necessary changes. The feedback can either be negative or positive. Negative feedback is not bad but indicates that the system needs to take corrective measures to return to stability. Positive feedback may have negative consequences as it may serve to reinforce an error in the system. In order to maintain this stability, there are family rules and family roles. Family Roles-this is a description of what is expected of each family member. At a basic level there are roles of father, mother, daughter, sister and so on, but there are less obvious roles for example one member may assume the role of the responsible one or the humorous one as the case may be.

Family Rules-these are often understood by member of the family although not written down and often unspoken; they set guidelines for how the family operates. For example a family would understand who makes the final decision in important matters. Although family members may see these “rules” as just the way things are they may or may not be aware that different families would do the same thing differently.

The pioneers of family therapy recognized that social and cultural forces shape our values, thoughts and our concept of normal, but it was Murray Bowen that first defined a family theory. According to him, the history of our family creates a mold that shapes our values thoughts and experiences. He further suggested that this mold is passed from one generation to the next.

Bowen’s theory focuses on two counterbalancing life forces. The first is togetherness and the second is individuality. When a family shares too much togetherness, fusion is created and where there is too much individuality the result is estranged family. He introduced eight interrelated concept to explain how families develop and function.

Differentiation of self is the ability to distinguish and maintain personal thoughts feeling goals and identity in the face of emotional and social pressures to do differently.Differentiation of self is the cornerstone of Bowen’s theory. This involves the psychological separation of intellect and emotions and the independence of self form others. It is ability to think and reflect and not respond automatically to emotional pressure. Differentiated people have the ability to balance their feeling and thoughts, they are capable of strong emotion, yet posses self restraint. They are able to take a stand on issues and have the ability to think decide and act on what they believe. Undifferentiated people act emotionally they tend to be impetuous displaying submissiveness or defiance. They find it difficult to be autonomous and are unable to take clear position on issues. They tend to reflect the dominant emotional pattern in the family.

Emotional triangles are formed when two people who are unable to resolve a problem draw a third person into the conflict. The third party’s involvement may be short lived so forcing the two people to resolve their differences. If the third parties involvement becomes long term then a triangle becomes a part of the relationship. Triangulation ease the tension but “freezes the conflict in place” Nicholas (2008) …p128 and eventually undermines the relationship. According to Nicholas 2008 most family problems are triangular.

Nuclear Family Emotional processes are the emotional patterns in a family that continue over generations. A partner who lacks differentiation in his \ her family of origin may become emotionally cut off from his\her parents and this would lead to fusion in marriage. Fusion can produce different effects on the marriage including emotional distance between partners, marital conflicts, physical or emotional dysfunction in one partner or projection of the problem on one or more of the children Nicholas & Shwartz, 2008… p 128.

A parent lack of differentiation is transmitted to children in Family projection process. An undifferentiated mother may become attach to a child (or children) because she has decided that her spouse is inattentive to her. The mother would project her lack of differentiation to the child who is most attached. This child will achieve least differentiation and more vulnerable to problems. “ …the more the mother forces her attention n the child the more the child’s functioning is impaired” Nichols and Shwartz ,2008---p129

Multigenerational Transmission Process describes the transmission of anxiety from one generation to another. This is the unconscious passing on of anxiety which overrides the adaptive thinking and behavior of succeeding generations.

Sibling Position – children develop personality characteristics based on their position in the family.

Emotional Cut Off describes the way people manage anxiety between generations. “the greater the emotional fusion between parents and children the greater likelihood of cut off” Nicholas and Shwartz 2008…p130

Societal Emotional processes are social expectation and their effect on the family.

According to Bowen, all families lie along a continuum and there are no types of family. He believes that optimal family development occurs when members are differentiated and maintain a healthy contact with each other. For Bowen, family problems are the result of emotional fusion. Typically the family member with the symptom is the one who is least differentiated. This member is unable to separate his\her thoughts from the families and absorbs the anxieties of the entire family.

Structural family theory emphasizes the need for parents to maintain a clear hierarchical position of authority. The origins of the theory can be traced to early 1960’s to Salvador Minuchin who formulated the theory and set guidelines for therapeutic techniques. The theory is built on three component structure, subsystems and boundaries.

Structure refers to the organized pattern in which families interact. Nicholas & Shwartz 2008…p185. It describes the patterns of authority, communicating and interacting. Patterns develop as family transactions are repeated. In time these patterns become embedded and define roles and functions of family members creating predictability of the family interactions. These repetitions create expectations that establish rules in the family. Although alternatives are available the family rarely considers them and even in situations where patterns are dysfunctional, they are maintained. Dysfunction patterns give rise to a dysfunctional family structure. According to Minuchin, it is this dysfunctional structure which is the source of family problems.

According to structural family theory each family system has subsystems. These are sub groups within the family structure which exist to accomplish various family tasks. Subsystem may be determined along the lines of generation, gender, role and interests. For example there are spousal subsystem and child subsystems. Within the subsystem each family member plays a different role. When one subsystem intrudes into another causes structural difficulties and indicates that boundaries between subsystems are diffuse. Diffuse boundaries can result in enmeshment. On the other hand boundaries which are rigid result in disengagement. Clear boundaries blend characteristics which are both rigid and diffuse. When there are clear boundaries parents occupies a position of leadership in the family.

There are some aspects of the theoretical constructs of both Bower Family Systems Theory and Minuchins Structural Family Theory that are constant with my own world view. Like Bowen, I believe that our family’s history creates a template which shapes our values thoughts and experiences and many of these values thoughts and experiences are passed down through generations. However this template in my opinion is only one of the possible template which shape values thoughts and experiences as there are many factories other than one’s family of origin which influence who we become. Many persons can see the family pattern and make a conscious decision to build a life with different patterns. In this way the pattern in the family of origin is a powerful determinant but rather than been a template of what should be these patterns is template of what to avoid.

The concept of differentiation is cornerstone of Bowenian theory and I share Bowen’s view that lack of differentiation can be transmitted from generation to generation. Parental lack of differentiation may manifest itself in children who are either emotionally fused or rebellious leading to emotional cutoff from family of origin. Bowen however seems to emphasize the mother’s role in the process of passing anxiety from one generation to another. In my opinion he has pathologized the maternal role. Our social norms have prepared mothers to assume a nurturing role and this is not pathological. Bowen’s belief that there is a “chronic anxiety in all life that is both emotional and physical” Gladding 2009 p.235 is very different from my over world view. Generally the prominence given to anxiety as a defining force in all life is very foreign to my personal belief and system. My worldview starts from the opposite end. I see all of life filled with hope and choices. A life governed by anxiety is a life that chooses anxiety.

It is my belief that the structure, subsystems and boundaries are three essential components of families. Family structure sets out the pattern of authority and the lines of communication. I strongly believe that parents should be in charged in every family and the children should know this. Parents should present a united front to children and any disagreement they have between themselves should not be played out with the children. Thus is one way of ensuring that the parent and child subsystems remain separate. To ensure separation clear boundaries must be establish between the subsystems.

I believe that most family dysfunctions are the result of structural problems. Where there is no structure children develop chronic uncertainty which affects their overall functioning. Some children are at one extreme of severely maladaptive behavior while others are at the other extreme of over compensating behavior to gain favor. Along this entire continuum is the common thread of low self esteem. Keeping the family subsystems separated by clear boundaries in necessary for a healthy functioning family. Parents and children share their lives but parents’ relationship is maintained separate without threat from the relationship with children. These clear boundaries establish a hierarchical structure in which parents occupy a position of leadership.

I believe that in Jamaica family structure problems and single parent households is a kind of chicken and egg situation. As the single parent tries to compensate for the absent parent, child and parent subsystems are confused as boundaries become rigid, defused, enmeshed and even destroyed. Often in these households it is hard to tell who is in charge and this leads to a wide range of problems including hostility between children and parents incest and other types of abuse. Many of these children assume adult roles before they are ready which result in early (single) parenting to begin the cycle once more.

It is difficult for me to relate my own family to Bowerian family theory. Bowen’s emphasis on anxiety in the family of origin has no currency with me personally. Anxiety was not a part of my childhood. My parents were highly differentiated individuals who were independent thinkers. I am unable to see any triangulation and multigenerational transmission of anxiety. Among my nine siblings I do not even see birth order as an important consideration instead I see us accept each other as individuals with different abilities, talent, strengths and weaknesses. My family of origin was definitely ordered along the lines on Minuchin’s Structural Family Theory. There was a firm structure in place with strong subsystems and clear boundaries. We were nurtured and cared as children and guided into adulthood. We were encouraged and taught to be ourselves and the sibling all get along. My oldest sibling is 72 and my youngest is 49. We all agree that if our parent had any favorites among their children we cannot tell.

The Bowenian Theory in counseling and psychotherapy is applied to trace patterns of family problems with a view to identify emotional reactivity and triangulation. The genogram has been found to be a useful assessment tool to identify these two issues. The aim of the therapist is to de-triangulate individuals and help them to develop differentiation. Along the way parents become better equipped to manage their own anxieties and less likely to transmit these anxiety to their children.

Structural Family Theory underlines a therapy that seeks to reorganize families. The underlying assumption is that the family’s difficulties are as a result of the organizational structure.

The structural therapist assesses the presenting problems in four steps Firstly involve the whole family in the problem, secondly help them see how the family exchanges continue and support and perpetuate the problem. The therapist then exposes the impact of the past on the problem and finally explores options which the family members can take to relate in more productive ways that “will create shift in the family structure and help resolve the presenting complaint” (Nicholas and Schuartz 2009 p.196).

Bowen and Minuchin had very different views of the source of dysfunction in individuals but both agreed that the dominant force in our lives is located in our families. Therapies based on this theoretical framework is directed at changing the organization of the family. When this is done then the functioning of the individual will be altered. This is not a change on the present individual only , but the whole family changes. In this way the individual change has a greater likelihood of remaining a permanent one.


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