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The perspective of family systems theory

Family systems theory views the family from a system perspective. Therefore, the family is seen as a complex organisation where the components of the system interact with each other to form a whole. The focus is on the connectedness, interrelations and interdependence of all the parts (Family-Systems-Theory, n.d., para. 3). In other words, the focus of theories and the resultant therapeutic approaches is the relationships between sub units that make up the family. These sub units are always examined in relation to the whole and the context within which they exist.

Many family system theories exist but for the purpose of our discussion, I will be focusing on the Structural Family Theory and Bowen Family System Theory. General systems theory from which family systems theory originates will also be examined within an organisational context.

The structural theory posits that the emphasis should be on contextual problems and solutions rather than an individual. It focuses on family interactions to understand the structure or organization of the family. The theory consists of three major concepts namely family structure, family subsystems and boundaries.

“The family structure represents the operational rules that govern the way family members interact with each other” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.198). It provides an understanding of the patterns that develop over time within a family to allow it to maintain stable while existing in a changing environment (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). Family structure is governed by two sets of constraints; generic rule and idiosyncratic rules.

Generic rules dictate the hierarchical structure of the family, which structuralists believes is a part of all well functioning families. This hierarchy is reflected in the power and authority differential between parent and children and older siblings and younger siblings. Generic rules are also seen in the different roles played by family members within the hierarchy. The roles are usually complementarity, such as the role of the husband and wife, which, results in the members working as a team to carry out the required functions of the family (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). Idiosyncratic or individualized constraints are “specific to the family and involves the mutual presumptions of particular family members regarding their behaviour towards each other” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.199).

The family sub systems are hierarchically arranged and exist to support tasks necessary for family functioning (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). The primary sub systems of the family are spousal, parental and sibling. “The sub systems are defined by interpersonal boundaries and rules of membership which regulate the amount of contract with other subsystems” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.170). The spousal sub system is considered the most important subsystem, due to the integral role it plays in the stability and flexibility of the family. Formation of the sub system occurs when two people marry and start a new family. The stability and survival of the new unit is dependent on the ability of the couple to negotiate difference, accommodate each other and develop complementary roles, which will meet the need of each person (Becvar & Becvar, 2003).

The additional of a child changes the spousal subsystem into the parental sub system, with both systems coexisting simultaneously. The skills and roles necessary for the maintenance and functioning to the spousal subsystem are still used but the focus is on parenting of the child throughout the different developmental stages (Becvar & Becvar, 2003). The sibling subsystem is comprised of the child or children within the family. It provides the medium within which children first experience peer relationship that helps them to work out difference and support each other. They also learn to deal with the parental subsystem as they navigate relationship changes between the subsystems throughout their development cycles (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

The final component of the structuralist basic tenets is boundaries. Boundaries provide “invisible demarcation between individual and sub systems, they determine the amount and kind of contract between family members” (Becvar & Becvar, 2003, p. 177). Boundaries can be, clearly defined, diffused or rigid. These classifications are dependent on the flexibility of the boundaries. Clearly defined boundaries are considered ideal as they promote independence and freedom for the individuals while providing support by the family. Diffused boundaries are too flexible and result in blurred lines of demarcation between subsystems. This leads to what Minuchin describes as enmeshment, conversely rigid and inflexible boundaries lead to isolation or disengagement (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

Another systematic family theorist was Bowen who posits his Family System theory. His theory is based on eight interlocking relationship concepts of differentiation of self, triangles, nuclear family emotional system, family project process, emotional cut off, multigenerational transmission process, sibling position and societal emotional process.

Differentiation of self involves the ability to be emotionally separate from other family members and the ability to distinguish feeling processes from intellectual processes. “The separation of feeling and intellectual process allows the individual to avoid displaying behaviour driven automatically by emotions” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000.p. 172).

Triangles are three person emotional units formed to diffuse or reduce emotional tension in an individual or their relationships. Dyads naturally exist within the family and function well in times of low stress and anxiety. A dyad is inherently unstable especially in times of anxiety and tension and so either party will seek to bring some one else in, which will change the dynamics of the interactions between the persons involved. The triangle is more stable and tolerant of stress than the dyad (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000). The triangle is “the smallest stable relationship unit in the family, which allows members to balance closeness and distances while experiencing the least amount of anxiety “(Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.174).

“The nuclear family emotional system is multigenerational as individual repeat the martial choices and other significant relationship patterns learnt from their family of origin” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.176)

Family projection process occurs mainly in the father- mother- child triangle where parents transmit their low levels of differentiation on the most susceptible child (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000). “The level of projection is directly correlated to the levels of differentiation of the parents and the stress or anxiety the family experiences” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p.178). This family projection process often results in Bowen’s fifth concept of emotional cut off. Emotional Cut off is the attempt by child or children who are the focus of the family projection process to create emotional distance between themselves and their family of origin (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000).

The multigenerational transmission process “involves the transmission of specific levels of differentiation over several generations” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p. 180). This transmission takes place largely through the nuclear family emotional system and the family projection process.

The Sibling position concept resulted from Bowen’s expansion of Toman’s research on sibling position. Toman (as cited in Goldenberg and Goldenberg, 2000) posit, “some fixed personality characteristics are developed by children based on their birth order” (Goldenberg& Goldenberg, 2000, p. 182). Bowen saw interactions patterns between spouses as a directly relation to their birth order in the family of origin as well their functional position.

Societal Emotional Process looks at how “emotional systems govern behaviour on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society” (Bowen Theory, n.d., para.1). Similar to the family in times of chronic stress (e.g. depletion of natural resources) society tends to react on an emotional level instead of on intellectual determined principles (Becvar & Becvar, 1999).

There are elements of both theories that I agree with based on my beliefs system. Bowen’s mutigenerational transmission process I believe helps to explain some of the interactions and patterns that are repeated across generations such as absentee fathers and teenage pregnancy. His concept of differential of self could hold some of answers to breaking some of these cycles. In that, if individuals within a family were to become more differentiated they would have a more developed sense of self, which should be reflected in a greater display of restraint, and better life choices based on intellectual reasoning.

However, Bowen theory seems to be focused on the operations of the nuclear family while the structuralist theory can be more contextual applied to Jamaican society where the interaction of subsystems and boundaries within the family has resulted in family structures such as the single parent, blended, large and three generational. The importance placed on the family interactions and its resultant effect on the behaviour of its members purported by both theories is a belief that I also share.

I believe that many of the problematic behaviour displayed by individuals are connected to the family of origin. I also support the emphasis placed by Minuchin on the spousal subsystem within the family structure. The failure of couples to properly maintain this subsystem while effectively negotiating and developing the parental subsystem leads to dysfunction, which sometimes results in the break down of the family.

My family of origin was not nuclear therefore; I believe that the structuralist theory is more applicable. In accordance with the structuralist approach, my family consisted of the parent and sibling subsystem with diffused boundaries within the sub systems. The diffused boundaries resulted in enmeshment as the boundaries between the sibling and parental subsystems become blurred. The enmeshment was probably supported by the fact that our mother was a teenager mother. The children crossed from the sibling subsystem into the parental subsystem to assume some of the responsibilities to help our mother who was a single parent cope with the economic hardships of raring two children by herself.

The boundaries became very diffused and authority and decision-making became shared more and more as we (the children) reached adolescence. The result was that by the time we got to early adulthood the roles were reversed and the parental role was largely assumed by the younger child in the family. The enmeshment resulted in the family being very emotional fused which resulted in emotional overdependence within the family. The level of enmeshment was particularly high between my mother and her younger child such that when the younger child married, mom saw it as betrayal. She felt abandoned and had a hard time adjusting to the change.

The structuralist theory sees the therapist role as very active with the results of therapy been largely dependent on therapist who is the major instrument of change. The therapist joins and accommodates the family while assessing the structure to understand how they deal with problems and each other. The interactions of the therapist with the family are aimed at helping the individuals to focus on the behaviour of all the members and not just the identified patient. It also allows the members to see that change can be achieved through their interactions.

The therapist uses “techniques such as enactment (family members act out a scenario within the family) and then uses it for boundary marking (realigning boundaries), unbalancing (supporting one member in order to unbalance the family equilibrium) and reframing the problems as a function of the structure” (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000, p.216). The main aim is to understand the existing organization of the family and to reorganize the structure to bring about change in the interactions, roles and functioning of the family.

Similarly, the family system theory sees the therapist role as being very important but for them the therapist needs to be more detached. According to Bowen, the therapist has to ensure that they were not triangulated with the family and are to see themselves more as coaches in the therapeutic process.

The therapeutic process involves an assessment of the family history as well as a history of the presenting problem. Genograms are used to record family history over at least three generations to help the family understand the emotional processes in an intergenerational context. The therapist also uses process questions to assess the patterns of emotional functioning within the family. The aim of therapy is to help family members manage their anxiety, help to detriangulate where necessary and to increase differentiation of self. Techniques used in therapy such as process questions and I statements are aimed at helping members reduce their level of reactivity to teach others actions (Goldenberg & Goldenberg, 2000).

System theory is also applicable to organizations and organization consultancy. Fuqua and Newman (as cited in Lowman 2002, p. 98) “In system thinking organizations are thought of as dynamic whole systems which are comprised of subsystems that interact in complex, multidirectional and reciprocal inter-relationships”. They identified four major organizational subsystems namely purposive, operational, methodological and psychosocial. The dynamics of an organization system is such that there is a constant inter play of influences between the organization structure, human behaviour and the extra organisational environment (Lowman, 2002).

Consultant psychologist use system theory to understand, assess and develop interventions of organizational system with a view to maximize the quality of human life, which includes productivity (Lowman, 2002). In trying to accomplish these objectives the consultant helps people see the wholistic view of the organization through gaining an appreciation of the patterns of inter relationship within the organization. The consultant using the theory in assessing an organization and planning interventions will not “focus on individual behaviour but will instead focus on the psychosocial subsystem, which represents the human or behavioral aspects of the organization” (Lowman, 2002, p. 99).

A systematic view of organization utilizes the principle of wholeness and mutli-causality. “Wholeness focuses in the fact that the individual interactions product a whole that is greater than the individual components. Multi-causality implies that several actions can result in one outcome and one solution can cause multiple effects” (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009, p.29). These principles emphasize the fact that the consultant has use non-linear thinking while focusing on the organisational processes at work (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009).

Along with considering the interdependence of the system parts and the effects of actions on the system, the consultant has to determine the type of system. Systems can be either open or close, however most systems are considered inherently open. Open system are characterized by constant reciprocal interactions between extra-organisation factors and the organization system (Lowman, 2002, p. 89). An open system is therefore more receptive to change compared to a closed system where the focus is on maintenance of the status quo. The consultant understanding of the type of system helps to determine the planned approach to implementing change in the organizations (Moe & Perera-Diltz, 2009).

Additionally the consultant has to consider the level of participation in the change process that is achievable. Inclusion broadens ownership of the issues and the proposed changes while exclusion can motivate persons to resist change and create a sense of isolation (Lowman, 2002,).

The use of systems theory by the counseling and consulting psychologist within the family and organization to bring about change in the quality of life of the affected individuals and the resultant social systems that they are a part of is very important. It emphasizes the importance of the whole and not the individual parts and how the dynamics and inter dependence of the parts affect the system.

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