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Family Systems Theory



Family systems theory places primary focus on exchanges of behavior that take place in a given moment of interaction between members of the family. The theory maintains that patterns of interaction between family members call forth, maintain, and perpetuate both problem and nonproblematic behavior. Nonpathology-oriented, family system theory seeks to identify and bring forth reconstitutive behavioral exchanges between family members. Emphasis is placed on identifying and interrupting repeating sequences of behavioral exchanges of which the problem behavior is a part. When these problem-perpetuating patterns are successfully interrupted, the problem behavior dissipates and treatment is complete.
Family Systems Theory
Key Words
Family systems theory places primary focus on exchanges of behavior that take place in a
given moment of interaction between members of the family. The theory maintains that
patterns of interaction between family members call forth, maintain, and perpetuate both
problem and nonproblematic behavior. Nonpathology-oriented, family system theory seeks to
identify and bring forth reconstitutive behavioral exchanges between family members.
Emphasis is placed on identifying and interrupting repeating sequences of behavioral
exchanges of which the problem behavior is a part. When these problem-perpetuating
patterns are successfully interrupted, the problem behavior dissipates and
treatment is complete.
General Discussion of the Theory
From the perspective of family systems theory, the family is seen as the primary relationship
context in which individual character traits and ensuing patterns of behavior are learned and
reinforced. Family systems theory (FST), and the therapies derived from it, view the
symptoms of an individual as occurring within sequences of family interaction. An explicitly
held conceptual precept that is accepted across family systems theoretical approaches is that
there is a relationship between the identified patient's symptom(s) and the total family
interaction. Systemic family theory and therapies pay close attention to repeating transactions
that connect the problem behavior of one person with the behavior of other people within the
family or other primary group.
In contrast to individually oriented theories of behavior, which focus on what is happening
inside the individual as a primary point of reference, family systems theory intentionally
shifted from a lineal causal to a circular conception of causality that connects the problem
behavior of one person with the surrounding behavior of the other family members. This
intentional shift in primary data from the individual to observable behavioral exchanges
between members of the family makes explicit the quid pro quo quality of such repeating
transaction exchanges such that the nature of the self-perpetuating pattern in which problem
behavior is manifested becomes observable. These repeating patterns of interaction are the
focus of family systems theory.
Reprinted from S. Smith (Ed.), (2016). The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Family Studies, New York, NY:
Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Vol. 2, pp. 782-787.
The two presuppositions of FST are that (1) one cannot not communicate, and that (2) people
are constantly attempting to define the nature of their relationships. Using these concepts as
cornerstones, FST consistently emphasizes paying attention to sequences of interactions
taking place between members of the family: who is doing what to whom, where, when, and
in what way is it a problem?
Listening to what family members say (content) and, more importantly, noting the
relationship definition implications revealed in how one family member says what he/she
says and how other family members react is central in FST. What is most relevant in FST is
tracking how the behavior of one member of the family influences and, usually outside
conscious awareness, restricts the actions/utterances of other family members. Fleshing out
these patterns in which problem behavior is embedded is essential in family systems theory.
When human behavior is conceptualized using an FST perspective, the nature of the
recurring way members of a family interact allow the theorist/therapist to understand the
family as a mutual causative system, whose complementary communication reinforces the
nature of their interaction. The family systems theorist can then look for rules that govern this
system. Intervention to promote constructive change then consists of the therapist behaving in
such a way as to change the rules. When the patterns of interaction within the family change,
then, theoretically, symptomatic behavior is no longer necessary.
From an FST perspective, a primary goal of therapy is to break up patterns of interaction that
reinforce and perpetuate problem behavior, allowing different, nonproblematic behavior to
develop (Minuchin 1974; Haley 1976; Bowen 1978; Jackson 2005).
Family systems theory emphasizes the vital relevance of context(s) to ascribing meaning to
behavior and introduced the use of such relational constructs as:
1. intentionally shifting the primary focus of attention to what transpires between people in
interpersonal exchanges as an effort to define the nature of the relationship;
2. underscoring such paradigm-shifting ideas as “observer-imposed punctuation” and
“circular” or “recursive” causality;
3. focusing on three-person dynamics using the concept of “triangle”;
4. emphasizing what is now referred to as a second-order cybernetic perspective, FST
underscores the importance of remaining constantly mindful of the extent to which the
researcher's own perspective, utterances, and actions are as much a part of what happens next
as anything else. Comprehending patterns of interaction within the family that bring forth and
foster symptom behavior (first-order cybernetics), while simultaneously being alert to the
effects of the therapist's presence (second-order cybernetics) allows a therapist to see and
make use of these patterns to comprehend the way behavior emerges from ongoing
interaction within the family. Together the interrelated constructs of FST reveal the vital
relevance of interactional dynamics to understanding human behavior qua behavior, in
distinct contrast to individual, psychodynamic, genetic, or biophysiological theories that
focus on processes presumed to be taking place inside the individual as motivating behavior.
Family systems theory's emphasis on interaction does not imply the negation of or being
unaware of genetic, physiological, and biochemical processes. Rather, by explicitly and
consistently shifting the focus of attention to behavioral exchanges taking place in a given
moment between family members, the relevant context in which symptoms would be the
“best choice” for the individual becomes visible in light of the relational and contextual
constraints by which it is called forth and perpetuated and which it in turn perpetuates.
During World War II and the following decades, scientists from multiple disciplines began to
work together in unprecedented ways. One such multidisciplinary group met in a series of
conferences funded by Josiah Macy to create and research the science of cybernetics. About
the same time, a number of multidisciplinary research teams working independently across
the United States, primarily with hospitalized, emotionally disturbed people, stumbled –
seemingly by accident or at least tangentially– onto the study of interaction within the family
as the context within which severe behavioral and emotional symptoms emerge.
As has often happened in the history of science, similar research into the family context of
emotional and behavioral problems was taking place in a number of locations independently
of one another. Some groups were studying a range of psychiatric problems, including
Nathan Ackerman, MD, in New York; Kalman Gyarfas, MD, and Virginia Satir, MSW, in
Chicago; and John Bell, EdD, of the US Public Health Service; and Eugene MacDanald, MD,
and his team in Galveston, Texas. Other researchers worked with hospitalized
schizophrenics, such as Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, MD, Jay Haley, John Weakland,
and William Fry, MD, at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital in Palo Alto, California; Murray
Bowen, MD, and his group at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); Lyman
Wynne, MD, and his coworkers also working at NIMH; and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, MD,
and coinvestigators at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Philadelphia. Still
others, such as Charles Fulweiler, PhD, in the San Francisco Bay area in California worked
with adolescent delinquents and their families, while Salvador Minuchin, MD, and team
worked with families of the poor in New York City.
In order to study the patient directly in relation to his/her parents and siblings, various teams
of psychiatric researchers began to bring emotionally disturbed patients and their family
members together for interviews and to observe them together over a period of time. When
these research teams began to talk directly to the patients conjointly with other family
members, family systems theory and treatment began to develop. Ultimately FST emerged
out of the research of all of these investigators, all of whom share a basic orientation toward
understanding and treating the family as a unitary system.
Principal clinical practice models of family systems theory include the Bowen family systems
theory (1978); the communication-based systems approach (Watzlawick, Beavin-Bavelas,
and Jackson 1967; Bateson 1972; Jackson 2005); Mental Research Institute (MRI) brief
therapy (Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch 1974); solution-focused brief therapy (de Shazer
1982); contextual family therapy (Boszormenyi-Nagy and Sparks 1973); family of origin-
oriented family therapy (Framo 1982); strategic family therapy (Haley 1976); structural
family therapy (Minuchin 1974); and Milan systemic family therapy (Palazzoli et al. 1978).
While emphasizing different ways of describing the family as a system, all of these
orientations explicitly shift from a lineal causal to a circular conception of causality that
involves connecting the problem behavior of one person with the surrounding behavior of the
other family members. Shifting primary focus from thinking about what might motivate
behavior to the effects of one person's behavior on the subsequent behavior of others, family
systems theory's emphasis on tracking the observable sequence of repeating transactions
makes comprehensible the nature of the self-perpetuating pattern in which problem behavior
becomes observable. In the Bowen family systems theory, for example, eight interrelated
precepts are used to conceptualize family dynamics: triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear
family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational projection process,
sibling position, emotional cutoff, and societal regression. From the communication /
interactional systemic perspective, positive and negative feedback, oscillation, calibration,
emergent quality, holism (the whole is more than the sum of its parts), the observation that
one cannot not communicate, double-bind, report and command, observer-imposed
punctuation, symmetrical and complementary, exchanges of behavior, analogic and digital
behavior, first- and second-order change, shift in use of verb tense from “to be” to “to seem,”
and essential emphasis on first-hand observation are used to discern problem formation and
problem resolution processes. Mental Research Institute brief therapy developed directly
from the communication model of family systems theory, emphasizing that problem behavior
is inadvertently brought forth, maintained, and perpetuated by ineffective efforts to solve it.
When the clients' efforts to solve the problem are successfully interrupted, the problem
quickly resolves itself. From the perspective of the closely related approach of solution-
focused brief therapy, this same kind of analysis of interaction is done by asking about and
attending to moments when exceptions to the problem happen. In another related model of
clinical application, strategic family therapy, assessment concentrates on discerning the
sequence or pattern of interaction between three or more people, then promoting family
members to behave in such a way as to interrupt the sequence, which usually results in the
elimination of the problem. Structural family therapy attends to boundaries, coalitions across
generations, and hierarchy. Contextual family therapy emphasizes such constructs as family
loyalty, reciprocity, accountability, and trustworthiness to comprehend family interaction.
A Case Example
A mother sought therapy for Joey, her 12-year-old son who displayed violent outbursts –
punching holes in walls and destroying valuable objects in the house. The mother was fearful
and helpless in the presence of Joey's outbursts. The father, mother, Joey, his 14-year-old
sister Jan, and his 17-year-old brother Bill attended therapy. All family members saw Joey's
outbursts as the only problem. Therapy focused on trying to help Joey control his angry
outbursts. With no progress after three sessions, the therapist consulted the authors.
Using family systems theory as a conceptual framework, the therapist was guided in asking
questions about where the outbursts occurred, who was present, and how the problem was
handled. Soon the interactional pattern around Joey's outbursts became clear. When asked
about Joey's outbursts, the father said, “He does not do that around me because I don't feed
it,” implying that Joey's outbursts were reinforced by his wife's incompetent parenting. When
the mother was asked to describe what happened when Joey had an outburst, Jan interrupted,
saying, “Mom calls dad because he knows how to handle Joey.” Inquiry revealed that, after
19 years of marriage, the father had moved out and the status of the marriage was uncertain.
Since leaving, the father would only respond to contact from the mother when it involved a
problem with one of the children. Asked what his worst fear was, Joey said, “Mom misses
dad and cries all the time; I am scared he will never come home.” During this exchange, all
family members were distraught and tearful. Joey's behavior was framed as allowing his
mother and father a face-saving way to stay connected during a time of uncertainty about
their relationship. Both parents were complemented for doing an excellent job of raising
loving children. Thus, Joey's disruptive behavior was not “pathological” per se but a self-
sacrificing way of ensuring that the family remained connected so that his worst fears did not
come to fruition. Behavior seen as deviant or pathological from an individual perspective is
immediately seen as logical and comprehensible from a systemic perspective.
The between-session assignment was for the family members to do nothing to help Joey
control his anger outbursts, thus prescribing a change in the interactional pattern by reframing
as contextually coherent behavior that had previously been viewed by the family as
problematic. During this period of uncertainty about what form their family might take in the
future, the entire family was expected to feel sad while the mother and father took whatever
time was necessary to clarify the direction of their relationship. Joey's outbursts desisted
almost immediately and did not return.
In family systems theory, the interactions between family members are viewed as essential in
understanding the behavior and emotions of individuals. For instance, avoidant behaviors
engaged in by family members are viewed in the context of family interactions, and emotions
such as anxiety in terms of broader family dynamics. Family systems theory also assists in
assessing the nature of a relationship by examining the interactions that occur between
individuals. Interactional processes such as triangles, coalitions, pattern, redundancy,
multiple levels of meaning, and observer-imposed punctuation can be observed as family
systems theory enables these relationship processes to be conceptualized.
See Also: Couples' Counseling; Family Counseling; Marriage Counseling in the United
Bateson, Gregory, (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, Ivan; Geraldine Sparks, (1973). Invisible Loyalties. New York, NY:
Bowen, Murray, (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York, NY: Jacob
de Shazer, Steve, (1982). Brief Family Therapy: An Ecosystemic Approach. New York, NY:
Guilford Press.
Framo, James, (1982). Explorations in Marital and Family Therapy, New York, NY:
Haley, Jay, (1976). Problem Solving Therapy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Jackson, Don D., (1967). “The Individual in the Larger Contexts.” Family Process, 6(2): 139-
54. DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1967.00139.x.
Jackson, Don D., (2005). Selected Essays at the Dawn of an Era. Edited by W. Ray, Phoenix,
AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Theisen.
Minuchin, Salvador, (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge
University Press.
Palazzoli, Mara; Luigi Boscolo; Gianfranco Cecchin; Giuliana Prata, (1978). Paradox and
Counter-Paradox. Jason Aronson New York.
Watzlawick, Paul, Janet Beavin-Bavelas, & Don D. Jackson, (1967). Pragmatics of Human
Communication. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Watzlawick, Paul, John Weakland, & Richard Fisch, (1974). Change: Principals of Problem
Formation and Problem Resolution. New York, NY: W. W. Norton
Further Reading
Jackson, Don D., (2009). Interactional Theory in the Practice of Psychotherapy, in W. Ray
(Ed.), Don D. Jackson – Interactional Theory in Clinical Practice – Selected Papers Vol. II,
Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, Theisan, Limited.
Minuchin, Salvador, (1974). Families and Family Therapy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge
University Press.
Benjamin E. Johnson, MA, Independent Scholar USA,
Wendel A. Ray, PhD., University of Louisiana at Monroe USA
... A systems perspective has long been applied to the study of families (Broderick, 1993;Haefner, 2014;Jaskiewicz et al., 2017;Lobo & Lunkenheimer, 2020;Sommer et al., 2020;White et al., 2015), especially in fields such as therapy and health care (Bowen, 1966(Bowen, , 1978Brown, 1999;Haefner, 2014;B. E. Johnson & Ray, 2016;Kitzman-Ulrich et al., 2010). However, the idea of the family as a dynamic system has still been slow to be adopted in some traditions, such as developmental psychology and early childhood education Christian, 2006;Cox & Paley, 1997). In our work, we extend this perspective to better understand how young children develop and sustain engi ...
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Eğitim programlarının değerlendirilmesi farklı araştırmacılar tarafından farklı yaklaşımlarla ele alınmıştır. Bu yaklaşımlardan birisi de hedef yönelimli değerlendirme yaklaşımıdır. Hedef yönelimli program değerlendirme yaklaşımı genel olarak iki ana varsayıma dikkat çekmektedir: Eğitim uygulamaları araştırmacıların başarıya ulaşmalarını sağlayan öğrenme çıktıları yardımıyla doğrulanabilir ve bu çıktılar ölçülebilir bir yapıdadır. Bu yaklaşımı temel alan program değerlendirme araştırmacılarından birisi de R. W. Tyler’dır. Model tam olarak 1949’da Ralph Tyler tarafından ortaya konmuştur. Hedef yönelimli değerlendirme yaklaşımlarından olan model, Tyler tarafından 1933-1941 yılları arasında geliştirilmiştir ve geçerliliğini halen korumaktadır. Tyler’ın değerlendirme anlayışı objektivist, pozitivist ve hedeflere dayalı tasarım anlayışlarının taşımakta hatta bunlara öncülük etmektedir. Formal bir mantıkla, etki değerlendirmesi yapılmaktadır. Ulaşılan hedefleri ölçerek programın etkililiğine karar verildiği kısa/orta vadeli etki değerlendirildiği için çıktı değerlendirmesinin olduğunu söylemek zordur. Hedefe dayalı değerlendirme modellerinin kaynağı ya da hedef yönelimli modeller denince ilk akla gelen olarak söylenebilecek model öğrenci başarısının belirlenen hedefler doğrultusunda ne ölçüde gerçekleştiğini, gerçekleşmeyen hedeflerin nedenlerini araştırmaktadır. Alan yazın incelendiğinde Tyler’ın Hedefe Dayalı Değerlendirme Modeli (THDDM) ile değerlendirme çalışmalarının birçok farklı konu üzerine yapıldığı görülmektedir. Ancak bu ve buna benzer program değerlendirme çalışmalarında da diğer araştırma süreçlerinde olabileceği gibi eksiklik ya da hatalar olabilmektedir. Dolayısıyla bu program değerlendirme çalışmalarının değerlendirilmesi de gerekliliği ortaya çıkmaktadır. Bu bağlamda bu bölümde alan yazında Tyler modeli kullanılarak yapılan değerlendirme çalışmaları sistematik bir incelemeye tabi tutularak eksikler ve işe koşulan stratejiler ele alınmaya çalışılmıştır. Elde edilen sonuçlar ve bu sonuçlar ekseninde yapılan tartışma kitap bölümünde ayrıntılı olarak verilmektedir.
The literature suggests that some children at increased risk of parentification, which includes children of chronically ill or substance-misusing parents and children of divorced or migrant parents. Despite the necessity for some children to assume adult roles, parentification is potentially harmful. This paper aims to: (i) investigate the parentification concept and outcomes and (ii) summarize the components that render parentification adaptive in children. Articles were retrieved from Scopus, PubMed, Dimensions AI, Google Scholar, and reference list tracking using the keywords “parentification” and “parentification AND children”. A critical review was performed with a narrative approach to synthesize the 61 included studies to determine the existing knowledge and identify research priorities within the field of parentification. The findings were reported based on the Literature Review Synthesis Process and the Scale for the Assessment of Narrative Review Articles (SANRA). The experience of parentification could be adaptive and empowering for children. The potential components of adaptive parentification included emotional support, supportive and positive relationships with siblings and grandparents, parents openly delegating the roles to each child, having age-appropriate roles, parental support and validation, and children’s positive appraisal and perception of the role-taking.
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The caregiving of fathers, especially adoptive fathers, is currently under-researched. This study explored the experience of adoptive fathers whose children displayed aggression and violence. Six Parent Development Interviews from a larger study were analysed using an attachment-informed Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. Attachment discourse analysis derived from the Meaning of the Child Interview (MotC) and Parental Reflective Functioning Scale acted as ‘third voice’ in dialogue with the researchers’ and participants’ to explore the fathers’ experience interpersonally, in the context of their family relationships. Four superordinate themes were identified, with these fathers feeling ‘The Problem is in the Child’, at times sensing themselves persecuted by their child and lacking agency as a parent. ‘Confusion and Comparison’ highlighted the fathers’ sense of helplessness and longing for the ‘normal’ family life they associated with being a biological parent. The fathers also talked of ‘The Mixed Blessing of Feeling like a Father’, expressing extremes of anger but also fondness for their children. Participants engaged in ‘Looking Back’ both at their child’s trauma history and their own history of being parented, which in all but one father, also involved trauma. This left the fathers searching for answers to questions around biological versus relational origins of difficulties, and also pain arising from their own frustrated intention to create a better family life than they had experienced themselves in childhood. Common to all of this was the fathers’ sense of helplessness in being unable to contain or influence their child’s difficult behaviour, that negated or challenged their sense of fatherhood. We suggest a more relational approach that explicitly includes the father’s past and present experience, rather than treating the child’s aggressive behaviour in isolation. This could support fathers in recovering an internal experience of a shared relationship with, and being a father to, their adopted child.
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Family plays a critical role in academic learning and achievement for students at all levels of study. Students who perform well in school are better able to make a transition to adulthood, achieve career and economic success and make a positive contribution to society. There is a paucity of research on the relationship between family size and high school student academic performance. As a result, the study investigates the influence of family size characteristics on the academic performance of Ghanaian high school students. The social survey technique was used in a quantitative approach. Using a simple random sampling technique, a structured questionnaire was used to collect data from a sample of 327 students. However, 262 sets of questionnaires were obtained from the respondents for review. For the data analysis, descriptive statistics and inferential statistics were used. The findings indicated that family size characteristics have an influence on high school students' academic performance. A small family influences academic performance more than a large family. The findings demonstrate the importance of family size in determining educational quality and perceived influence on academic performance. Furthermore, the findings revealed that a small family's basic needs are met with a smaller portion of the family's income than a large family's basic needs. Therefore, it is recommended that families consider family size and academic performance of their children when deciding on the number of children to have.
Foreword Arlene Vetere 1. Structural Family Therapy 2. A Family in Formation 3. A Family Model 4. A Kibbutz Family 5. Therapeutic Implications of a Structural Approach 6. The Family in Therapy 7. Forming the Therapeutic System 8. Restructuring the Family 9. A "Yes, But" Technique 10. A "Yes, And" Technique 11. The Initial Interview 12. A Longitudinal View Epilog
This work explores the field of marital and family therapy. It covers a broad range of topics, including the development and definition of family therapy, the functional and dysfunctional family, the major schools of family therapy, and results and guidelines for recommending family treatment.
Summarizes recent research on interpersonal communication (IPC) and organizes the findings according to the axioms proposed by P. Watzlawick et al (1967). Topics addressed include establishing when a nonverbal behavior is a nonverbal communication; investigating the idea that one cannot communicate, including disqualified (equivocal) communication; and the communicative context in psychological research. Also discussed are verbal and nonverbal relationship level communication, analogically encoded nonverbal acts, and interpersonal systems. Some of the original propositions have been supported, others modified, and some substantially changed. The relation of IPC research to clinical practice is discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Presented here is a family theory of emotional illness and its component system of family psychotherapy, which is one of several different theoretical approaches to the family, and one of many different kinds of “family therapy” that have come on the psychiatric scene in little more than one decade. A brief review of the family movement attempts to put this system into a kind of perspective with the overall family movement. Since this system places maximum emphasis on “family” as a theoretical system, the theory has been presented in some detail. The shorter section of family psychotherapy presents both broad principles and specific details about the usefulness of family concepts in clinical practice.
Problem Solving Therapy
  • Jay Haley
Haley, Jay, (1976). Problem Solving Therapy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Paradox and Counter-Paradox
Gianfranco Cecchin; Giuliana Prata, (1978). Paradox and Counter-Paradox. Jason Aronson New York.