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Family systems therapy is a form of psychotherapy that helps individuals resolve their problems in the context of their family units, where many problems are likely to begin. Each family member works together with the 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.

Family systems therapy was developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the 1950s. Bowen worked as a general medical officer in the army and then transitioned to practicing psychiatry in clinics and the National Institutes of Mental Health and conducting research on families. While previous psychological philosophies, such as Freudian theory, centered around the individual, Bowen’s ideas centered around the family. He believed that the family was an emotional unit and that changes in one person would lead to changes in the group overall.

When It's Used

Many psychological difficulties begin early in life and stem from relationships within the family of origin, or the family one grows up in, even though these problems often surface later in life. Families in conflict, as well as couples and individuals with concerns related to their families of origin, can benefit from family systems therapy.

In addition to family conflict, this treatment approach can be helpful for:

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How It Works

Bowen built IFT on the foundation of eight key principles:

  1. The differentiation of self: The sense of individuality a person develops, rather than relying on others in their family or social groups.
  2. The triangle: The relationship dynamic between three people, which may influence relationships with others in the family.
  3. The nuclear family emotional process: Relational patterns that occur in the family, including marital conflict, dysfunction in a spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance.
  4. The family projection process: Parents may displace their feelings or anxieties onto their children, who then may displace their own feelings or anxieties onto others.
  5. The multi-generational transmission process: Small differences in differentiation between children and parents can lead to large differences among extended family members over time.
  6. Sibling position: Birth order can affect the dynamics between children, siblings, and parents.
  7. The emotional cutoff: Family conflict with no resolution may lead some people to sever a relationship entirely.
  8. Emotional processes in society: Broader social and cultural forces can influence family relationships.

This approach is meant to help families recognize these principles in their own relationships and then work to develop healthier relationships.

What to Expect

Based on his knowledge of family patterns and systems theory, which looks at the parts of a system (such as individual family members) in relation 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 difficulties. 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.

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.

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.

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.
Last updated: 06/30/2022