How Does Family Systems Therapy Work?

Family systems therapy is a popular approach to family and relationships counseling, but what should you expect from a session? Find out here at HealthyPlace.

Family systems therapy, also known as family and couples therapy, is a form of psychotherapy and counseling that helps people solve their problems in the context of their family units. The concept behind family systems therapy is that many psychological issues stem from the family, and each person’s individual actions affect one another, as well as the group dynamic. In family systems therapy, the therapist works with each family member – and the family as a whole. Here, each person has the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe therapeutic environment.

Systems Theory and Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy is a mode of psychotherapy that was developed by American psychiatrist Murray Bowen in the mid-1950s. It is based on "systems theory," which views each family member as part of a family system. According to this theory, our personalities, behaviors and emotions are all a result of our role within our families, our birth order, and the coping mechanisms we have developed within that structure for dealing with emotional distress. Systems theory also advocates that families are built on individual relationships and the way in which all members interact with one another.

How Does Family Systems Therapy Work?

In family systems therapy, your therapist will observe relationship patterns and how the various personalities and behaviors of each family member influence the dynamic as a whole. For example, an older child may act differently towards his younger sibling, and the difference in behavior may influence the family system in subtle ways. Rather than being viewed as separate parts or units, family systems theory tries to understand and work with the entire family unit.

You may be asked to “swap roles” to help you identify negative patterns in behavior so that they may be changed or altered. Your therapist will also help you address any power struggles or communication issues in the family. He or she can also guide the family through a difficult or traumatic experience that may have altered the family dynamic, such as a bereavement, romantic relationship, divorce, loss of employment, substance abuse and mental illness.   

What Are the Key Concepts of Family Systems Theory?

There are eight key concepts of family systems theory. These concepts are interlocking, meaning they all influence one another. They are based on the assumption of a core “emotional system” that has evolved over billions of years and affects how people interact with one another.

The eight concepts of family systems theory are:

  1. Triangles: This pertains to a three-person dynamic within a family. According to systems theory, a person’s behavior within this triangle indicates their attachments to other members of the family.
  2. Differentiation of self: We are born with an innate sense of who we are, but this changes as we develop relationships within our family system.
  3. Nuclear family emotional process: There are four basic emotional patterns that govern where problems arise in a family. These are:

    - Marital conflict: This affects everyone in the family, and each member of the family may try to control the central issue between the couple
    - Dysfunction in one spouse: This is where one partner in the couple tries to influence the other’s behavior and creates tension in the household.
    - Impairment of one or more children: This occurs when parents worry excessively about one child, for example, if one sibling has severe issues, which causes an imbalance in the unit. This can create a divide in the family, as the parents may idolize one child or have a negative view of them, depending on the situation.
    - Emotional distance: This is where members of the family distance themselves from one another to try to avoid conflict. This causes more anxiety in the unit.
  4. Family projection process: The process where parents hand down emotional problems to their children.
  5. Multigenerational transmission process: This is where small differences between parents and their offspring over many generations lead to marketed differences in multigenerational families.  
  6. Emotional cutoff: Where people deal with unresolved trauma by cutting off emotionally from other members of the family
  7. Sibling position: The impact of sibling position on emotions and behavior is a key concept in family systems theory
  8. Societal emotional process: This is how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, not just within a family

In family systems therapy, what happens to one person affects every other person in the family. They also learn to view the family or relationship as a whole, and to explore the individual role they play. Together, with the help of a therapist, the family works together to support one another and rebuild a healthy family system.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, October 10). How Does Family Systems Therapy Work?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 14 from

Last Updated: October 15, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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