Family Systems Theory

What is Family Systems Theory?

family systems theory

Family systems theory is a theory of human behavior and was developed to better understand individuals and the complex relationships and dynamics within families. In the 1950’s an American psychiatrist, Murray Bowen came up with the Family Systems Theory. After a long time of observing and analyzing patterns and relationships within families, Bowen noticed that individuals are best understood in the context of their families and families are best understood when they are viewed as a whole unit. Furthermore, individuals within a family are interdependent on one another; their thoughts, emotions and behaviors are heavily influenced by each other. This interdependence between members creates cohesiveness and an equilibrium. This is not to be mistaken for a “healthy” family. All families have a homeostasis or a norm to function consistently. Each individual’s role in a family feed off of each other to make a cycle that can be both detrimental and beneficial.

Family Systems Theory is built off the idea that individual’s personalities, behaviors, and emotions are a result of birth order and the role that they play within the family. It is important to note that families are not just solely based on shared genetics and instead can comprise of anyone who is considered to be part of that unit. For instance, a household may consist of parents, children, grandparents and a non-related member such as a friend. Each family is defined by its own unique members.


Why is this theory important?


Family systems theory is used often in therapy especially when addressing an individual with depression or anxiety. When one family member gets anxious, let’s say for example a mother, the anxiety can spread like an infection and eventually another member feels overwhelmed and tries to defuse the anxiety/tension and often times it is one of the children. This can be accomplished in a number of ways such as through humor or taking on the role as the fixer. The individual that does most of the accommodating becomes absorbed with the family’s anxiety. And these are the individuals that are most vulnerable to depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, and more ailments. Thus family systems therapy can be useful for anyone and extremely helpful for those struggling with issues like depression or substance abuse.


There are multiple approaches to family systems therapy. Structural family therapy looks at the patterns and dynamics as they are played out during therapy. Strategic family therapy involves problem solving within the family unit outside of the therapy session. Multigenerational family therapy acknowledges the intergenerational influences on current family dynamics.

family systems therapy

Family Systems Theory and Substance Abuse


When using a family systems lens, mental health professionals view substance abuse as a symptom of dysfunction within the family. Additionally, professionals recognize that the whole family is affected by someone’s substance abuse. Oftentimes individuals in treatment for substance abuse recover independently and are solely focused on as an individual. While this is important, it is also imperative to understand how the individual’s family influences the substance use. If the family members are open, bringing about positive change within a family can have positive effects on those in recovery. For example, oftentimes family members can be enabling to those struggling with substance abuse. A therapist can help members recognize those enabling behaviors and replace them with more helpful ones while gaining insight. Many treatment programs like Thrive, focus on both the individual and the family systems involved to assure that recovery not only occurs for individuals but also the family members.


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