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How family members act affects the way other family members act. While this may seem obvious, the family systems theory encompasses a broad spectrum of interlocking familial relations and looks to uncover what makes family units successful and dysfunctional. 

The Eight Concepts of Family Systems Theory 

Within the family systems theory there are eight interlocking conceptions of family. Also called Bowen's Theory, these concepts are used to identify and explain foundational issues within family units and address their root causes.  

Triangles - The triangle, or three person relationship, is seen to be the smallest form of stable relationship. In this theory, a two-person unit can break down because there is nowhere to turn when the couple becomes frustrated with one another. In a triangular relationship, when two people have a strain on their relationship, it is possible to seek respite in the third. The reliance in this system fluctuate among one another and allow breathing room for difficult times without creating a chance of a familial collapse. A triangle can look like anything from a mother, father, and child, to a grandmother, mother, and child. From this foundation a series of interlocking “triangles” build outward to form an entire family unit. 

Differentiation of Self - The less self-differentiation a person has with their family members, the more likely they are to be swayed by that family member regardless if the person’s best interest. The less differentiated members are, the more codependent they are on one another. It is important to encourage self-differentiation in order to form healthy independent relationships. 

Nuclear Family Emotional Process - This concept is based on four relationship patterns that govern familial problems: marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance. These emotional processes may overlap and even feed upon one another. It is important to recognize these so that they may be appropriately addressed should they happen. 

Family Projection Process - Parents can either purposely or accidentally transmit their emotional issues onto their children. This causes breakdowns of other relationships and sets children up to fail at becoming truly independent. 

Multigenerational Transmission Process - This concept refers to the passing down of familial issues and levels of differentiation through generations. Because children are likely to have similar levels of differentiation as their parents, it can lead to them facing similar problems in their familial relationships. 

Emotional Cut-Off - Emotional cut-off occurs when family members attempt to handle their unresolved familial disputes by cutting off all emotional contact. This does not mean that they are not speaking or living peacefully. It only means that the cut-off members make themselves emotionally unavailable.  

Sibling Positions - Based on their birth order, gender, and age, siblings tend to have different “roles” within the family. 

Societal Emotional Process - This concept focuses on the effect that society, culture, and socioeconomics have on the family unit. 

While these concepts cannot wholly encompass the massive range of familial relationship problems, they do offer practitioners and patients a place to start when trying to understand the issues they are facing. 

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Benefits Of Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy looks at the patterns within family units and recognizes where these relational patterns are hurting the family. After doing so, the therapist can then work with the family to address and disrupt these patterns so that the issues they are causing are no longer harming them. 

One of the largest benefits of family systems therapy is the interruption and destruction of generationally traumatizing behaviors. Because family systems therapy looks to the root of familiar problems and examines the resulting behaviors, family systems therapy can help families break down cycles of abuse, unlearn inherited thought processes, and even curb behavioral issues. 

Another benefit of family systems therapy is that it can lead to stronger family connections and cohesion. By addressing the things that are causing rifts within family units, it allows for more open communication, better discussions, and therefore a better unity among the family. While this may not seem huge, the connection and support offered by familial units (whether biological or chosen family) are dramatically important to your mental health and feelings of emotional and physical security. 

Aside from this, family systems therapy can even help healthy familial units stay that way. Even in the healthiest of families there will always be conflict. Having an external party walk the family through their conflict to reach a healthy resolution can be an important time of learning and growth. 

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What Does Family Systems Therapy Treat?

Family systems therapy can be used to address a number of different issues within family units, including but not limited to: 

  • Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Anger and Mood Disorders
  • Traumas Like Divorce, Infidelity, and Job Loss
  • Relational Dysfunctions
  • Parenting Conflicts
  • Eating Disorders
  • PTSD
  • Trauma 
  • Abuse Recovery
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Family Systems Therapy Approaches/Methods

There are a variety of therapeutic approaches that utilize family systems theory: 

Couples Therapy: Issues between couples can affect the entire family. Couples therapy helps people in relationships resolve conflict, improve communication, and curb undesired behaviors. 

Intergenerational Family Therapy: Intergenerational therapy addresses the issues that have been passed between generations and how they affect a person's current relationships. This can be working to change learned behaviors or even addressing generational traumas. 

Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy encourages patients to explore the story of their life in order to help them understand themselves, their responses, and their experiences as a way of understanding their current circumstances and then working on the things they’d like to change. 

Family Psychoeducation: Many families are poorly educated on mental health, interpersonal relations, and communication. Psychoeducation looks to address this by educating families and working with them to use their newfound knowledge to address their familial issues. 

Structural Therapy: Structural therapy focuses on the family unit and looks to improve this structure as needed through communication and behavioral changes. 

Strategic Family Therapy: With strategic family therapy, the therapist focuses on the specific issues plaguing the family unit. Instead of addressing the family as a whole unit that needs changing, they focus on the one cause of the issues and work to address that. 

Family Systems Therapy And The Family Genogram

Many family system therapies utilize what is called a family genogram. Genograms are a visual representation of a person’s family. They can represent familial relations, medical and mental health histories, roles within the family, and much more. It is helpful to think of it as an in-depth family tree that provides extensive information about the family and its members. 

Most family genograms look like a web of interconnected names and relations, linked in various ways through lines or shapes. By developing a family genogram with a family, therapists might use the visual aid in order to demonstrate hierarchical relationships within the family, the presence of various patterns, or even illustrate generational trauma in an observable way. 

When a person is within a family unit, it can be difficult for them to step outside their family unit and see what patterns and generational issues may be present, or know when they originated. The genogram can be a useful visual for this very reason. 

After a full genogram is constructed, they can be a useful tool for addressing emotions towards other family members, ways to explore which relationships are lacking, and a map for deciding what should be focused on moving forward in therapy. 

Family Systems Therapy at Pinnacle Peak Recovery

At Pinnacle Peak Recovery we offer care for a variety of conditions from substance use disorder to mental health challenges. We provide a wide array of treatment options designed to fit the needs of all clients. Family systems therapy is one of the many therapeutic programs that we offer.  

Call us today at 866-377-4761 to learn how you can join us at Pinnacle Peak and utilize family systems therapy to better understand yourself, your family, and your path to recovery. 

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FAQs About Family & Couples Therapy

What are the key principles of family systems theory?

The key principles of family systems theory are, triangles (connections between the family members,) differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional process, family projection process, multigenerational transmission, emotional cut-off, sibling position, and societal emotional process. 

What is an example of family systems theory?

An example of family systems theory is the use of couples counseling in order to address the larger unhappiness in a family of four. The mother and father’s emotional disunity may cause emotional transference to their children, leading to their children to act out. By entering couples counseling their communication and overall mood improve, and thereafter the children's misbehavior clears up. 

Why is family system theory important?

Family systems theory is important because it is rare to find a person who’s issues were created in a vacuum. Often there are issues within the family that can feed into other issues and addressing these issues by building healthy family support can be the deciding factor in recovery. 

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