Dr. Murray Bowen, a popular 20th century psychiatrist, developed family systems therapy. Bowen held the belief that all therapists experienced familial challenges of their own, and thus could help normalize the experience of others. Bowen went on to suggest the importance of addressing an individual’s broader relationship system in terms of structure and behavior. Furthering this notion, Bowen posited that behavioral changes in one part of the system (or one family member) would likely have an impact on the way the system (or family) functions as a whole.
Differentiation of self is a primary concept to Bowen’s approach. This refers to how much a person is able to separate his or her thoughts, feelings, and responses from that of the system. A person with low level differentiation frequently experiences emotional fusion, due to inadequate boundaries.
Family projection process
The family projection process refers to the transmission of parental anxiety, relational struggle, or emotional issues to the child.
The notion of the emotional triangle signifies the importance of three-person systems, as a way to mediate the anxiety that may present itself in a two-person dyad. Yet, some triangles can produce their own anxiety, especially when two sides are in harmony with one in conflict. This can often occur when a child becomes triangulated within the parental relationship.
this refers to the emotional distancing of one family member, as a way to manage the emotional struggles of the family system. Some may seek emotional distancing as a way to decrease relational stress levels or strains. Unfortunately, this can actually increase tension and difficulty for the emotionally cutoff individual, as then that person tends to place more pressure on other relationships to meet emotional needs.
Probably the most well known concept underlying family systems therapy is that of sibling therapy. The assumption here is that there are specific roles within each family based on whether a person is the youngest, middle, or oldest child. For example, the eldest child may be expected to act in more of a parental role within the family system.
Multigenerational transmission process
Bowen’s belief that individuals with a similar level of individuation seek one another out. Because of this, certain behaviors may be passed on generationally. This means a couple where both individuals have a high level of differentiation are likely to have children with even higher differentiation levels.
Societal emotional process
The concept of societal emotional process demonstrates how things that affect the family’s emotional system also affect society’s emotional system.
Nuclear family emotional process
This concept reflects Bowen’s belief that a nuclear family will often experience struggle in four areas: intimate partner conflict, problem behaviors in one partner, impaired functioning in children, or emotional distancing.
Family systems therapy has been widely used in the treatment of numerous behavioral and mental health issues for families, couples, and even individuals. While family systems therapy can be used in a wide range of situations, it has shown to be particularly effective in families with teenaged children. The adolescent and teen years can be especially difficult, not only for the teen, but the entire family. This is particularly true for families who have a teen struggling with mental illness. Dealing with a teenager with a mental illness requires total family involvement, and family systems therapy can be especially helpful in facilitating the necessary family changes.
What to expect
Starting family therapy can be an intimidating endeavor. For some, it is helpful to have an idea as to what to expect. Most likely, your experience with family systems therapy will involve working both with the family as a whole, and each member individually.
In the first session, the therapist or counselor will likely conduct an assessment. He or she will identify who each member of the family system is, and note key information such as:
- Sexual abuse
- Substance use
- Traumatic losses and/or deaths
Identifying these familial dynamics can help bring coherence and understanding to the identified problem(s) within the family.
Throughout the course of therapy, the family systems therapist will facilitate therapeutic conversation by asking each family member to speak directly to him or her. This allows the other members to listen and hear what the person is saying, without being able to emotionally react. Bowen described this technique as externalizing the thinking of each individual in the presence of the other.
The role of the therapist
A family systems therapist role involves connecting with the family without becoming emotionally reactive. Therapists are cautioned against acting as a mediator, and instead maintain a “differentiated” view, while still investigating and sustaining interest. This allows the family to begin to gain an understanding and awareness of themselves as an emotional system.
Bowen’s family systems therapy can be quite useful in attending to the complex systemic patterns present in all families. Through observation and facilitation, family members can gain a better understanding of their individual roles, how they play a part in the problem, and how, through working in more cohesive manner, they can experience positive growth and change.