What is Family Systems Therapy

Many people new to therapy ask what is family systems therapy? Family systems therapy is a type of psychotherapy which involves family members or people in a close relationship rather than just individual clients. Unlike individual psychotherapy, family systems therapy most often focuses on the relationship between the people rather than the traumas or childhoods of each individual.  

What is Family Systems therapy: Core ideas to its understanding:

In order to understand the basis of family systems therapy, it is important to understand the notion of family.  Adults from Western cultures tend to think of themselves as self-directed, independent individuals who make their own choices. This conceptualization is not necessarily true.  While adults may choose to separate themselves from their families of origin, they still remain part of the family system which they were born into.

Family systems theory takes the perspective that we can understand individuals most fully when we observe their interactions within the family and that the development and behavior of one family member is linked to those of the other family members. Therefore, it can be much more effective to address the mental health of one person in the context of system function.

Contrasting the goals of individual therapy versus family systems therapy may make this easier to understand. When a client comes to his or her first counseling session, an individual therapist treats them as an individual, focusing attention on an initial diagnosis, determining the basis of emotions, behavior and symptoms, and helping to develop coping mechanisms which will help them deal with their problems and concerns.

A therapist working in family system therapy would discuss the ways in which the client’s family works, what rules are in place, who makes most of the decisions, etc. Parents and siblings would be invited to the next session, during which the focus would be on aspects of family relationships and function that may be impacting the client’s emotions and/or behavior.

While there are many different branches of family systems therapy, they all agree that familial involvement can be very beneficial to the therapeutic process – regardless of whether the problem is believed to be with just one individual or with the entire group.

What is Family Systems therapy: What happens during the session?

Family systems therapy is meant to be an honest and open exploration of issues that affect everyone in the family. One of the most important aspects of family systems therapy is building communication skills. For the sessions, the therapist observes the interactions of family members in order to identify destructive patterns in the members’ relationships.  After problematic patterns have been identified, the therapist will employ techniques in order to improve the relationship between the family members.  The techniques used in family systems therapy vary depending on the specific problems at hand and the approach which the therapist believes most beneficial.

One technique of family systems therapy is restatement of content, which requires one family member to listen to and then repeat or rephrase what another has said. Clients take turns in voicing their opinions or discussing their feelings without interruptions from other family members. Often, the counselor, with the help of the family, will develop a family genogram which, through the use of symbols, provides a pictorial representation of the family structure and history. This can provide clues as to the results of previous events and family interactions, and give everyone the opportunity to recall successes and discuss possible reasons for failures.

Another activity is family sculpting, in which the therapist asks one client to physically arrange the family so as to present a portrait of the alliances within the group. Family photos can be discussed in terms of their significance.  This can also reveal details about the family history and the perception of past events. During what is called “the empty chair” technique, one or several family members can talk freely to their father, mother, sister, brother, etc (who is represented by the empty chair).  During role playing techniques, a member may assume the identity of another individual.

Family council meetings are sometimes prescribed as homework and can be used to address concerns, boost family participation and further improve communication. Alliances should be set aside and no ganging up is allowed.

What is Family Systems therapy and the role of clients.

The counseling process is not one in which a therapist reinvents the client, provides excuses for past behavior or offers a quick fix to their problems. Rather, counseling is a collaborative effort between clients and the clinician in which they discuss troubling issues and together discover the best plan to alleviate them. This being the case, those who are considering counseling should have a clear understanding of which of the many approaches are taken by mental health professionals in their local area. That knowledge will allow them to choose a therapist who can best help them achieve their goal of better mental health.

What is Family Systems Therapy and where can I find more information?

The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (http://www.thebowencenter.org) offers access to journal articles, books, and teaching tapes that cover all aspects of family system therapy.

Many of the available books about family system therapy are written from a clinical perspective; however, two that were intended for the general public are “You Can Go Home Again: Reconnecting with Your Family”, by Monica McGoldrick and Ronald Richardson’s “Family Ties That Bind: A Self-Help Guide to Change Through Family of Origin Therapy.” McGoldrick’s book is particularly helpful if you decide to explore your family’s history with a family genogram.


Corey, G. (2005). Theory and Practice of Counseling Psychotherapy (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole-Thomson Learning.

Smith, R.L., &Stevens-Smith, P. (1992). Basic techniques in marriage and family counseling and therapy. Downloaded from http://www.ericdigests.org/1992-1/basic.htm


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