top of page

What is Family Systems Therapy?

Family Systems Therapy

Is a form of psychotherapy designed to treat the family unit as a whole. This approach emphasizes that a family is an emotional unit and that individual behavior must be viewed from the perspective of the family as a whole. People are influenced by their families, but every person also influences his or her entire family.

In this view, the family is more than just its individual members. An event that affects one family member can have a ripple effect on the entire family. As a result, when a family member is experiencing difficulties, the strength and stability of the unit provides balance and support to the individual.

Along with considering the family system as a whole, this approach to therapy takes into account how generational, social, community, and cultural factors influence individuals and families. I will talk about how family systems therapy works, what it can help with. I also explain why family systems therapy is effective and what you should consider before starting it.

Fundamental Principles in Family Systems Therapy

The family systems approach is based on the work of Murray Bowen, a psychoanalyst who pioneered the field. Bowen outlines eight interconnected concepts in family systems theory.

  1. Differentiation of the self: The ability to maintain one's individuality. People with high levels of differentiation are able to independently pursue goals while those with poor differentiation rely more on getting validation from other people.

  2. Emotional cutoff: In order to manage conflicts within a family, some members may distance or cut themselves off from other members of the group. Cutting off old relationships without resolving the conflict can add pressure and stress to future relationships.

  3. Family projection process: Parents can also transmit their problems and anxieties onto their children. This can affect how kids develop and can create emotional problems for other members of the family.

  4. Multigenerational transmission process: This describes how people choose partners who have similar levels of differentiation as themselves. Subsequent generations each have progressively lower levels of differentiation.

  5. Nuclear family emotional process: This refers to how the family operates in their emotional interactions. These patterns can include marital conflict, dysfunction in a spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance.

  6. Sibling position: Bowen believed that birth order had an impact on family dynamics including in areas such as parental expectations, sibling relationships, and parental discipline patterns.

  7. Societal emotional process: This concept suggests that many of the things that impact families also affect societies as well. Societal attitudes, cultural shifts, and conflicts can often play a part in affecting families.

  8. Triangles: A three-person relationship system that acts as a building block for other emotional systems.

Families can benefit from understanding the eight principles by establishing healthier boundaries, creating more positive relationships, changing negative communication patterns, and improving their functioning as individuals and as a unit.

Family Systems Therapy Can Help With

Substance use



Personality Disorders

Behavioral Disorders

Eating Disorders

Parenting Issues and concerns


The approach looks at how factors within the family may contribute to these conditions or how you can prevent or help an individual in the family as a family unit. For example, you might learn how attachment issues contribute to anxiety and how family relationships create different attachment styles.

If you think your family could improve the way the family unit functions, build stronger connections and healthier communication, and improve individual mental health, reach out to a family therapist today.

Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places an emphasis on working with spiritual integration, adults and adolescents, trauma, family and children, and grief and loss. Odell received his undergraduate degree from the University of St. Leo's in St. Leo Florida, with a degree in Psychology. He has spent his last 15 years working in the field of emergency services. It is in working with people in emergency situations, both patients and first responders, that Odell has learned how to deal respectively with people in crises mode, helping instill a sense of hope and healing. Odell is happily married, for 17 years, and is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.

209 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All