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Family Systems: The System of Being Together

Updated: Oct 6, 2020

Systems theory has impacted my work with individuals, couples, and families on several levels. Systems theory explores ways in which the members (as individuals) of a family (a system) interact with one another WITHIN the system of family. Regardless of whether that system consists of 2, 3, 4, or more individuals, they can be viewed as a whole. Working with the system as a whole, my focus can be on the inter-relational exchanges between the members, the inter-dependency of the members, as well as the patterns of behavior in the family. They share experiences and history, which connects them individually to one another, but they function as one system by that very inter-connectedness, also. So, in my work with clients, systems theory is a platform that helps me and my clients collaboratively understand and objectively learn about the inner workings of family, while affording my clients as individuals an opportunity to challenge roles and behaviors that have existed for generations.

As a CBT counselor, I have had occasion to utilize a variety of questions and interventions that support systems theory. Such a case for instance might involve a young adult. Let us build this story: A Hispanic woman, 30 years of age, still living with her family of origin. Perhaps, dysfunctional behaviors have resulted in family violence in the home. So, key questions we might consider in our work together could be any, or all, of the following variety:

Who does what in your family?

What stressors precipitate a significant event?

How does your family cope with A, B, C, or D?

How does this make you feel?

Which family member seems to always be involved in a significant event?

What is Mom doing during a significant event?

What is Dad’s reaction to a significant event?

These types of questions help us examine the family roles in her family; they create an awareness of how emotion is being processed in the family; and they reveal patterns of behavior that have and are still being recycled from one generation to another. Through this type of probing, we are also able to keep the client’s family front and center, while validating her simultaneously.

In addition to probing questions, I have also found several interventions to be particularly successful with clients, providing valuable feedback:

Genogram: This is a wonderful tool that allows my client and I to map out/organize family transmission of emotion across generations. As the genogram has evolves, we gain a bird’s eye view of generational patterns of behavior, as well as, the myths that have been passed down. What incredible insight and self-awareness can be realized with this exercise.

Scaling: A common example of a scaling report that can be used with this sort of client consists of a series of characteristics describing the atmosphere in the home of her family of origin. The client might be asked to rate the characteristics on a scale from 1 to 5, similar to the following:

Inconsistent 1 2 3 4 5 Very consistent

Non-religious 1 2 3 4 5 Extremely religious

Low expectations 1 2 3 4 5 High expectations

No support 1 2 3 4 5 Very supportive

Reframing: I have used this often with clients, particularly during moments of despair. Many individuals have found that a change in perspective can quickly highlight weaknesses as strengths. Sometimes if we will take a step back to see our personal purpose, rather than examining our traits and "position" in life, we are able to finally aim for goals attainable enough to reach.

In summary, using questions and interventions that support systems theory is how therapists help clients to view themselves as components of a larger whole. Please feel free to comment and discuss the many aspects of Family Systems and your insights into this subject as well.

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