Family Systems

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 March 2016

Family Systems

Family systems theory was founded by Dr. Murray Bowen. He suggested that the connections and reactions found within a family system creates interdependence on one another. He based his theory on the natural emotional connections with the family. He continued to build upon it as time went on. After Bowen there were several other theorists who used Bowen’s theory as a base, and built off of it.

Bowen created his theory based on eight major concepts. They are as follows; Differentiation of Self, Nuclear Family Emotional System, Triangles, Family Projection Process, Multigenerational Transmission Process, Emotional Cutoff, Sibling Position, Societal Emotional Process. The core concept in Bowenian theory is Differentation of Self, this says that the more developed someone’s “self” is that less impact society and others will have on them. “The basic building blocks of a “self” are inborn, but an individual’s family relationships during childhood and adolescence primarily determine how much “self” he develops” ( This concept can be seen as a self-esteem issue. Bowen says that someone with a poor sense of self will quickly conform to others thought and opinions. While someone with a secure sense of “self” is able to keep that secure thorough social influences. He created a scale that measured differentiating self it was measured 0-100. 0-25 were the people with the lowest sense of self, these people liked to be “comfortable” and did so with self-sacrifice. While people above 60 were rare, they had an extreme sense of self, and were free from societal emotional control and did not control others.

The second concept is, Nuclear Family Emotional System which is based on four basic relationship patterns;. marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment in one or more children, and emotional distance. Marital conflict is caused by the externalizing of anxiety and emotions caused by family stress. Each spouse presents this in different ways but, the common behaviors include; need for control, knit picking, and resistance to each other. Marital conflict can lead to a breakdown in the family system as well as a marriage. Secondly, dysfunction in one spouse is when one spouse tries to conform the other to think and act the way they do. The controlling spouse in this situation over bears the other spouse making them act and think in ways they may otherwise not. This can lead to anxiety, tension, and possibly psychiatric or mental dysfunction. Thirdly, impairment in one or more children, can cause excessive attention to the impaired child, causing them to act out and internalize family tension more then the other children, because they feel like the spotlight is on them.

The last relationship pattern is emotional distance. This is a basic pattern seen when the relationships within the family become to intense and people start to distance themselves to lessen the intensity of the relationship. The third concept is Triangles, which are a single relationship with three people involved. Triangles can be great when there is no tension, but can cause a break down in the family system when tension is present. Triangles in tension situations, have insiders and outsiders. The outsiders are trying to get in and the insiders are trying to get out. An example I found of this was a child whose parents were focusing on what was wrong with his so much that he started to rebel. He felt under so much pressure that he was trying to get “outside” the triangle to relieve some of the pressure. Triangles play an important role in family systems as well as in therapy.

The fourth Bowenian concept is, Family projection process which is the process of the parents transmitting there emotional problems to the child. The projection process follows three steps. “(1) the parent focuses on a child out of fear that something is wrong with the child; (2) the parent interprets the child’s behavior as confirming the fear; and (3) the parent treats the child as if something is really wrong with the child.” ( This process can cause the child to feel insecure when attention is not focused on them. There are so many different situation that fall under this projection umbrella. An example could be, a mother feels depressed therefore, she feels the child is depressed and treats the child accordingly. This can also be seen in extreme cases where a mother favors a certain child, and the father sees the child-mother combination as one unit and take his anger towards the mother out on the child. The fifth concept is, Multigenerational transmission process which says “how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family.” (Schara, Blog 2013) Bowen feels that the way people react to situations and relationships is based on a multigenerational transmission of behaviors and emotions. The sixth concept, Emotional cutoff, is simple. Simply speaking people emotionally cutoff other family members instead of resolving the conflicts within the relationship/s. The seventh concept, Sibling position, says that your birth order effects the way you view the world. Oldest siblings tend to be leaders, where youngest siblings tend to be followers. This isn’t always true because can be effected by parental emotions and behaviors. Bowen used psychologist Walter Toman’s research to help him form his theory on sibling position.

Examples used; if an oldest sibling is focused on by the parents growing up, then they may not be able to take leadership or make their own decisions. This leaves the “leadership” role to the younger sibling therefore, putting them in the “oldest” leadership type role. Where people are in sibling position can effect their marriage, their parenting skills, and of course the family dynamics. The last concept in Bowenian theory is, societal emotional process. This concept tells us how the emotional system controls behavior on a societal level. This is similar to that within a family system, which can be progressive or regressive. Societies go through progressions and regressions constantly. If a society is going through a progression, or regression, it can effect the entire society including all of the major branches and boiling down into the individual family systems. All of these major concepts in Bowenian theory are based on the emotions and behaviors of each individual and their effects on the family system. Bowen was a big believer in the family being seen as one cohesive unit and working towards homeostasis. The basic techniques used in Family systems theory are; detriangulation, nonanxious presence, genograms, coaching, reframing, power differential, and the purser-distancer concept.

All of these techniques are used to reach the common goal of homeostasis within the family system. In regards to Detriangualtion, this is when a therapist breaks up a triangular relationship between three people in the family. By having one person within the triangle take a stand on an issue, that is not agreed upon by the other two people in the triangle. Therefore, creating a sense of self within that one person and breaking the give and take relationship in the le. “In Bowenian family therapy, it is argued that a conflict between two people will resolve itself in the presence of a third person who can avoid emotional participation with either while relating actively to both.” (Bowen 1978) As a Bowenion therapist you must take on the role of the non-anxious presence. This is when a therapist keeps a sense of calm throughout the session regardless of the circumstances. A non-anxious presence can bring peace to the family involved and help them to open up in session. An anxious therapist can inflict unneeded chaos and stress for obvious reasons. A building block tool used in the Bowen Family Systems therapy is a genogram. When the family comes in for intake, most therapists will create a genogram.

This is a multigenerational map of the family that documents mental illness, substance abuse, medical issues, relationships, and some events tied to specific family members. A genogram can give the therapist a sense of what they need to address within the family system. Family Systems theory uses coaching as a way to help the families through tough times, and provides them with tools to succeed as a family unit. Coaching can help by giving families a way to understand each others interworking’s and hopefully see each other through clearer light. The goal of coaching a family would be to establish a stronger sense of self while strengthening the family system. Reframing takes place when the family needs to change the way they look at each other or the unit as a whole.

Reframing a relationship takes hard work but can bring about peace and reduce tension within the family. In order to reframe a relationship or many the therapist must reinterpret a families situation to make them more open to solution. “Reframing is a type of communication that can help family members better understand the concerns and intentions behind the misconstrued words.” (Jeanty, Jacqueline) An example of reframing, is a child who is constantly badgering their mother about quitting smoking. Once the situation is reframed it is easier to see that the child is scared and cares deeply about the mothers health, which is why they continued to badger. Power Differential,


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 March 2016

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