Family Systems Theory
Family systems theory is the foundation of family therapy. One underlying principle is that a person's behavior
happens in, is influenced by, and influences an environmental context—which includes, of course, the
person's family (Berg 1994). When we understand how that context works, we have a better idea of how the
person and the context are influencing each other. One very positive aspect about family systems theory is that
it shifts the focus from a "problematic" individual seeking treatment to a family in which interactions are not as
effective and satisfactory as the family members desire.
Families can be understood as evolving, rule-governed systems (Berg 1994). For example, people may be
assigned certain roles within their family (e.g., the hero, the scapegoat). Also, families commonly engage in
predictable patterns of behavior. For example, nagging is commonly followed by withdrawal. But, these
behavior patterns are also often cyclic. That is, not only can nagging be followed by withdrawal, but withdrawal
can be followed by nagging. Which behavior actually came first? It doesn't really matter! The observation gives
us two points of intervention: 1) we can decrease the nagging to decrease the withdrawal or 2) we can
decrease the withdrawal to decrease the nagging. Either way, the family functions more satisfactorily for all
members. The observation of cyclic patterns of behavior also helps us get out of the trap of laying blame.
Ineffective and unsatisfactory patterns of interaction often develop so slowly over time that we can never know
"who started it." Fortunately, we don't have to know "who started it" in order for change to occur. Intervention at
any point in the cycle can result in change. And, once one person in a family system makes a change, more
change is likely to made by other people in the family system—even if they are not in therapy (Fisch, Weakland
& Segal 1982). Change begets change.
Berg, I. Family Based Services: A Solution-Focused Approach. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1994.
Fisch, R., Weakland, J., and Segal, L. The Tactics of Change: Doing Therapy Briefly. San Francisco: Jossey-
Bass Publishers 1982.
Cynthia Good Mojab
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