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Apex Recovery Blog

What is Family Systems Theory?

a family links arms on a beach

With the holidays right around the corner, this can be a difficult time for people. Songs are cheerful, smiles are plastered on billboards, and commercials depict happy, cohesive families that appear to all be present and enjoying one another’s company. While the holidays certainly can be a joyous time to be grateful, celebrate, and come together, many of us know that the holidays can also be difficult, stressful, chaotic, or a reason to isolate or feel triggered if there is family conflict, which is not uncommon.  For an individual and family brimming with conflict, the cheerful commercials can increase isolation, shame, and unhappiness. We also know that families are not what they once were despite how they are depicted around the holidays. Holiday commercials tend to portray families that comprise of a mother, father, and two children, but families have evolved into much more than this. Families are complex, different, and not always “perfect.” Some families are loving and supportive, while other families may be distant, lack effective communication, hold secrets, or experience the pain and hardship of addiction. At Apex Recovery, our team of trained professionals understand and appreciate the impact and dynamic of the family unit and tailor treatment and therapeutic family interventions that support the ideals of Family Systems Theory in our family counseling. So, what is Family Systems Theory, and why is it important? Murray Bowen, MD, was a psychiatrist who became known as one of the leading pioneers of the different types of family counseling. Prior to Bowen’s transformative studies and theory, common practice of working with problematic behaviors and emotions was based on psychodynamic theory as developed by Sigmund Freud.  While the work of Freud was primarily subjective and based on interpretations, Bowen sought to understand human behavior through an objective lens. Bowen began to formulate his theory through his work with families of people with schizophrenia. While the initial thought was to place blame on the mother, which has since been reframed, Bowen found that there was much more to therapy than just studying a single individual, which led to his creation of Family Systems Theory. With Family Systems Theory, the emphasis is placed on the family as a unit. The family is an interconnected system, so the change, behavior, and functions of one family member can directly affect and impact other members of the family and vice versa, so treatment is not just meant for one struggling individual but the family as a whole. To think of the family as an interconnected system, imagine the following example.  A husband and father works long hours managing a business and employees and providing for his family and has a few drinks after work to take the edge of before going home to his wife and kids. By the time he gets home, he is so exhausted that he eats dinner in silence and continues to unwind with a few more drinks while watching sports.  His wife, aware of his exhaustion, finds herself on edge trying to make sure the kids are well-behaved, and the house is clean. She finds herself increasingly anxious and overwhelmed, often yelling at their kids. To manage her anxiety, her doctor prescribes her medication, which helps make her loneliness a little more bearable. Their teenage son, to avoid the tension at home, starts to spend more time with friends after school and begins experimenting with marijuana, which only increases his mother’s anxiety and father’s stress.  Their school-aged daughter, in an attempt to gain the love and affection of her parents, immerses herself in her studies and develops an obsessive and perfectionistic drive. In the example above, any one of those family members may at some time find themselves in therapy or in treatment to address their emotional problems.  Using a Family Systems approach, understanding the development of the symptoms as they relate to the family helps to guide treatment.  This theory is not saying that the parents and family are to blame for substance use and mental health issues, but instead removes the blame and seeks to understand how all parts of the family influence and are influenced by one another. Treatment using a systems approach is not just a matter of understanding how the symptoms develop but also looks at establishing the importance of a healthy balance between cohesiveness and individuality within the family relationships. While Bowen’s theory is comprised of eight key concepts, below we will explore how just a few of these are implemented at Apex Recovery.

Differentiation of Self

Based in part on a book by Nichols and Schwartz, one of the key concepts of Family Systems Theory is Differentiation of Self. This concept describes one’s ability to decipher feelings from emotions and as well as to think independently from one’s family members. People who struggle to do so tend to become flooded by their emotions and are unable to think for themselves, which results in them turning to and depending on their family members to form their opinions and beliefs for them. To understand the concept of differentiation, we can use the earlier example.  The daughter seeking the approval from her parents spirals into a depression when her father does not attend her high school graduation. She then goes on to college, and to gain the approval of her friends and classmates regularly takes on the ideas and behaviors of others, and instead of studying for her exams, finds herself binge drinking and barely passing. This dependence on others for acceptance and approval indicates a low level of differentiation. Conversely, a well-differentiated individual can remain clear-headed and calm when experiencing criticism and conflict and is able to relate and connect with others in a positive and well-adjusted way. This family counseling technique aims to increase differentiation, which ultimately leads to a more emotionally stable experience. As previously stated, the clinical team comprised of Marriage and Family Therapists at Apex Recovery are firm believers of including the family in an individual’s treatment for several reasons, and differentiation of self is one of them. Our team strives to teach and support individuals in becoming more emotionally intelligent, functioning individuals. Our goal is to focus on increasing emotional regulation through a series of sessions, psychoeducation, exploration, and the implementation of different skills. The program therapists, through a process of building rapport and establishing trust through family interactions, create safe environments for clients to process feelings and explore their thoughts to help them become present to and know the difference between their thoughts and feelings. To add some perspective, a client might be educated on the difference between primary and secondary emotions and the function of both as many people are unaware that there are different categories of emotions, and that one category of emotions is used to protect against another. The therapist will do this by meeting with the client individually at first and then meeting with the client and their family. During the family session, the family dynamic is observed; communication techniques are taught and modeled, and boundary setting is essential. The client and their family members are provided the space to speak and process their reactions and are encouraged not to interrupt, to demonstrate the message that every member of the family matters and their voice is important.

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The Nuclear Family Emotional Processes

Along with Differentiation of Self, The Nuclear Family Emotional Process is another key component of Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. Simply put, this is the idea that certain beliefs are passed down through the generations. Let’s take a woman from New Jersey for example. This woman grew up during the Great Depression, so food was considered precious, and waste was avoided at all cost. She was wise with her choices, creative in her approach, and made sure to utilize food products in every way possible to make the most out of their use. She was even seen crying when a certain food item had spoiled. She instilled this in her children, who grew up to have firm beliefs around making the most out of everything in life and not taking things for granted. The clinical team is aware that individuals are influenced by their family members. For this reason, therapists connect with family members to gather additional information such as their observations and experiences, and clients are supported with exploring when and how certain patterns or beliefs originated from. This helps the therapist to conceptualize and have a broad perspective on how to tailor the client’s treatment to benefit them and ultimately set them up for success. Therapists strive to gather information that depicts the complete story as missing information can be detrimental to the client’s treatment approach and prohibit their progress.

Emotional Cutoff

Another important component of the Family Systems Theory is emotional cutoff, or the separation of an individual from their family, and this can vary in degree. Some people are completely estranged from their family, while others are connected but not as strongly as they would like to be. They might not speak to their family as often, or they simply might not know how to communicate with their family effectively. When working with individuals struggling with substance abuse, the presence of emotional cutoff is uncommon.  For example, the family members of an individual struggling with alcohol substance abuse may implement an emotional boundary after years of unsuccessful treatment attempts, legal issues, and ongoing conflict that has occurred as the result of alcohol consumption.  This estrangement can lead to isolation and feelings of depression, that may cause the individual to increase their problems with drinking, rather than decrease their use. Through the family work done at Apex Recovery, the goal is to help re-engage the family unit and begin to repair the emotional pain and hurt experienced by all members of the family. As already stated, the client is met individually; the family is contacted and spoken to individually, and then the client and family are brought together for a session when appropriate. Through coaching, modeling, and boundary setting, the family is taught how to hear one another, how to safely communicate their needs, and how to be respectful and safe around one another to promote a sense of emotional maturity, connection, cohesion, and support. The trained professionals at Apex Recovery know that a strong support network is paramount to an individual’s recovery, so helping individuals reconnect with their families is a goal we strive for. In summary, Family Systems Theory was created by Murray Bowen, after significant research and the realization that an individual’s symptoms were more complex and dimensional than the individual’s perspective could provide insight into. The clinical team at Apex Recovery is aware of the importance of incorporating a thorough assessment of a person’s family and personal history and subsequently involves the family to paint the whole picture and increase the chances of the client becoming and remaining successful. The family unit serves as a helpful indicator into where and how your therapist at Apex Recovery will begin to support you in your healing journey.

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