What Is Systems Therapy? 7 Theories & Techniques Explained

Systems TherapyFamily therapy often involves identifying ways to stop family members from using existing unhelpful solutions so that new ones might emerge (Watson, 2012).

We often become stuck in the same place, repeating our mistakes and unable to break free.

The Systems Therapy approach explores the elements of the family system, including its members’ relationships and feedback loops, that perpetuate and escalate problems. It forms new insights into the situation and aims to change the system rather than the patient (Rogers & Cooper, 2020; Watson, 2012).

This article introduces the concepts and theories behind Systems Therapy and identifies techniques to try out with your clients.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is Systems Therapy & Counseling? 3 Examples

“Systems theory seeks to understand the dynamic behavior of complex systems, including how components of a system interact to affect the behavior of the system in often unexpected, nonlinear ways.”

Watson, 2012, p. 184

There are many methods and applications of systems theory, ranging from physics, biology, ecological, and social sciences, including therapy.

Each system has many interconnected parts, which, over time, produce their own unique patterns of behavior. They are self-organizing and despite external forces, are usually in command of their own behavior. The behavior patterns of the system are also difficult or impossible to predict from studying the individual parts, including their (Rogers & Cooper, 2020; Watson, 2012):

  • Elements – such as components of a computer; leaves, branches, and roots of a tree; children in a school

  • Interconnections – such as the flow of information in an organization; electrons in a computer; emotional information in a relationship

  • Function or purpose – such as to teach, learn, and acquire information from a computer; to grow and reproduce as a tree; to protect and nurture the members of a family

A family is a system. As such, it is hard to anticipate how it will behave from looking individually at its members. It is also a constituent part of much larger systems, including the neighborhood, community, school, or church (Brown, 1997).

While systems are typically self-organizing and often resilient, they are not invulnerable and can be difficult to understand because of their complexity. Part of the challenge is recognizing the impact within a family of each person’s behavior on another – known as a feedback loop (Watson, 2012).

 

What is Systems Therapy?

Such thinking led to family systems theory. Drawing on approaches taken from psychoanalysis, clinical psychology, and social psychology, therapists began to contact and engage with the family rather than the patient alone. The suggestion was that the client or couple might not be the source of problematic behavior; instead, it may arise from feedback loops and interconnections within the family system (Watson, 2012).

Fascinatingly, the client became seen as the symptom bearer, reflecting the view that they could merely be “the person in the system who was most vulnerable to system pressures and therefore the first to develop emotional, behavioral, or relational symptoms as stress in the system increased” (Watson, 2012, p. 187).

Systems Therapy became a matter of changing the system, not directly changing the patient. According to this approach, family members will change in response to transforming the family system.

 

3 Examples of important family system concepts and models

There are several concepts and approaches that remain central to the core of Systems Therapy.

The biopsychosocial model is perhaps more a framework than a model. It aims to capture the interaction of all levels of life by integrating “biological, psychological, and social domains of human functioning” (Watson, 2012, p. 189). The framework is particularly helpful when using systems theory in the psychotherapeutic treatment of chronically and terminally ill patients and their families.

Circular causality recognizes the importance of recursive feedback loops within a system. The behavior of A is impacted by B, and A’s behavior subsequently affects the behavior of B. In addition, a person’s behavior can unintentionally be caused by family members trying to fix or prevent something from happening (Watson, 2012).

Emotional cutoff occurs when families refuse to engage with family members, sometimes for years or even decades. However, such an approach is typically unsuccessful in solving problems or issues and facilitates avoiding difficult activities, such as the differentiation of the self, reconciliation, and tolerating differences.

Ultimately, ‘fixing’ the situation will often take prolonged attempts by one party to reconnect, with or without an apology (Watson, 2012).

 

The Systemic Approach to Therapy Explained

Family ContextSystemic family therapy suggests the importance of focusing on understanding relationships between individuals and their situations, including context, rules, boundaries, and communication (Evans & Whitcombe, 2015).

By exploring a group’s dynamic complexity (how the members of a group relate to one another), humans are considered part of a system with inputs, outputs, processes, feedback, and the need for homeostasis (Watson, 2012).

The systemic approach to therapy uses several techniques to understand the presenting problem and subsequently identify alternative ways to help the client cope, including (Evans & Whitcombe, 2015; Watson, 2012):

  • Joining
    A comfortable and safe therapeutic relationship must be established with the family group that allows the therapist to identify relevant emotional exchanges.

  • Strength orientation
    The ability to recognize strength orientations (rather than pathologize) in problems, impasses, and failures is crucial. Success stories should be brought out in conversation and highlighted rather than engaging in prolonged problem talk.

  • Solution-focused interventions
    Focusing on where we want to be can be more important than what led us to where we are now. The solution-oriented approach suggests using something similar to solve the problem now or in the future by asking what worked in the past.

  • Reframing
    Seeing the problem in a novel way can lead to a very different outcome. Successfully reframing the issue can create emotional resonance and fit better within the dynamics and feedback loops of the system.

  • Positive connotation
    This technique involves “describing a ‘negative’ behavior or attitude in terms of its positive, adaptive, or helpful aspects” (Watson, 2012, p. 191). For example, his anger may be due to his deep love for his daughter and concerns for her safety.

  • Enactment
    Rather than bringing in a description of a problem, a couple or family is asked to enact how they communicate or argue and what goes wrong. This approach can be beneficial in identifying factors that are outside the awareness of the clients.

  • Circular questioning
    This technique can be helpful to understand the interactions that lead to problems and how the other person sees the relationship. Circular questions often ask what the person would have to do to provoke the undesirable response in the other person or rank the family members according to a particular theme. For example, Who was most and least interested in coming today?

  • Use of self
    The therapist must remain aware of their self during therapy, observing, rather than judging, their own reactions. Therapists may need to ‘dig deep’ and go beyond technique and method to engage in self-acceptance, creativity, and openness during sessions.

While far from exhaustive, the list above provides a practical insight into several key systemic approaches to therapy.

 

4 Psychology Theories of the Field

Several different schools of family therapy developed in the second half of the 20th century. Some of the most enduring ones are discussed below.

 

Structural Family Therapy

Structural Family Therapy is based on the idea that the system’s behavior results from its structure and can be understood better by observing over time and recognizing misalignments in structure, boundaries, and hierarchies within the family.

Structural Family Therapy promotes “flexible interdependence and autonomy rather than an over-involved, emotionally fused enmeshment or a disconnected, under-involved disengagement” (Watson, 2012, p. 187).

 

Strategic Family Therapy

Strategic Family Therapy arose from the application of systems theory, cybernetics, and communications theory in the treatment of schizophrenia and family issues.

Strategic Family Therapy, along with brief therapy (which focuses on a specific problem and uses a direct intervention), utilizes a problem-centered, here-and-now focus (Watson, 2012).

 

Bowen Family Systems Therapy

Created by psychiatrist Murray Bowen, this form of therapy emphasizes the “individual’s ability to maintain a self-directed, principle-driven course of action while maintaining contact with emotionally significant others” (Watson, 2012, p. 188).

When anxious, the individual typically gives up their self to maintain togetherness, avoiding conflict, placating, etc. This lack of differentiation can lead to an inability to see when they are overreacting and behavior is unreasonable. Self-differentiation is, therefore, a vital aspect of resolving problems within the family system.

 

Narrative Family Therapy

Narrative Family Therapy “focuses on how all people assemble internal narratives of their lives, summarizing and compressing the richness of lived experience” into a series of dominant themes, receiving feedback from their families, culture, and society (Watson, 2012, p. 188).

Narrative Therapy assists people to break out of self-reinforcing loops and restores meaning while focusing on the experience itself.

 

3 Techniques to Try in Your Sessions

Family talkingThere are several tools available for Systems Therapy; we describe three of our favorites below.

 

Vision statement

A vision statement can help when working with a family to help them see themselves now and where they would like to be in the future (Rogers & Cooper, 2020).

For example, asking a parent or carer what they think their children would say about them now and what they would like their children to say about them in 10 years can generate potent insights. Through visualization, it provides information regarding the gap to fill or a goal to work toward, and identifies what must change.

Vision statements are a more positive and motivating approach than the therapist telling the family members the issues and difficulties they have uncovered (Rogers & Cooper, 2020).

 

Circular questioning

There is a great deal of value to be found in getting clients to look at things from a new perspective. It can be helpful to ask one family member or member of a couple to look at a situation or problem through the eyes of another (Rogers & Cooper, 2020).

For example, asking a son why his father gets angry when he stays out late at night can lead to insights and a deeper understanding of how the parent perceives his actions and the impact they are having.

Circular questions can help define a problem, show how situations have changed, explore the impact of behavior, and invite individuals to change (Evans & Whitcombe, 2015).

 

Taking a one-down position

Rather than trying to get one-up on the other person or winning the (perceived) battle, it can be helpful to give ground. Stepping down or back can help either the therapist working with a client or a family member engaged with another, by (Watson, 2012):

  • Disarming the other person concerned with losing dominance
  • Avoiding walking into an ambush. For example, a couple may decide not to try to impress difficult family members.
  • Admitting impotence and letting the client or family retain ownership when a complainer repeatedly ignores advice. Ultimately, this approach elevates the other person’s perceived importance and lets them save face (Watson, 2012).

 

Training in Systems Therapy: 4 Programs

There are many programs available to learn more about Systems Therapy. They often form part of a broader study of family science or therapy; four popular ones include:

  • Master’s Degree in Family and Child Sciences – Whether planning to head into therapy or further academic study, this master’s from Florida State University explores advanced family studies and theories of family sciences. Use it as a springboard into a career in therapy or a path to PhD research.

  • Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy – Oklahoma State University offers a master’s degree focusing on marriage and family therapy as a branch of psychotherapy. Aimed at solving problems within human relationships, it provides an effective path to licensure or PhD study.

  • Master’s Degree in Couple and Family Counseling – This master’s from Northeastern Illinois University fulfills the educational requirements for licensure within the state and those considering employment in marriage and family counseling clinics. The course covers the development and theories of counseling, working with couples and families.

  • Master’s in Systemic Practice and Family Therapy – Queen’s University in Northern Ireland offers a master’s that focuses on systemic practice within family therapy. Students wishing to enhance their skills of working with families and couples can learn how to help them understand and support each other.

 

Best Books on the Topic

There are many books available to explain the theory and the practice behind Systems Therapy. We have chosen several below that provide an overview and a more detailed examination of the approach.

 

1. Internal Family Systems Couple Therapy Skills Manual: Healing Relationships With Intimacy From the Inside Out – Toni Herbine-Blank and Martha Sweezy

Internal Family Systems

This is a valuable manual for therapists already familiar with or wishing to start using Systems Therapy.

This essential guide teaches readers how to use the authors’ model and, equally importantly, integrate it into existing approaches.

Elegant and profound, the text helps readers improve their therapeutic focus and assist healing conversations.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Altogether You: Experiencing Personal and Spiritual Transformation With Internal Family Systems Therapy – Jenna Riemersma

Altogether You

Jenna Riemersma writes for those feeling stuck with unwanted feelings and behavior.

She introduces the reader to Internal Family Systems Therapy and explains why we engage in damaging behavior and how we are often at war with ourselves and our families.

This is a helpful book for anyone wishing to change their perspective and develop new insights with the goal of personal transformation.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

3. Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual: Trauma-Informed Treatment for Anxiety, Depression, PTSD & Substance Abuse – Frank Anderson, Richard Schwartz, and Martha Sweezy

Internal Family Systems Skills Training Manual

Use this highly practical book to understand Internal Family Therapy’s potential to treat anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Learn how to use compassion to avoid pathologizing clients and focus on healing emotional wounds.

Through a development of self and listening to ourselves and others, this book shows how it is possible to resolve trauma and attachment injury.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources

We have many worksheets and tools available that can help in family therapy, encouraging understanding and improving communication. Most of these tools are from our Positive Psychology Toolkit, an online resource library for mental health practitioners, coaches, and teachers.

  • Family Strength Spotting
    This helpful tool encourages individuals to build deeper connections with their families.

  • Family Tree of Strengths
    A Family Tree of Strengths helps identify the relationships and processes that can protect families during adversity and change.

  • Setting Boundaries in Difficult Conversations
    It is useful to consider what the limits are regarding how you will let others speak to you and treat you. This worksheet will help with setting healthy boundaries.

  • Gratitude in Romantic Relationships
    Gratitude has the potential to transform simple gestures in any relationship into ones that encourage feelings of closeness.

  • Codependent Relationships: Beliefs, Attributes, and Outcomes
    Sometimes we form an excessive dependence on another’s approval for our sense of identity and worth. This checklist helps us understand how our codependency manifests in our behavior.

  • Imago Workup
    The Imago Workup is a practical way to identify the qualities central to our romantic relationships.

  • 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

 

A Take-Home Message

Breaking free of unhelpful, damaging, and habitual behavior is one of the goals of family therapy.

Systems Therapy offers an approach to explore relationships as a system, including components, parts, relationships, and purpose. As a result, an individual’s problem can be resolved by treating the family as a complex entity and effecting change at that level (Watson, 2012).

While difficult to understand, relationships can hold the key to transformation in the individual. That person be the symptom-bearer as the most susceptible person in that system.

Through empathy and recognizing the importance of feedback loops within any system, it is possible to identify the source of the problem presented and find alternative ways for the client to cope and the family to restore balance.

Why not review some techniques and theories in Systems Therapy and reflect on how they could be combined and embedded with existing approaches within your practice? Help your clients reflect on their existing situations and where they see themselves in the future.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

  • Anderson, F., Schwartz, R., & Sweezy, M. (2017). Internal family systems skills training manual: Trauma-informed treatment for anxiety, depression, PTSD & substance abuse. PESI.
  • Brown, J. (1997). Circular questioning: An introductory guide. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 18(2), 109–114.
  • Evans, N., & Whitcombe, S. (2015). Using circular questions as a tool in qualitative research. Nurse Researcher23(3) 28–31.
  • Herbine-Blank, T., & Sweezy, M. (2021). Internal family systems couple therapy skills manual: Healing relationships with intimacy from the inside out. PESI.
  • Riemersma, J. (2020). Altogether you: Experiencing personal and spiritual transformation with internal family systems therapy. Pivotal Press.
  • Rogers, M., & Cooper, J. (2020). Systems theory and an ecological approach. In M. Rogers, D. Whitaker, D. Edmondson, & D. Peach, Developing skills & knowledge for social work practice (pp. 259–268). SAGE.
  • Watson, W. H. (2012). Family systems. In V. S. Ramachandran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (pp. 184–193). Elsevier Academic Press.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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