How Family Systems Theory Plays a Role in Human Services

Family systems theory, which is often referred to simply as “family theory,” is a specific discipline within the greater field of psychotherapy.

The goal of family systems theory is to bring a variety of complex interrelated and interconnected elements together to nurture the role of family relationships in maintaining mental health.

Gaining an understanding of family systems theory is thus a vital facet of becoming successful as a human services professional.

Beginning a Career in Human Services

Family SystemsAccording to the National Organization for Human Services (NCOS), “human services” is essentially the science and process of meeting human needs. While the methods to achieve this goal often vary greatly, the over-arching purpose remains the same: to improve quality of life.

If you are a student who wants to get more information about pursuing your master’s degree in human services, developing a basic understanding of how family systems theory and human services intersect can help you decide if this is the right career choice for you.

The History of Family Systems Theory

What today is called family systems theory first began to take shape in the early 19th century. Initially the theory took a fairly limited view of individual family members — for instance, a mother, father and children.

Today the word “family” has many different recognized meanings and configurations. It is also no longer necessary to have a blood or marital connection for a relationship to be considered “familial.” Family systems theory became not just a guiding philosophy but also a specific therapeutic technique to aid in restoration of psychological health. Individuals who had experienced loss or dissolution of important family relationships now have the opportunity to rebuild those relationships in other ways using different connections.

The 8 Branches of Family Systems Theory

There are eight recognized branches of family systems theory today.

These eight branches support professionals and family members to understand what forms, sustains and breaks apart family connections, both among traditional and non-traditional personal family connections and also in other areas like the workplace.

  • Triangles. In short, a “triangle” here means a relationship with three participants. Triangles can contribute to equilibrium, conflict and change within a family system.
  • Differentiation of self. This concept refers to the ability (or inability) of a participant within a family system to withstand pressure from others. Participants who are more dependent on approval and acceptance have less well-defined differentiation (or sense) of self.
  • Nuclear family emotional system. There are four basic relationship patterns that play out within a family system: marital conflict, single spouse dysfunction, emotional distance and impairment in one or more children. Each pattern correlates with common problems family systems encounter.
  • Family projection process. The family projection process refers to how one or both parents transmit their own emotional issues to their children. This can result in a parent failing to see that the issue is with the parent rather than with the child.
  • Multigenerational transmission process. This process takes family projection to the next level, exploring how children will develop a level of differentiation of self similar to that of their parents and choose mates to conform to their personal level of differentiation of self.
  • Emotional cutoff. An all-too-common conflict management tool is emotional distance or cutoff. When family members attempt to resolve issues by reducing or dissolving contact with other family members, this results in emotional cutoff and the continuation of the unresolved issue.
  • Sibling position. Sibling position refers to the common concept of differing roles of siblings in the family system based on birth order.
  • Societal emotional process. Finally, the eighth family systems theory branch, societal emotional process, refers to how family systems influence work and societal systems on a broader scale.

Family Systems Theory Meets Human Services

The last of the eight branches indicates where family systems theory intersects directly with the human services professional.

Issues such as juvenile deliquency, societal adaptation to change, the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the justice system and even how public services are dispersed are all influenced by a society’s emotional process and its degree of progress or regression.

For theorists, policy makers, educators and activists alike, this branch represents a rich field for further study and practical application.

About Charlie Bell

Charlie Bell is a family systems therapist who consults with regional family health and human services agencies to offer family systems theory workshops to staff and nonprofit volunteers.