Family Systems Therapy

Family standing hand-in-hand on the beachFamily systems therapy draws on systems thinking to view the family as an emotional unit. When applied to families, systems thinking—evaluating the parts of a system in relation to the whole—suggests that an individual’s behavior is informed by and inseparable from the functioning of his or her family of origin.

The Development of Family Systems Therapy

Family systems therapy is based on Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, which holds that individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships. Like other psychoanalysts of his time, Murray Bowen was interested in creating more scientific and objective treatment processes as an alternative to conventional diagnostic frameworks and pathological language. Bowen believed that all therapists experienced challenges within their family of origin and that this awareness could help therapists normalize human behavior for their clients. Bowen introduced family systems theory in the late 1960s after years of research into the family patterns of schizophrenic patients and the patterns of his own family of origin.

Whereas traditional individual therapy addresses the individual’s inner psyche in order to effect change in his or her relationships, Bowen’s theory suggests addressing the structure and behavior of the broader relationship system that informs the character of the individual. Bowen also claimed that the change in behavior of one family member would necessarily influence the way that the family functions over time.

Family Systems Therapy Approaches

Many forms of family therapy are based on family systems theory. Family systems approaches generally fall under the categories of structural, strategic, and intergenerational:

  • Structural family therapy looks at family relationships, behaviors, and patterns as they are exhibited within the therapy session in order to evaluate the structure of the family. Therapists also examine subsystems within the family structure, such as parental or sibling subsystems. Structural family therapy was designed by Salvador Minuchin, who would employ activities like role-playing in a therapy session.
  • Strategic family therapy examines family processes and functions, such as communication or problem-solving patterns, by evaluating family behavior outside the therapy session. Therapeutic techniques may include reframing or redefining a problem scenario or using paradoxical interventions—those that suggest the family take action that appears to be in opposition to their therapeutic goals in order to create the desired change. Strategic family therapists believe that change can occur rapidly, without intensive analysis of the source of the problem. Prominent psychotherapists such as Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, and Cloe Madanes helped develop strategic family therapy.
  • Intergenerational family therapy acknowledges generational influences on family and individual behavior. Identifying multigenerational behavioral patterns, such as managing anxiety, can help people see that their current problems may be rooted in previous generations. Murray Bowen designed this approach to family therapy, and he used it in treatment for individuals and couples, as well as families. Bowen employed techniques such as normalizing a family’s problems by discussing similar scenarios in other families; describing the reactions of individual family members, as opposed to acting them out; and encouraging clients to respond with “I” statements, rather than blaming statements.


  1. Brown, Jenny. (2008, September). Is Bowen Theory Still Relevant in the Family Therapy Field? Journal of the Counsellors and Psychotherapists Association of NSW Inc 3. Retrieved from
  2. Family Solutions Institute. (n.d.) Strategic & Systemic. Family Solutions Institute MFT Study Guide. Retrieved from


Last updated: 07-02-2015

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