ERIC Identifier: ED304634
Publication Date: 1988-12-00
Author: Anderson, Mary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Counseling Families from a Systems Perspective. Highlights: An
In the past twenty years family therapy has become a major innovative force
in the helping professions that has profoundly influenced the way counselors
think about and intervene in the lives of their clients (Schafer, Briesmeiste,
& Fitton, 1984). Systems theory offers family counselors both a conceptual
and a practical framework for organizing diagnostic information and evaluating
Generally, the systems perspective views the family as a self-regulating
system held together by unspoken rules whose purpose is to maintain itself.
Psychological symptoms are viewed as manifestations of a dysfunctional family,
and the focus of treatment then becomes the family system, not the problem or
symptomatic family member.
Numerous theoretical models have been
developed, and counseling techniques vary according to the particular
theoretical model to which the counselor subscribes. Many therapists are
eclectic and use whatever model or techniques seem appropriate for a particular
family and treatment setting. These theoretical models include:
Psychodynamic. An object-relations approach to family therapy pioneered by
Ackerman (1958) that views dysfunction as the result of inappropriate current
behavioral attempts to work out issues of the past.
Generational. Stresses the importance of differentiation, relationships
between generations, and triangulation (Bowen, 1978). Therapists function as
teachers and coaches.
Communications. Describes pathology as arising out of dysfunctional
communication patterns (Bateson, 1972; Jackson & Weakland, 1961; Satir,
1964). Treatment focuses on changing interaction patterns to promote growth,
emphasizing conflict management and new adaptive responses to dysfunctional
Structural. Views dysfunction as a consequence of family structure (Haley,
1976; Leibman, Minuchin, & Baker, 1974; Minuchin, S., 1974). Insight comes
only after structural change.
Strategic Intervention. A special model of therapeutic change designed by the
Ackerman Institute, Jay Haley (1976), and Selvini-Palazzoli (1978), aimed at
changing the powerful family rules in families particularly resistant to change.
Treatment is brief (eight interviews).
CHARACTERISTICS OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY
A family passes
through predictable stages and develops methods of taking care of its members
and coping with environmental demands. Members of dysfunctional families can
become locked in self-perpetuating pathological patterns during a transition.
Common characteristics of such families include the following: -- One or more
symptomatic members. -- Blurred generational boundaries. -- Confused
communication patterns. -- Overprotection. -- Enmeshment, lack of autonomy or
privacy. -- Denial of conflict except as it involves symptomatic member. --
Inability to resolve conflict. -- Submerged tension. -- Scapegoating. -- Low
toleration for stress and physical illness. -- Fragmented, disjointed, isolated
individuals. -- Noncohesive, noncommittal, pseudo-closeness. -- Schisms, with
two or more alliances in conflict. -- Skewed relationships, isolation of one
family member. -- Extreme positions by all members in an effort to
differentiate. -- Lack of respect for individual differences.
Family dysfunction may seriously interfere with children's developmental
processes. Parents in such families are usually immobilized by pain from their
past, fear of the present, and resistance to change.
FAMILY SYSTEMS INTERVENTION
Indications for Intervention.
In general, family systems therapy is appropriate when evidence of family
dysfunction exists. A direct correlation should be noticeable between a child's
problems and family dysfunction. Families that lack minimal coping skills are
not good candidates for family therapy, e.g., families with insufficient
structure to attend regular sessions and single parent families with very young
children (Schafer et al., 1984).
Therapeutic Attitude. The family systems therapist uses an active, directive
manner in which family strengths are affirmed, interpersonal distance is
monitored, and reality is reframed. The therapist respects hierarchies of
authority and values, supporting subsystems, and speaks the language of the
family, attempting to blend in with the family organization and style--to
identify with the children without becoming a child, and with the parents
without becoming a parent (Minuchin, 1974). It is important to include all
family members in the sessions, or at least think in terms of the entire family.
Dysfunctional families resist this attitude because it focuses on the family
system and not just the symptomatic member. The therapist must respect the power
of the family system and work to show members a better way to live together. Too
critical an approach can imply that the therapist is trying to destroy the
family rather than maintain it. Therapists need to have resolved their own
personal family issues if they are to be helpful in effecting change.
GOALS OF FAMILY TREATMENT
Counseling should be initiated
with all family members present. Once individuals are thinking in family systems
terms, they can become more objective and avoid the emotional reactivity that
hinders treatment and change.
Therapy begins with a focus on the presenting problem or the symptomatic
family member, with the hope that the family system will reveal itself around
these initial issues. The goal is then to introduce family members to a broader
way of conceptualizing and experiencing their problems. This approach typically
achieves the following: -- Primary problems in family functioning are
delineated. -- Scapegoating is neutralized. -- Guilt and blame decrease. --
Empathy for differences increases. -- Family myths and nonfunctional rules are
challenged. -- New agreements for living together can be formed.
As the therapist monitors a family's struggle over time, covert rules of
family life become overt and the family experiments with different ways of
relating, communicating, and living together. Openly discussing issues and
exposing family secrets often brings great relief and reduces tension.
COUNSELING TECHNIQUES WITH DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES
family seeks treatment, the initial question for the therapist is what is the
problem and what does having the problem do to the family? The family is then
assessed as a whole with the therapist observing how members work together,
discovering problems other than the presenting problems, and assessing the
family's developmental stage cycle (Klimek & Anderson, 1988). In general,
the therapist is less concerned with "why" than with "who, where, and what."
Several techniques are useful in helping family members demonstrate how they
normally deal with situations. Some examples include:
Sequencing. Ask questions like who does what, when? When kids are fighting,
what is mother doing? father?
Hypothetical Questions. Who would be most likely to stay home if mother got
sick? Which child can you visualize living at home as an adult?
Scaling Reports. On a scale of most-least, compare one another in terms of
anger, power, neediness, happiness.
Family Map. Organize information about the generational development of a
family that reveals the powerful transmission of family rules, roles, and myths
Reframing. Describe negative behavior in different ways. Acting out, for
example, can be described as displaced anger from an unresolved family conflict.
Tracking. How does a family deal with a problem. "What was it like for you
when. . . ?" rather than "How did you feel when. . . ?" These kinds of questions
help keep the focus on the family rather than on the individual.
Sculpting. Create a still picture of the family that symbolizes relationships
by having members position one another physically. This technique helps to cut
through intellectualized defenses, and gets nonverbal members to express
Eco-Map. Organize data about the family's total environment and their
relationship to it.
Paradoxical Intervention. Instruct a family to do something they don't expect
and observe how the family then changes by rebellion or noncompliance. This
approach is not appropriate in crisis situations such as violence, grief, or
suicide, or for families with minimal resistance. It is reserved for highly
resistant and rigid families and is clearly an advanced therapeutic skill (Papp,
Unbalancing. Support an individual or subsystem at the expense of others.
This modifies family structure and introduces the possibility for alternative
ways of living together.
Change in family systems counseling derives from a
therapist's affiliation with the family, and from interventions aimed at
restructuring the family system in order to transform dysfunctional patterns.
New ideas are being formulated about applying systems thinking in different
treatment settings, as well as addressing specific problems such as school
phobia, delinquency, substance abuse, and a variety of eating disorders. Family
systems counseling is seen by some as the ultimate professional challenge and
will undoubtedly continue to have a profound impact on the helping professions.
Ackerman, N. (1958). The psychodynamics
of family life. New York: Basic Books.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Random House.
Bowen, M. (1978). Family treatment in clinical practice. New York: Jason
Haley, J. (1976). Problem solving therapy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jackson, D. P., & Weakland, J. H. (1961). Conjoint family therapy: Some
considerations on theory, technique, and results. Psychiatry, 24, 30-45.
Klimek, D., & Anderson, M. (1988). Inner world, outer world:
Understanding the struggles of adolescence. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of
Michigan, ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services. (ED 290 118)
Liebman, R., Minuchin, S., & Baker, L. (1974). The role of the family in
the treatment of anorexia nervosa. Journal of the American Academy of Child
Psychiatry, 13, 264-274.
Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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Schafer, C. E., Briesmeiste, J. M., & Fitton, M. E. (1984). Family
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