What is a systemic approach in psychotherapy? Family systems theory intervention


The major difference between Family therapy and individual therapy is something called systems theory… therapist using such an approach are said to look at problems and solution systemically. In viewing a problem systemically a therapist will look at all the factors which bear some relation to the reported symptoms… ‘Factors’ could be family members, friends, culture, communication dynamics, the education system, the natural environment etc.

Ecology is a systems theory… Ecologists study the relationships between organisms and other environmental variables within an ecosystem. If one organism in an ecosystem was dying off, an ecologist would look at all the different variables that could be affecting the organism such as, climate change, introduction of a non-native species, the wellbeing of the organism’s food source etc. If the scientist were not using a systemic approach, she would study the organism in isolation or separate from environmental variables.

A Systemic family therapy intervention functions quite the same… If an teen was suffering from depression, the therapist would investigate all the factors which are effecting the symptom of depression such as the teen’s relationship with his family, the marital satisfaction of the teen’s parents, the structure (such as hierarchies and coalitions) of the family system, the dynamics (such as communication patterns) of the family, the teens relationship with friends, access to activities etc.

In many individual models, such as the western medical model, symptoms are looked at solely in relation to an individual and the resulting intervention looks at removing the problem from the individual.

Examples: if an individual has cancer the intervention is to cut out the cancer, if an individual has depression you intervene to remove the symptom. If a teen is smoking pot you create a plan to get the teen to stop smoking pot… the intervention focuses entirely on a single individual.

A systemic model would propose that it is most effective to offer assistance to both the individual and the various systems in which the individual lives (examples of systems: a family is a system, a congregation is a system, a group of classmates is a system, the climate is a system, the population of a country is a system etc.)

Examples:  If an individual has a cancer the solution would involve influencing the environmental variables which promote cancer while also increasing environmental supports which are correlated with recovery. If a teen were to be a smoking pot the systemic therapist would look to positively influence the environmental variables which may be correlated with pot use (ex. Stressful home environment, lack of extracurricular activities, lack of challenge or a felt sense of purpose in the community, glorification of usage by adults for reasons of profit etc.)

Systems theory suggests that we look at problems collectively as opposed to scapegoating an individual… this reduces defensiveness which generally offers more motivation to the change process.

What is your opinion?… if your family was having struggles would you rather everyone collaborated in creating positive change, or would you believe it to be most effective to isolate a ‘problematic’ individual and focus all attention on ‘fixing’ that person.

People are not problems, and sometimes groups of people find themselves in less functional structural and dynamic patterns which are less effective at promoting collectively empathetic behavior.

A symptom becomes problematic when the system is not able to successfully accommodate the needs of that symptom.

There is a retort to systems theory which suggests that systemic theory does not take into consideration the reality of severe mental and physical illness… in other words, the systemic approach is said to be unobservant of the importance of diagnosis in its’ efforts to avoid individual labeling.

My suggested response – Systems theory observes that reality holds many different irregularities that may be given labels for proper intervention from the medical community… and yet this does not negate the system suggestion that whether a label is assigned or not, a system can always find ways of improving so as to accommodate the potential of all of its’ labeled individuals.

In short, a label does not necessarily lend to the most effective set of solutions if the entire system is not called upon to adapt and resolve.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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