Understanding Family Dynamics & Theories

Notes on Family Systems Theory

Families are vital for our development as human beings. It is common knowledge that a baby needs someone to care for him or her, a child needs someone to teach them basic skills, teenagers need advice with friends or *gasp* dating. It is usually easier to understand someone when you are able to look at their family. This is the basis of the family systems theory.

The family systems theory is a theory that suggests that individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family, as the family is an emotional unit. 

In this theory, there are some basic assumptions:

  • The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A family is much more than a collection of individuals who live together and are related to each other it has holistic quality.
  • The locus of pathology is not within the person but is a system dysfunction. Systems theory requires a paradigm shift in the way we think about the world. Locus of pathology is the location of the problem, is not within the person. Rather than saying that an individual has a disease, we say that the system of which he or she is a part is dysfunctional.
  • Circular causality guides behavior. With causality the focus is on content. The idea that with human social interaction there are a number of forces moving in many directions simultaneously. It is all about process.
  • Rules result from the redundancy principle and are critical in defining a family. Families cannot have an infinite reservoir of possible behavioral responses for every situation, so a few are selected and used over and over. This is the redundancy principle, which results in family rules.
  • Feedback loops guide behavior. A family system corrects itself or tries to regain homeostasis through the use of feedback loops. Negative feedback occurs when a family member begins to move outside the accepted limits of family behavior and others enact corrective measures to get that member back in line. Positive feedback is a rewarding response for the deviation. In this case, the person is encouraged to break out of the homeostatic balance.
  • Pathological communication contributes to relationship problems. Pathological communication refers to the various kinds of unclear and confusing ways of relating, which can cause problems in a relationship.
  • All family members take on roles. Family roles are defined as “recurring patterns of behavior developed through interaction that family members use to fulfill family functions.”
  • Family types are based on the rigidity of family boundaries. Some researchers have identified three basic family types based on the rigidity of family boundaries and rules.
    • Open families are basically democratic, and the rights of individuals are protected and interactions with outsiders are permitted. There is also consensus and flexibility, and family members are bound together by love and respect. This is often called mutuality, and healthy children and patterns of interactions are common in these families.
    • Random families have no boundaries; few rules exist about defending the “family’s territory.” The members are seen as disengaged, and their commitments to and investments in the family are transitory. Children often see this level of freedom as a sign of lack of love and concern from their parents, and social problems are common.
    • Closed families are where family members are enmeshed or overly involved in each others’ lives. Individual identities are not allowed, and family boundaries close off much of the outside world. Such families might value privacy, even secretiveness, and limit exposure to media or other external influences. Cannot think or function on their own behalf.
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