Understanding the Family
as a System

H. Dan Smith, EdD, MFT

In recent years, the view of the family as a "system" has become an increasingly popular and important theoretical framework for counselors and family therapy professionals. By definition, a family system functions because it is a unit, and every family member plays a critical, if not unique, role in the system. As such, it is not possible that one member of the system can change without causing a ripple effect of change throughout the family system.

In stark contrast to the systems view, families have been traditionally seen as a group of more or less independent agents linked by their membership in the family, and any given member's behavior was not necessarily related to the behavior of any other member. With such a restricted view of the family, it is entirely likely that a parent might state, "I have two children; my daughter is terrific, but my son is always in trouble. Since I raised them both the same way, there must be something dreadfully wrong with my son."

Within the systems view, the above statement would be interpreted quite differently. Each member of the family plays a specific role; the son is literally assigned his negative role, and the daughter assumes her role with equal determination. Upon closer examination of this family, several factors could be operating that have created and sustain the system. One such scenario might be:

Melissa is a straight "A" student and receives a great deal of parental attention for her success in school. Knowing full well that he is not capable of competing with his sister in the academic arena, Jason finds that his "B" average results in no praise, but occasional comments such as "do better" or "study harder." He soon realizes that he can become the focus of his parents' attention by acting-out in school, earning failing grades, and engaging in delinquent behavior. Although the attention that he receives would appear to be quite negative, it nonetheless satisfies his need for full partnership in the family system.

In a therapy situation, this family will label Jason the "identified patient," and request that something be done about his acting-out behavior. Within the systems view, however, the family will be the identified patient, and changing Jason's behavior will require a change in the family system. If his parents understand the goal of his behavior and reevaluate their use of praise, it will surely help. In this manner, Jason can receive the attention he needs without having to resort to acting-out or delinquent behavior. In this scenario, the parents must become aware that in order to change their son's behavior, they must take the lead and first change their own behavior.

As previously stated, any change in the system will result in reverberations throughout the system. If the parents change and thus stimulate change in Jason, how will this affect Melissa? She may feel the stress of having to share positive attention with her brother, something which she has never experienced before. This will result in new and additional stresses within the system, and all family members must anticipate and address these stresses when they appear.

Another possible scenario might be:

Mom and dad fight a great deal and dad abuses alcohol (but denies that he drinks excessively). The daughter, Erika, has found that she can make things better in the household if she gets good grades and pacifies mom and dad when they are arguing. Being a perfect daughter is Erika's way of exerting some control over her environment; for the most part, she is able to avoid physical abuse from her father because she is so compliant. The son, Brian, is continually heartbroken over the pain felt in the family, and is particularly affected when his mother is being hurt. He is angry and has discovered (unconsciously) that when he is acting-out at school or in trouble with the law, his parents fight less and they work more like a team on his problems. Brian is also sensitive to the fact that any improvement in his behavior gives mom and dad the opportunity to focus on their own problems, which causes their fighting to increase.

This family is also likely to label the son the identified patient, and openly state that if his behavior would improve, mom and dad wouldn't fight so much, or they might even go so far as to blame dad's drinking on the son's behavior. Ironically, Brian's behavior not only provides an avenue for him to express his anger, it purposefully serves to protect his mother and sister from his father's abusive behavior. As one can readily see, it would not be possible to change Brian's behavior without revamping the system.

A key feature of the systems view of families is the concept of "homeostasis," which is defined as a kind of inertia which actually works against change in the system. In the first scenario, it was mentioned that Melissa might feel new and unfamiliar stress if her parents and Jason were to alter their relationship. In this case, she might unknowingly sabotage change in order to keep her coveted role in the family system.

In the second scenario, dad may end his denial, realize that he must stop drinking, and take a hard look at his abusiveness. Although this sounds like the ideal outcome, the concept of homeostasis is surely at work. The wife may now have to share responsibility for running the family with her husband, thus facing an unwanted loss of power and control. Likewise, Erika's skillful manipulation of the moods in the household may no longer be required, and Brian's diversionary tactics may now invite stress between mom and dad rather than relieve it as before. Although everyone would overtly approve of dad's new behaviors, life would be more familiar and the family roles would be less confusing if dad were drinking again. Hard as it may be to believe, the homeostatic force will likely try to get dad back the way he was--drinking and abusive.

Therapy from the systems view requires a broader perspective of the family than merely identifying the troublemaker(s) and persuading them to change. The family must be ready and willing to look at what we as members of the system must do together to improve relations in the household rather than what any individual must do. Families seeking to alter their dysfunctional system must be aware that change is often difficult, and that subtle forces will be afoot to counter their best efforts.

Many families under stress elect divorce as the means of distancing themselves from the problems caused by a dysfunctional system. While this is certainly a popular remedy for seemingly irreconcilable problems, unless the divorcing parties resolve their own contributions to the failed relationship, there is strong likelihood that old and destructive behaviors will re-emerge in subsequent relationships. It has long been said that you can divorce your spouse, but you can never divorce yourself; unresolved dysfunctional behavior patterns are easily transferred to new relationships. We tend to take our familiar role in one system and seek to repeat that role in other systems we enter.

Still other families elect to do nothing proactive, and let nature take its course. Such an approach might be used by the first family. Perhaps as the children enter adulthood the issue of competition for their parents' attention may subside. It is likely, however, that some scars will remain with the children, particularly Jason. He may never feel accepted for who he is and continue to draw attention to himself though acting-out behavior.

Unless the second family addresses their problems, the children will surely be affected, particularly Erika. Her adult life may be characterized by attempting to please others in order to gain their approval or to avoid conflict. She might strive to appear to others as she thinks they want her to be, rather than who she really is. Her problems as an adult child of an alcoholic will be most intense when she attempts to develop and sustain adult intimate relationships, or when she tries to juggle the relationships in her own family as a wife and mother.

Brian will suffer his own deep scars. He may continue to be angry and never trust that male-female relationships can be other than a war zone. Since he has never seen problems resolved constructively, he may be severely limited in his ability to deal with stressful situations involving important persons in his adult relationships.

This hypothetical look at two very different families underscores the unique contributions of the systems view of families. This approach provides a solid framework for understanding how families function and how to support their change. Most important, the systems view deemphasizes blaming the family's problems on a given family member, particularly a child whose "acting-out" behavior may be a natural reaction to an unnatural set of circumstances. With accurate identification of the process that sustains painful or stressful conditions in the family, change for the better can be both profound and permanent.

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