Most people think of the symptoms of depression or anxiety as individual problems. The same goes with problematic members of the family, such as a delinquent son or a philandering husband. The one who needs therapy is the one who acts out or internalises their distress. Systems Therapy, often used in family therapy, disagrees. All issues manifested by an individual are a result of a larger system, the person’s immediate environment – usually the family. Individual problems are caused, or at least maintained, by the larger whole.
Systems Therapy is a kind of psychotherapy interested in how different members of a system, like a family, interact, and how their patterns of interactions result in a presenting problem. Unlike other therapies, Systems Therapy is not looking for who is a fault, but rather presumes that everyone contributes to a situation through their action and/inaction. Hence, interventions are for the whole family and not for individuals.
Consider a family with a depressed daughter for example. On the surface, the depression appears to be caused by an interfering mother who tends to control every little thing her daughter does. But if you look at the bigger picture, you see other relevant details. The mother’s over-involvement in her daughter’s life is actually a result of having a cold, detached husband who has always refused to give details about his whereabouts – the mum is taking out her lack of security with her spouse on her daughter. The parents’ messy dynamics have caused the eldest son to spend more time with friends than family. Given that the son is his depressed sibling’s only support system, the brother’s absence reinforces the depression.
With all of these dynamics surfaced, you begin to realise that the depression is not one person’s problem. It’s simply the most noticeable manifestation of the family’s unwellness. The good news is: change one dysfunctional interaction for the better, and everything can improve. Get the husband to be more open about his life for example, then the over-involvement will end. The marital fights will lessen and the brother will be encouraged to come home. The freedom to be herself and the added sibling support can then lead to the daughter’s depression disappearing.
How does it work?
System Therapy has many areas of assessment.
Therapists can look at the family structure e.g. the closeness and distance between members. By negotiating boundaries between family members, so that all have private life and family life, then families can be assisted to wellness.
Systems Therapists can also look at communication patterns in the family: who talks to whom and how do they talk with one another. Is there respect and affirmation in the communication patterns, or is there a culture of blame? Is there a pink elephant in the room, an issue everyone pretends doesn’t exist?
Other areas of assessment includes power dynamics, connections with other larger systems e.g. the community, problem-solving methods, responsiveness to needs and expectations, explicit and hidden rules, roles of each person in the family, and the intergenerational transmissions of values and dysfunctions.
What issues does it treat?
Systems Therapy is especially recommended for recognised family problems. It’s preferable for the entire family to be present during sessions, but Systems Therapy can also work even if there are absent family members.
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