Applying the Family Systems Theory in Social Work

First developed by Murray Bowen in the 1960′s, the family systems theory provides insight into human behavior by examining family values and interactions on both an individual and group level. Throughout this theory, Bowen states that the family unit functions as an interconnected system, within which emotions play a key role in establishing and maintaining the functioning of this system. Thus, emotional interconnection is the very essence of what it means to be a family. Even when individual family members feel as though they don’t relate to some of their family members, the family unit as a whole is still intimately interconnected, resulting in attempts for emotional interventions (be they minor or major) at some point in time.
Applying the Family Systems Theory in Social Work

To help explain his findings, Bowen segmented his theory into eight concepts:


As one may assume, in Bowen’s family systems theory, triangles refer to an interconnected relationship consisting of three individual members. Bowen considers triangles to be the smallest form of any stable relationship because his studies found that a two-person relationship can tolerate very little tension before breaking or allowing a third person in.

Differentiation of the Self

A family is no different than a tribe or group, therefore it is highly susceptible to “group think.” Group think occurs when an entire group or clan almost inherently share similar beliefs and interests. Due to this sense of inheritance, any given belief or interest is rarely tested or questioned by the group as a whole. When an individual interrogates one of these beliefs, Bowen considers this to be a form of self-differentiation as the individual seeks to establish who she is both in and out of the family unit.

Nuclear Family Emotional System

Bowen establishes the nuclear family emotional system in order to convey the four traditional relationship designs that rule when dealing with family issues. Interestingly enough, these patterns are fully-operational regardless of whether a family is intact, consists of a single-parent or step-parent(s), or functions as a variety of other family configurations. The four basic relationship patterns are: 1) martial conflict, 2) spouse dysfunction, 3) impairment of children and 4) emotional distance.

Family Projection Process

Whether they are aware of it or not, parents often project their emotional issues onto children. Bowen found that this family projection process can severely influence how a child or children function, so much so that this process alone has the potential to lead a child to a vulnerability to clinical symptoms. This family projection process operates in these three steps: 1) the parent places their attention on a child out of an assumption that there is something wrong with him or her; 2) the child’s behavior is interpreted as a confirmation to the fear in question; 3) the parent then responds to their daughter or son as though there is something seriously wrong with her or him.

Multigenerational Transmission Process

This process explains how, over a span of many generations, minor changes between parents and children result in major changes among individuals of a multigenerational family. This is how a grandparent may have particular personality traits, while their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are completely opposite.

Emotional Cutoff

Bowen uses the concept of emotional cutoff to explain that verbal and emotional contact is often cutoff due to individuals having unresolved emotional issues. Rather than addressing or dealing with these issues, parents, siblings or other family members would rather just protect themselves by numbing or shutting that portion of their life off.

Sibling Position

For the sibling position concept, Bowen uses some of psychologist Walter Toman’s research to explain the impact that sibling position can have on development and behavior within and without a family system.

Societal Emotional Process

Although initially referring to family, Bowen notes that his family systems theory can be used in reference to work and social organizations as well. The societal emotional process explains how the emotional system functions on a societal level, resulting in periods of growth and decline.

Considering the interconnected nature stated within Bowen’s family systems theory, social workers can use this theory to better understand the action of family units, as well as those of its individual members. For example, the Bowen family systems theory states that the interconnected nature of a family system results in reactivity in regards to actions and emotions. Therefore, a family member altering their behavior or functioning will soon be followed by a reaction and response from each individual member (whether individuals and families are aware of this reaction or not). So if a social worker notices that a child is behaving or acting much different than they usually do, they would be wise to check in on their home live to see what changes have been made to bring about this behavior.

Granted, social workers must keep in mind that the child or individual may have been the family member who has made the most significant change in their emotional or physical behavior. But even if that may be the case, it would be worth noting what minor occurrences brought about such major alteration.

As a whole, it would be extremely beneficial for social workers to have an in-depth understanding of Bowen’s family systems theory. Even in cases involving an individual member, social workers would be able to use this family theory to better understand why individuals are acting the way they are in society or at school/work.

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