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The Family System | The Family as a Subsystem | The Problem System

Key Principle: Everything is connected to everything else (the central contribution of General Systems Theory).
The Family System:
Families can be seen and described as systems. A family is a whole, made up of parts which influence each other. The parts or subsystems can be individuals or groupings of individuals. When something happens to one member or subsystem, other members or subgroups are inevitably affected.
Consider the following scenario depicted in Example 1. We have a family consisting of a father, James (age 29), a mother, Nancy (age 29), and a son, Jimmy (age 5).


Example 1:  Family Genogram
Symptom:  Jimmy shreds paper, even though he's been told not to, and makes a terrible mess.
How can we explain this behavior? Is he crazy, angry, anxious or just disobedient? Are James and Nancy bad parents? We need more information.

Suppose we add that James and Nancy are struggling financially. Their mortgage application has just been rejected by the bank, ending their dream to own their own home for the first time. They are anxious and depressed. Most of the time, the lost house is all they can think about and talk about, even though that often leads to arguments they know they should be able to avoid.

With this information, and keeping in mind that everything is connected, Jimmy's behavior starts to make more sense.

Every little kid I've encountered has enjoyed cutting and tearing paper. Kids that are Jimmy's age, however, have enough fine motor control and goal-direction that when they cut paper, it's usually to make something or cut something out, so Jimmy's a little old for what he's doing. But when Jimmy starts aimlessly shredding, and won't stop, it gives James and Nancy something else to focus on besides the house.

So, when Nancy says to James:  "You should have told them about all your overtime pay," and James answers:  "It's not my fault--you should've mailed the car payments on time so our credit looked better," there's little Jimmy, anxiety level rising, over in the corner, ripping up paper. Sooner or later James and Nancy notice the mess and respond to him and stop fighting.

Everyone wins (except maybe for whoever has to clean up), right? James and Nancy avoid a fight; Jimmy gets some attention and soothing (which, of course, reinforces the shredding behavior); and hopefully everything gets back to normal as the parental subsystem (James and Nancy) accept and adjust to their disappointment.

It might not go back to normal, of course. James and Nancy could fight over why their son is crazy or disobedient, reinforcing the shredding behavior even more. (Mad or bad--crazy or disobedient--those are the choices you're stuck with when you don't like a kid's behavior, and you don't have a systems perspective).

By the way, a lot of ongoing drug abuse among teens and young adults can be explained this way too. Parents fight, the kid uses drugs or gets in trouble, which temporarily unites the parents on the kid's behalf. The kid gets better, gets clean, maybe goes into treatment, and the parents lose their focus, and start bickering. Round and round it goes, and where it starts nobody knows, and it may not really matter--stopping it is what systemic family therapy is about.

The Family as a Subsystem:
The family, a system made up of subsystems, is also a subsystem within a larger sphere. We have the individual within the family, within the extended family, which lives in a local community, in a city perhaps, a county, state, country, planet, etc. [See illustration below.] So in some ways, it's arbitrary that we focus on the family, but we have to take some focus.
fam2aa.gif (103 bytes) fam2ba.gif (223 bytes) fam2ca.gif (506 bytes) fam2dnewa.gif (1166 bytes)
Individual Individual within the family Individual within the family within the extended family Individual within the family within the extended family within the local community
The Problem System:
Some family therapists say we should focus on the "problem system," defined as everyone involved in any way with the problem--family members, social workers, teachers, police, ministers, whomever. [See illustration below.] So we can see that the original premise--everything is connected to everything else--applies across levels of systems as well as within them.
ProbSys2.gif (1356 bytes) Problem System
But even this is too simple, as the "problem system" concept shows. Consider another genogram:  3 generations, with 3 children in the youngest generation (shown below). The oldest daughter, has relationships with 10 people to whom she's connected by birth. Complicated? Remember that each person in this slightly extended family has relationships with 10 other family members. And the parents have work and friends, and the kids have school and activities, and friends, and well, you can see it grows quickly.
10 Relationships:
2 Siblings
4 Aunts and Uncles
4 Grandparents
Hide Lines
Click on the text at left to view the various relationships in the genogram.
Multigenerational Perspectives Next

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
2300 West Ridge Rd.
Rochester, NY  14626
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Updated on 06/12/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW