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What is Family Systems Therapy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Family systems therapy is an approach to psychotherapy which involves the family as a whole in treatment, whether the problem which brought someone to psychotherapy is viewed as an individual or family issue. Also known as family therapy, family systems therapy is widely used throughout the world, and there are a number of approaches which can be taken to this kind of therapy, ranging from a classic psychotherapeutic approach to a spiritual-based therapy which integrates religious beliefs, such as Christian family therapy.

The idea behind family systems therapy is that people do not occur in a vacuum, and that treating individuals without considering their environments will not be beneficial in the long term. By involving the entire family, a therapist can understand the dynamics at play in a client's life, looking at the relationships between family members, family attitudes, and the way in which members of the family interact with each other. Using this information, the therapist can work with the client or clients to achieve a solution to psychological issues.

Some family systems therapists focus on treating the nuclear family, dealing with parents and children. Others have a wider view of “family” and may include other family members along with close friends who are like members of the family, even if they aren't related by blood. Family systems therapy can also be used with nontraditional families, along with couples or people in more complex emotional relationships.

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A family systems therapist will usually meet with individuals and the group at different times. Individual meetings allow the therapist to connect with each member of the family group or relationship, learning about specific issues and identifying areas of concern. Group meetings offer an opportunity to hold mediated discussion, to see dynamics at work, and to explore topics brought up in individual therapy. Some therapists may visit the home to see the family dynamics at work in their natural environment, while others prefer to stick to the office, maintaining more professional boundaries.

While people may think of troubled youth as an obvious application of family systems therapy, this type of therapy can also help with other types of psychological issues which may arise in individuals and families. It can also be integrated with other types of therapy. For example, if someone in a family has an eating disorder, family systems therapy can teach family members about how to be supportive and explore family dynamics which might have contributed to the eating disorder while the eating disordered member of the family gets medical treatment. Family systems therapy can be used to address emotional strain between couples, to help families adjust to new members or the loss of a member, and to help families as a whole grow emotionally.

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