Family Systems Theory

Part of the Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development book series (ARAD)


Family systems theory provides users with a holistic framework that centers attention on the interactive and bidirectional nature of relationships within families with adolescents. The family systems framework enjoys widespread use in the family intervention literature, as well as having been increasingly employed within the child and adolescent developmental literatures. In the present chapter, attention is paid to a number of concepts that are related to the understanding of the family as a self-organizing unit. In particular, the systems concept of the steady state is used to discuss the balance of stability and change that must be struck in families with adolescents as members negotiate the demands of this developmental period. Critiques of the family systems approach also are covered, including especially empirical limitations associated with its generating descriptive rather than explanatory abilities. Questions about its generalizability to families with adolescents in collectivist or otherwise non-Western societies are also addressed.

The overall name of these interrelated structures is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system....There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding. That’s all a motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


Caleb Young, Evan Timberland, and Trevor Banner call themselves the three musketeers. And while these three 14-year-old best friends are indeed “one for all, and all for one,” they couldn’t come from more different families. These three teens most often can be found at the Timberland home, in large part because Evan’s parents believe that the safest place for their son is under their watchful eyes. Mr. and Mrs. Timberland spent a great deal of time in their own homes growing up, and are quick to point out that they both “didn’t do drugs and avoided all the problems other kids had growing up.” Although Evan appreciates the fact that his parents want the very best for him, at times he becomes irritated by their reluctance to let him do things for himself.

In contrast, the teens rarely if ever get together at Trevor’s house. His parents are attorneys in a very successful downtown law firm. Mr. and Mrs. Banner work long hours during the week and often are called into the office on weekends as well. The result is that Trevor is left by himself quite a bit, and his parents absolutely forbid having friends over when they are not home. The Banners are glad that their son has good friends, but they also are not bothered by Trevor choosing to stay home alone once in a while as well. In fact, the Banners are quite proud of their son’s ability to be so independent, and oftentimes brag that he seems more self-reliant than his 19-year-old sister, who is a sophomore in college.

When not at Evan’s house, the three teens hang out at the Young home. While Mr. and Mrs. Young are very flexible in terms of allowing Caleb to visit the homes of his friends, they also make it a special point to ask their son to have his friends come over whenever they perceive that there has been an unequal amount of time spent at home versus away from home. These parents talk often with each another about how to balance their son’s desire to “just be himself” with their family’s need to remain connected with one another. While his parents make snacks and other treats available to his friends when they are visiting, he appreciates the fact that they largely are left alone to play videogames and listen to music in the family’s basement recreational room. As a result, Caleb is quite comfortable being with friends in his own home, even though he has two younger siblings.

4.2 Basic Family Systems Theory Concepts

Perhaps the most well-known quotation in all of the writing done on systems is that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” This statement, attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, is meant to imply that a system cannot be understood simply by knowing something about each of its components. Said a slightly different way, a system is not simply the adding up of what we know about each of its parts. Instead, any system (a motorcycle, a family, a corporation, an ecosystem, etc.) is best comprehended by having knowledge of both the parts and their interaction together. Hence, the family systems of the three teenagers described in the sketch above are thought to be best appreciated through the observation of how each set of family members behave around each other.

Most systems-oriented works in the social sciences have as their origin the General System Theory (GST) work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1968), whose efforts involved no less than an attempt to unify all sciences through the recognition of concepts that were common to each academic discipline. Such shared features, or isomorphic properties, were thought to exist at practically all levels of a system, regardless of how microscopic or macroscopic your point of view. “To take a simple example, an exponential law of growth applies to certain bacterial cells, to populations of bacteria, of animals or humans, and to the progress of scientific research measured by the number of publications in genetics or science in general” (von Bertalanffy, 1968, p. 33).

Interestingly, at least one of von Bertalanffy’s biographers has noted that the English language version of this author’s original work in German was a mistranslation that should have read “General System Thinking” instead of “General System Theory” (Davidson, 1983). Hence, while the body of work that centers on a systems perspective typically is accorded the status of a theoretical framework, readers might do well to ponder the potential consequences of such a mistranslation. In particular, appreciation of this misunderstanding might go a long way toward dampening the criticism of the systems perspective as an “untestable theory” (L’Abate & Colondie, 1987).

Nevertheless, family theorists, family researchers, and family-based clinicians all have made ample use of systems concepts. The application of general systems work within the family field has emphasized the use of concepts such as:
  • Hierarchy

  • Boundaries

  • Equifinality and multifinality

  • Positive and negative feedback

  • Circularity

  • Organization

In combination, the concepts reflect an emphasis on understanding how family members operate as systems with properties that are of a non-summative nature (Whitechurch & Constantine, 1993). Hence, the family as a system is thought to be best understood through the recognition that family members (as the parts of the system) interact with one another in a manner such that, over time, these interactions become patterned behavior.

Although not typically discussed in such GST terms, the hallmark application of the systems perspective as applied to the study of families with adolescents surrounds the systems property of the steady state. Likened to a host of other dynamic processes (such as blood pressure, which is made up of both systolic and diastolic readings), this concept typically is used to discuss the balance of stability and change – achieving a “dynamic equilibria” (Bertalanffy, 1968) – that must be struck in families with adolescents as members negotiate the demands of this developmental period (Arnett, 2010; Koman & Stechler, 1985). The steady state is a property of open systems, or systems that have ongoing interactions with their environment. Although the steady state sometimes also is referred to as homeostasis, this actually is a closed system concept in the GST tradition, where the emphasis is on the lack of interaction between system and environment. Because families like all living systems are open by nature, the term steady state is preferred.

A result of this emphasis, on the steady state in the literature, on families with adolescents is the focus on distance regulation and boundary maintenance, most often discussed in terms of differentiation levels (Bowen, 1978). Here, family differentiation is seen as the family system’s ability to display both tolerance for intimacy and tolerance for individuality among its members (see Table 4.1). High tolerance for intimacy is seen in families where members experience high degrees of closeness and warmth with one another, where in contrast low intimacy tolerance is associated with family members who seem cold and distant. High tolerance for individuality is seen in families that generate the sense of being able to be oneself, whereas low individuality tolerance is related to the perception that it is not acceptable for family members to display any sense of uniqueness (Anderson & Sabatelli, 1990).
Table 4.1

Family differentiation levels


High intimacy tolerance

Low intimacy tolerance

High individuality tolerance

Highly differentiated family

Moderately differentiated family

Low individuality tolerance

Moderately differentiated family

Poorly differentiated family

The combination of high individuality tolerance and high intimacy tolerance (termed high family differentiation), where family members are able to simultaneously experience themselves as both separate yet connected individuals, is associated with the highest levels of adolescent and family functioning. The Young family described in the vignette at the beginning of this chapter is an excellent example of a highly differentiated family. Mr. and Mrs. Young certainly seem interested in promoting their son Caleb’s ability to express his own individuality, largely through the choices that he makes about who his friends are and where he spends significant amounts of time. At the same time, these parents are committed to keeping family members connected with one another, and see the openness of their home to Caleb’s friends as a useful way to allow that sense of belongingness to be shared with others as well.

Conversely, low differentiation levels (where both low individuality tolerance and low intimacy tolerance are described in terms of a poorly differentiated family) have neither the experience of separateness or togetherness, and therefore are associated with the lowest functioning levels. In the middle of these polar extremes are combinations described as moderate differentiation levels that are associated with unexceptional adolescent and family functioning levels. The combination of high individuality tolerance and low intimacy tolerance is thought to reflect the sacrifice of connectedness experiences for the sake of individuality claims, while the combination of low individuality tolerance and high intimacy tolerance is the exact reverse; i.e. the sacrifice of individuality for the sake of togetherness (Gavazzi, 1993).

While the vignette at the beginning of this chapter does not contain an example of a poorly differentiated family, the Timberland and Banner families illustrate the two complementary types of moderate family differentiation levels. The Timberlands clearly care for their son Evan, and they do as much as they can to make their home both inviting and comfortable. Like the Young family, they are very open to Evan having his friends over, as they rightly recognize the need for peer companionship at this age. However, their fear of “teenage problems” tends to make them reluctant to allow Evan to make decisions by himself, even when there is little apparent cause for concern or alarm. The desire to maintain a sense of connectedness among members of the Timberland family seems to get in the way of Evan being able to express himself individually.

The Banner family seems to operate in the exact opposite fashion. Trevor has no problems whatsoever in terms of expressing his sense of separateness from his parents. In fact, he is applauded by his parents for his ability to think and act independently. Caleb’s parents feel much the same way about their own son. However, Trevor has far less of a sense that he is connected to his parents and his sister Elena. This wasn’t always the way things were in the Banner family, either. Mr. and Mrs. Banner both worked far less hours when their children were younger, allowing them to share many more family activities together. When Elena began to voice complaints in her junior year about how family gatherings “were just stupid,” the parents started to slowly withdraw, and eventually channeled more time and energy into their work. While seeing themselves as launching their first offspring in a developmentally appropriate manner, the Banners seemed less aware of their younger adolescent’s need for continued connectedness.

Other variations on the application of these distance regulation concepts exist in the systems-influenced literature on families with adolescents. For instance, Stierlin (1981) discussed the family context of the adolescent as being made up of both centripetal and centrifugal processes that alternatively push and pull family members into and out of the home environment. Another example is Hauser, Powers, and Noam (1991) work on constraining and enabling processes, whereby separateness and connectedness experiences are either restricted or facilitated through interactions between parents and adolescents. Although applied more generally to all families instead of only to families with adolescents, a review of this literature would be incomplete without mention of Broderick’s (1993) bonding and buffering processes as well. Here, bonding processes are equated with the centripetal pull to remain connected with other family members, while the buffering processes are thought to be those centrifugal forces that maintain some distance between members of the family.

Family systems theory also has been used to describe the context surrounding more individual-oriented phenomena experienced by adolescents. For instance, Cook (2001a) employed a number of family systems concepts, including differentiation and triangulation, in a description of the family’s influence on chemical addiction and the illegal behaviors of its adolescent members. Particularly, interesting here was the author’s discussion of how the “under functioning” behaviors of the adolescent were matched by the “over functioning” behaviors of the other family members.

A second example is that of Hughes and Gullone (2008), who discuss the family systems perspective on adolescent internalizing problem behaviors (this article also stands out as an excellent review of empirical literature on this topic area). The main thrust of this article was directed toward the need for greater attention paid to the reciprocal nature of relationships within families called for by the systems concept of circularity. As well, while noting the association between the presence of an internalizing disorder and such system level concepts as lower family cohesion levels, these authors also discussed the impact of dyadic factors such as difficulties in the marital and parent-adolescent subsystems.

The reciprocal nature of parent-adolescent relationships within the family systems theoretical perspective has been extended to other forms of developmental psychopathology as well. For example, Sameroff and MacKenzie (2003) employed systems concepts such as positive and negative feedback in support of the need for transactional models that would account for the bidirectional influences of parents and adolescents. In a different realm, Corwyn and Bradley (2005) employed the systems concepts of equifinality and multifinality to describe the differential influences of economic circumstances on adolescent externalizing behaviors. Here, the authors described socioeconomic status as having an “equifinal” impact by influencing different factors in ways that produced similar outcomes, as well as observing that SES could influence numerous outcomes in more “multifinal” fashion.

4.3 Reflections: Family Systems Theory and Families with Adolescents

How does the reader begin to evaluate the use of family systems theory in terms of understanding families with adolescents? In terms of the descriptive function of this theory, there seems to be a bit of controversy in how this theoretical perspective helps scholars. On the one hand, Cox and Paley (1997) have noted that family systems concepts such as wholeness and hierarchy increasingly have been brought to bear on the child and adolescent developmental literatures as scholars have advanced their understanding of the family as a self-organizing unit. This sentiment is echoed in Masten and Shaffer’s (2006) own discussion of the same literature a decade later. On the other hand, White and Klein (2006) have noted that the family systems perspective has been seen as “too abstract and global,” and has been likened more to a model or a heuristic tool than a theory per se, criticisms that are echoed elsewhere (cf., Reis, Collins, & Berscheid, 2000).

Less controversial is the sensitizing function of family systems theory. Clearly, the family systems approach grounds users in a holistic framework that centers attention on the interactive and bidirectional nature of relationships within the family. Added to this is the fact that family systems theory also “rings true” for many therapists and other helping professionals in terms of the connection between its concepts and the real world experiences of families with adolescents.

Most pointedly, this conceptual framework has had a profound impact on the family therapy literature (Nichols & Schwartz, 2006). However, its influence has spread to diverse intervention areas targeting adolescents and their families such as wilderness programming (Harper & Russell, 2008), diabetes treatment (Butler, Skinner, Gelfand, Berg, & Wiebe, 2007; Wysocki, Harris, Buckloh, Mertlich, Lochrie, Taylor, Sadler, Mauras, & White, 2006), family systems nursing (Clausson & Berg 2008), and positive youth development (Lerner, von Eye, Lerner, & Lewin-Bizan, 2009) and social justice (Lerner & Overton, 2008). Hence, the integrative function of this conceptual framework is apparent in that it does help scholars in various fields to organize their overall thinking about families with adolescents.

The family systems approach has been further criticized in terms of certain limits related to its explanatory function. For instance, Dilworth-Anderson, Burton, and Klein (2005) note that “compared with most other family theories, systems theories tend to be descriptive rather than explanatory” (p. 42). Part of the difficulty may lie in the traditional methods of research that are used in data gathering and analysis efforts. Expanding on Gottlieb and Halpern’s (2002) reference to the “analysis of variance mentality” (p. 421) that permeates much of the linear thinking inherent to mainstream research, O’Brien (2005) suggested a more “holistic” approach to measurement and analysis of system-oriented phenomena. Here, use of structural equation modeling and person-centered analytic techniques – in addition to a focus on the mediating and moderating influences of family system concepts – might yield a more comprehensive set of studies that would demonstrate the actual explanatory power of this theoretical framework.

Finally, the value function of family systems theory draws attention to a worldview that emphasizes the comprehensive importance of the family context as a whole. Within this perspective, there are concepts such as family distance regulation that equate the highest functioning levels in families with greater amounts of both individuality and belongingness. It is important to note that there may be some cultural bias to this notion, however. As studies of family distance regulation in other cultures reviewed below will indicate, the relative balance of individuality and intimacy and its connection to healthy adolescent development very well may shift in more collectivist or otherwise non-Western societies. In these other cultures, there may be much more of an emphasis on the capacity for togetherness and concurrently less expectation that a sense of individuality could or should be fostered.

In sum, family systems theory does sensitize users to family-oriented ideas, but its descriptive abilities have been evaluated in a less consistent manner. This conceptual approach holds great practical utility, and as such seems to provide for a well organized approach to the pursuit of knowledge about families with adolescents. Scholars utilizing family systems theory must attend to issues surrounding the explanatory function of this approach, and must also expand the field’s understanding of the cultural relevance of the values inherent to this theory.


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Copyright information

© Springer New York 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human Development and Family ScienceThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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