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date: 02 March 2021

Family Systems Therapylocked

  • Sara Honn QuallsSara Honn QuallsDepartment of Psychology, University of Colorado
  •  and Lacey EdwardsLacey EdwardsBehavioral Health Services, AspenPointe


Family systems therapy seeks to alter the structure or processes of a family for the purposes of reducing distress in one or more persons and improving the ability of the family to meet members’ needs. Building from a general systems paradigm, family systems therapy recognizes that family structures shift over time as they respond to members’ developmental processes and broader system demands. As members enter and exit or change capacity, and as external stressors arise, the family typically uses adaptive processes to demonstrate resilience. Family systems therapy is useful when the family struggles to adapt, or the adaptation strategy further stresses the family.

Multiple models of family systems therapies offer variations in intervention approaches but have common tenets. Major models include Ackerman’s early psychodynamics model, transgenerational models of family therapy, structural family therapy, strategic family therapy, and communications approaches to family therapy. Models vary in their recommended roles for the therapist, strategies for therapist and family, and the salience of immediate versus longer-term goals. Family systems therapies conceptualize family interactions as complex, reciprocal, open, self-organizing, adaptive, social constructionist, and meaning-making.

Family systems therapy also can be used with systems larger than families, such as schools or organizations, or to understand cultural phenomena. The field of marriage and family therapy has defined competencies for practice, training requirements, and licensure standards and established national and international professional organizations.

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