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Sara Honn Qualls and Lacey Edwards

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.


Caring for an older adult who needs help or supervision is in many cases associated with mental and physical health issues, especially if the care recipient has dementia, although positive consequences associated with caregiving have also been reported. Several theoretical models have shown the relevance of psychological variables for understanding variations in the stress process associated with caregiving and how interventions may benefit from psychological techniques and procedures. Since the 1990s it has been witnessed an increment in the number of studies aimed at analyzing caregiver health and developing and testing interventions for decreasing caregiver distress. Several examples of interventions for helping caregivers are considered empirically supported, including interventions for ethnically and culturally diverse caregivers, with psychotherapeutic and psychoeducational interventions showing strong effect sizes. However, efforts are still needed to maintain the results of the interventions in the long term and to make the interventions accessible (e.g., through technological resources) to a large number of caregivers who, because of time-pressure issues associated with caregiving or a lack of support, are not benefiting from them. Making these interventions available in routine healthcare settings would help a large population in need that presents with high levels of psychological suffering.