Trees have been used to describe families for as long as there’s been families and trees.  Just last night, someone, after asking how people at a function were related, took a deep breath and said, “Family trees can be so confusing.”  I agreed with him: Families are a system of people working within a specific context.  As with any group, the ways people relate and work together within the respective context can be complicated and confusing.  But, all too often, when there’s substance abuse within a family, the substance abuser is often defined as the problem.   Really, though, the substance abuse could be a symptom of dysfunction within the family unit.  That’s why, to me, a systems approach to family therapy is a critical component of a substance abuser’s recovery.

A systems approach to family therapy creates an objective view of a family and then treats the family rather than its individual members.  A therapist approaching a family from a systems perspective tries to decipher patterns within the family across generations and then present these patterns to a family so that the members can recognize and find differentiation from these patterns within their own context.

According to Becvar and Becvar (2003), “Systems theory directs our attention away from the individual and individual problems viewed in isolation and toward relationships and relationship issues between individuals” (p. 8).  The concepts behind this approach tend to associate context of all interactions, including the interactions of the therapist with family members.

This approach is no different than the actions and goals of a systems analyst who builds a software application.  Any given software application is a collection of objects: Their properties, relationships, and behaviors.  Within the domain of software development, these entities can be any component of the overall system.  The roles that govern the entities determine its behavior and constraints upon those behaviors.  This approach is very similar to a family therapist who works with a family in terms of the collection of its behaviors, relationships, and roles.

To illustrate, “another important concept of Bowenian theory is that of sibling position…the hypothesis  of this concept is that children develop certain fixed personality characteristics on the basis of their sibling position in the family” (Becvar & Becvar, 2003, p. 149).  Mr. Bowen reduced familial elements to objective descriptions so that he could predict behavior based upon their elemental role, “the concept of sibling position enables a therapist to predict the part a child will play in the family emotional process…” (Becvar & Becvar, 2002, p. 149).

This means of object definition and its associated role within a larger structure is the exact goal of a software developer.  The thought is the same: if an analyst can determine an object’s role, based upon its inheritances and defined structures, then the analyst can predict the object’s behavior and determine faults and take corrective measures.   People in a family tend to regress to their role when they are together.  Their behavior is predictable.


The argument, at least from a Bowenian perspective, is that all behavior is contextual and defined by its contextual environment.  A family is a system.  A system is greater than any individual component.  I think it’s imperative that treatment providers understand that family trees can be confusing and that a person’s behavior in isolation of his or her familial development is a lot like looking at a leaf on the ground.  We need to understand that leaf as part of a tree.  That way, we can understand the process it went through to wind up on the floor.  Otherwise, we miss a ton of information.  No one exists on this planet in isolation from their background and family history.



Becvar, Dorothy Stroh & Raphael J. (2003). Family Therapy, A Systemic Integration. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.