This material enables you to

  • refresh your memory on systems theory,
  • learn a bit more about systems theory, although it is presumed that you are already familiar with this theory,
  • reflect on the principles of system theory when working with families.

Systemic thinking is one of the major theoretical approaches affecting work with families. It can be seen already in the thinking of some sociologists and among early family therapists. Some examples are below:

  • Bowen (multigenerational transmission of pathology)
  • Bateson (communication patterns in family)
  • Haley and Palo Alto group (strategic family therapy)
  • Milan group (systemic family therapy)
  • Minuchin (structural approach)

It is often said that family is more than the sum of its parts; it is also about seeing the individual and families as being part of the larger networks of social systems.

This approach could be seen in

Also general systems theory should be considered, for example:

As Cox and Paley (1997) pointed out:

"Each individual within the system is a system of its own as well as the subsystem within the hierarchy of systems; carries forward its own organisation; and like any system, is dynamic, open to constant revision, and constantly influenced by and influencing the other systems in which it is embedded"*

But it is not only about the system, it is also about the relationships and interaction within and between the systems -also within the wider contexts like the community or society in general.

If we simplify these ideas and think of the family as a system, change in some part of the system affects other systems. For example, if someone in the family has a mental health problem, it not only affects other individuals in the family but also the family as a system. This forms a basis for the participation of the family in care.

If you are more interested in family functioning, models like Beaver's or Olson's might attract your attention. You can find references and hints for further reading below. Current Nursing website also provides more information on systems theory as well as other theories.

In this Youtube -video you can watch a presentation by Dr Weathers about Family Systems of Addiction. In this video, Dr Martinez interviews Dr Papero about Chronic Mental Illness in Family Systems.

Beavers, R. & Hampson, RB. 2000. The Beaver Systems Model of Family Functioning. Journal of Family Therapy 22, 128-143.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1986. Ecology of the family as a context for human development: Research perspectives. Developmental Psychology 22(6), 723-742.

Bronfenbrenner, U. & Evans, GW. 2000. Developmental Science in the 21st Century: Emerging Questions, Theoretical Models, Research Design and Empirical Findings. Social Development 9, 115-125.

Cox, MJ and Paley, B. 1997. Families as systems. Annual Review of Psychology 48, 243-267.

Drack, M. 2009. Ludwig von Bertalanffy's early system approach. Special Issue: ISSS Yearbook. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 26, 5, 563–572.

Forchuck, C. & Dorsay, JP.1995. Hildegard Peplau meets family systems nursing: innovation in theory-based practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing 21 (1), 110–115.

Hoffman, L. 1981. Foundations of family therapy: A conceptual framework for systems change. Basic Books.

Logsdon, MC & Gennaro, S. 2005. Bioecological model for guiding social support research and interventions with pregnant adolescents. Issues in Mental Health Nursing 26, 327-339.

Olson, DH. 2000. Circumplex Model of Marital and Family Systems. Journal of Family Therapy 22, 144-167.

Tudge, JRH, Mokrova, I, Hatfield, BE and Karnik, RB. 2009. Use and Misuses of Bronfenbenner's Bioecological Theory of Human Development Journal fo Family Theory and Review 1(4), 198-210.

Wrigth, LM & Leahey, M. 1990. Trends in nursing of families. Journal of Advanced Nursing 15, 148-154.

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.