Family Systems Theory-A Holistic Approach

HOLISTIC; adjective /hōˈlistik/

  1. Characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole
  2. Characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease

In the past, a school teacher may have said that a child who misbehaved in the classroom was a “bad seed” or a “rotten apple”.  Now there is broad understanding that when kids act out in school, the behavior is probably indicative of something going on in the home.  Additionally, the teacher knows that it’s much more difficult to help the child if the family won’t participate.  Teachers know that children are members of holistic systems, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.
It is harder to acknowledge that as adults we are just as caught by the holistic natural forces of the family as we were as children.  We like to think that we are independent, free thinkers, and autonomous.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  In reality, we are social animals, just like monkeys, elephants, wolves, and all the others.  Sure, we have intellectual abilities far beyond the members of the “animal kingdom” (we tend to kid ourselves that we are separate from that realm), but the human species has climbed the same evolutionary ladder as every other living being, and we have the history of each creature inside us.

According to Dr. Michael Kerr:

The concept of a natural system, in other words, assumes that systems exist in nature independently of man’s creating them.  The existence of natural systems does not even depend on the human’s being aware of them. The principles that govern a natural system are written in nature and not created by the human brain.  The solar system, the ant colony, the tides, the cell, the family of homo erectus, are all natural systems.  The human family system sprung from the evolutionary process and not the human brain.  We did not create it.  We did not design human relationships anymore than the elephant or gibbon designed their family relationships. (Family Evaluation, p.24, 1988)

There are innumerable implications to shifting to a natural systems perspective.  At least one leads us in a different direction for the treatment of mental health issues:

A holistic, natural systems perspective enables us to see human behavior, both adaptive and maladaptive, in a different light.  When someone comes in for therapy, instead of thinking; “What’s wrong with this person? What’s the diagnosis? How can I treat these symptoms? We think; “What forces are occurring in this person’s important family or relationship systems that are manifesting in his/her symptoms? What can this person do to influence these forces for the better and thereby give relief to his/her symptoms?”

Because maybe that’s the one thing we can do that other animals can’t; we can think about what we are doing and what others are doing, and we have some degree of conscious control about what we want to do differently to create better outcomes.

Over the course of the next several months I will describe, to the best of my ability, the main concepts of the Bowen Family Systems Theory, all of which stem from a holistic, natural systems perspective. 

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