Your role when working with families will
invariably require that you use power
in different capacities in order to get
families to ‘change’.
Families may be
you and change for the following
(and) So What?!?!
You can (a)
the following knowledge
to families in order to help them understand themselves
(b) Use these frameworks to systematically assess
and analyse families and make appropriate plans
and (c), [for a bonus!], appreciate that when families do not
want to work with you, it is likely for these
What is a ‘system’?
According to systems theory
the difference between a
‘collection’ and a ‘system’ is
that in a collection, the parts
Before ‘Systems Theory’
Historically, theories of the world
were “fundamentally mechanistic
and reductionist. Complex
phenomena were explained by
breaking down and analysing the
separate, simpler parts”.
What are Family Systems?
Families are SYSTEMS of interconnected and
To understand the individual, we must
understand the family system of that individual.
People cannot be understood in isolation from
Some key features of the theory
• Family Roles
• Family Rules
(Andreae, 2011: 249 in Turner)
Family Roles--what is expected of each
• The most basic types of roles are “father,”
“mother,” “aunt,” “daughter,” “son,”
“grandmother,” etc. What is expected from
people in each of these roles?
• But there are also roles beyond this most basic
level: one person may be the “clown” of the
family. Another person may be the “responsible
one.” There are a lot of different roles in families.
(Goldenberg, 1994 in Andreae, 2011:249)
1. Role contiguity: (A view of A = B
view of A)
2. Role competency: (A has a skill that
meets B’s expectations?)
3. Role ambiguity: (Are roles explicit
4. Role conflict: (A1 v A2)
Family Rules are rules about how the
family operates; these rules are often
• When people are angry at each other, do they express this
or keep it to themselves?
• How do decisions get made in the family? Who has input
and who is expected to “just go along”? How is the final
• Are there limits on “how much” or in what ways kids can
argue with their parents?
• How much are family members “allowed” to talk to people
outside the family about family problems?
• Families tend to develop patterns about these sorts of
things; these patterns become “unspoken rules.”
• Systems develop typical ways of being which are
reliable and predictable. Family roles & family rules
are examples of what is meant by “typical ways of
• Whether these roles & rules are adaptive or not, there
is a pull from the system NOT to CHANGE—but to
continue functioning as things have always been.
• This tendency of systems to keep doing things as
they’ve already been done is known as
homeostasis or the system’s
The following assumptions may be
1. The whole is greater than the sum of parts.
2. Changing one part of the system leads to
changes in the other parts.
3. Families become organised and developed over
4. Families are to different degrees ‘open systems’
5. Individual dysfunction is emotional in origin
manifested in relationship problem.
Open & Closed Systems
• In terms of families, truly ‘closed’
systems do not exist.
• Negotiation, communication,
flexibility in shifting roles,
interdependence and authenticity
are hallmarks of open systems
• Boundaries are necessary for
differentiation of function between
elements of the system
• However, as well as being defined, they must
also be sufficiently ‘open’ to allow flexibility:
• Too open = Enmeshment
• Too differentiated/closed = Disengagement
Enmeshment versus Disengagement
• Boundary is too
• Family members are too
involved with each
• Autonomous acts =
• Anxious attachments?
• Overly rigid boundaries.
• Members share a
‘space’ but operate as
• No sense of
• Avoidant attachments?
Families may be both enmeshed and
disengaged at the same time… A
parent may be overly-controlling of
the child ‘for their own good’, but
rejecting or oblivious to the child’s
(Phillip cited in Andreae, 2011:252)
The systems approach and [working with families]
Family problems that result from:
1. Lack of resources
2. Lack of links between people and resource
systems, or links between resource systems
3. Interaction problems between people in the
same resource system
4. Interaction problems between resource
[Devore & Schlesinger in Andreae, 2011: 246]
• Families must cope with managing dynamic forces.
• These forces are often conceptualised in binary or
• However, these oppositional forces may exist
concurrently to greater/lesser extents at any one time.
• Continuity versus change is one such example.
• For a family to ‘continue’; it must develop mechanisms that
promote it’s sense of identity (continuity) whilst also
adapting (changing) within and ever-changing societal
[Source: Andreae, 2011, in Turner, Social Work Treatment]
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