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  • 1. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment                                  PSY  410:  Individual  and  Family  Assessment—FALL  2012/2013    Family  Assessment    -­‐Bowen’s  Family  System  Theory-­‐                Prepared  for  Dr.  Man  Chung  Zayed  University,  Abu  Dhabi    Prepared  by  Mira  Jamal  M80000771    January  28,  2013  
  • 2. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment    Murray  Bowen,  M.D.,  developed  the  family  system  theory;  which  views  the  family  as  an  “emotional  unit,”  and  involves  8  different  concepts  that  are  used  to  describe  the  complicated  interactions  and  relationships  within  the  family.  Bowen  believed  that  family  members  are  emotionally  connected  on  a  very  extreme  level,  which  means  they  all  have  an  affect  on  each  other’s  behavior  and  emotions.  Through  this  paper,  I  will  use  Murray  Bowen’s  family  system  theory  to  assess  and  understand  Asma’s  family.  In  addition,  I  will  include  my  own  criticisms  towards  this  theory,  and  later  discuss  the  problems  with  using  this  particular  theory  in  assessing  Asma’s  family.    Asma   was   born   into   a   family   system   that   includes   her   mother,   Fatima,   father,  Ahmad,  2  uncles,  Rashid  and  Hamad,  and  her  grandfather,  Mohammed,  all  under  the  same  roof.   Since   Asma   was   born,   her   mother   was   over-­‐powered   by   Asma’s   uncles   and  grandfather,  which  made  her  mother  anxious  all  the  time,  yet  dependant  on  everyone  else  to  help  raise  her  child.  When  Asma  was  3,  her  father  was  kicked  out  of  the  family  because  he  stole  from  them.  This  meant  that  Asma’s  parents  got  divorced,  and  she  did  not  see  her  father   until   she   was   18.   Asma’s   uncles   took   over   her   father’s   role,   and   became   father  figures.  When  Asma  was  7,  her  uncle  Rashid  and  grandfather  were  in  an  accident,  which  completely  paralyzed  her  grandfather  from  the  neck  down  and  damaged  Rashid’s  spine,  which  meant  he  could  no  longer  walk.  Her  mother  took  responsibility  of  caring  for  both  of  them;  meaning  Asma  was  no  longer  the  centre  of  attention  at  all  times.  Fatima  felt  guilty  about  her  daughter  not  having  a  father,  and  because  of  the  accident,  she  could  not  always  be  there  for  Asma.  She  would  try  to  make  up  for  it  by  always  giving  in  to  her  demands  of  attention  and  whatever  Asma  asked  for,  she  got!  Her  mother  was  scared  that  Asma  would  get  into  trouble  and  feel  neglected,  so  she  would  always  try  and  make  Asma  happy.  Asma  would  throw  tantrums  and  hit  her  mother,  as  she  would  never  get  in  trouble  for  it  and  eventually  got  what  she  was  screaming  about.  Fatima  would  throw  the  biggest  parties  for  Asma,  and  would  always  boast  about  her  daughter  to  other  people,  to  make  her  daughter  feel  special.  Asma  has  been  to  7  different  schools  throughout  her  education  years,  because  she  was  not  happy.  At  the  end  of  every  year,  her  mother  would  ask  Asma  if  she  was  happy  at  that  particular  school,  and  if  her  answer  was  no,  then  Fatima  would  put  her  into  another  one.  When  Asma  was  17,  she  became  depressed  and  started  going  for  therapy.  Her  mother  often  blamed  Asma’s  father  for  the  life  that  she  had,  and  would  cry  on  a  daily  basis.  Today  Asma  is  a  25  year-­‐old  lady,  who  is  financially  dependant  on  her  mother  and  uncles,  and  is  very  spoiled.  She  resents  her  uncles,  expects  to  get  whatever  she  desires,  and  acts  selfishly  with  her  decisions.  She  is  very  attached  to  her  boyfriend  and  expects  a  lot  from  him.  She  is  always  looking  for  wild  things  to  do,  but  has  the  ability  to  make  decisions  without  getting  her  own  emotions  involved.  Although  Asma  graduated  from  university  2  years  ago,  she  refuses  to  get  a  job.  Instead  she  is  traveling  the  world  and  when  she  does  come  home,  she  is  always  out.  Her  mother  is  always  stressed  out  and  worried  about  her  daughter,  and  she  turns  to  religion  to  make  herself  feel  better.    
  • 3. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  Triangles  Looking  at  Bowen’s  concept  of  triangles,  we  can  find  a  lot  of  them  in  Asma’s  family.  However,  since  her  family  involves  more  than  3  members  and  there  is  often  a  lot  of  tension,  we  can  find  an  interlocking  of  triangles.                                                                                                                                                                              With  the  above  diagram,  we  can  find  many  smaller  triangles  that  make  it  all  up.  The  first  triangle  is  Fatima,  Asma,  and  Ahmad.  When  Fatima  and  Ahmad  first  got  married,  they  were  a  tight  couple.  However,  when  Asma  was  added,  creating  a  triangle,  Fatima  would  often   avoid   the   tension   between   her   husband   and   herself   by   focusing   on   Asma.   This  eventually  lead  to  Fatima  and  Asma  having  a  close  relationship,  making  them  the  insiders  of  the  triangle,  and  left  Ahmed  as  the  outsider.  If  Asma  misbehaved,  Fatima  would  ask  the  father   to   interfere,   which   kept   Fatima   on   good   terms   with   her   daughter.   This   proves  Bowen’s   point   where   he   explains   that   people   try   to   maintain   a   close   relationship   while  trying  to  handle  anxiety  by  bringing  in  a  third  person  (Rabstejnek,  n.d.).  In  addition,  Fatima  also  kept  Ahmad  as  the  outsider  by  blaming  him  for  everything  that  would  go  wrong  in  their  lives.  This  made  Asma  view  her  father  as  a  distant  person  who  was  the  “enemy.”                          However,  there  is  also  another  way  at  looking  at  the  triangles.  Looking  at  the  above  diagram,  we  can  see  that  Fatima  and  Asma  have  a  constant  relationship.  However,  when  there  is  tension  between  them,  Fatima  often  brings  in  a  third  or  fourth  party  (person  1,  person  2),  to  help  ease  the  tension.  This  way,  Fatima  did  not  have  to  worry  about  ruining  the  relationship  between  her  daughter  and  herself,  and  instead  would  have  others  do  the  Hamad   Fatima  Ahmad  Asma   Rashid  Grandpa  Person  1  Person  2   Asma  Fatima  
  • 4. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  disciplining.   I   would   say   that   this   triangle   of   relationships   became   more   obvious   after  Asma’s   father   got   kicked   out.   Fatima   often   felt   guilty   about   her   daughter   not   having   a  father,  so  she  found  it  easier  to  show  her  daughter  that  she  was  always  on  her  side.  As  a  result,  we  can  say  that  Asma  was  the  outsider  in  the  family,  but  her  mother,  who  was  an  insider,  would  often  take  her  side.      Although  there  are  many  interlocking  triangles  in  the  family,  through  assessing  her  family,  I  found  that  the  outsider  is  not  always  a  person.  For  example-­‐  When  Fatima  feels  anxiety  or  tension  with  any  of  the  other  family  members,  she  uses  religion  to  help  her  deal  with  it.  This  means  that  there  is  another  triangle,  which  involves  Fatima,  a  family  member,  and   religion.   Another   triangle   we   can   find   that   does   not   involve   a   person   is   with   Asma.  After  she  graduated  from  university,  she  started  dealing  with  the  tension  in  the  family  by  traveling.  Therefore,  this  new  triangle  would  include  Asma,  a  family  member,  and  travel  as  the  outsider.      Differentiation,  Marital  Conflict,  Dysfunction  of  One  Spouse,  &  Family  Projection  Looking  at  Bowen’s  second  concept  of  differentiation,  which  looks  at  the  ability  of  family  members  to  separate  their  “emotional  and  intellectual  spheres,”  I  found  that  Fatima  has  a  poorly  differentiated  self.  Bowen  (1976)  described  a  differentiated  self  as  a  solid  self,  and  an  undifferentiated  self  as  a  pseudo  self.  Basically  meaning  that  a  solid  self  knows  what  they  need  and  they  are  aware  of  the  relationships  around  them,  while  the  pseudo  self  acts  to  please  others  to  gain  their  approval  (Rabstejnek,  n.d.).  Looking  at  this  family,  we  can  see  that   Fatima   would   fall   under   the   pseudo-­‐self   category   because   of   her   need   to   make  everyone  around  her  happy.  She  allowed  her  father  and  brothers  to  over-­‐power  her  when  it  came  to  raising  Asma,  and  she  often  went  along  with  what  they  say.  She  would  never  stand  up  for  herself,  she  took  responsibility  of  taking  care  of  her  father  and  brother  after  the  accident,  she  is  scared  to  discipline  Asma  when  she  misbehaves,  and  she  always  gives  in  to  Asma’s  tantrums.  Fatima  does  not  work,  and  gets  her  satisfaction  by  making  sure  that  everyone   else   is   happy.   She   also   seeks   their   approvals,   which   are   all   signs   of   a   poorly  differentiated  self  (The  Bowen  centre,  n.d.).  In  addition,  she  finds  it  hard  to  deal  with  stress,  which  results  in  her  crying  every  day.  However,  we  may  question  how  did  Fatima  develop  a  low  differentiated  self.  Although  Bowen  mentioned  that  a  poorly  differentiated  self  results  in  the  child  if  the  parents  focus  too  much  on  the  problem  child,  leading  to  child  to  be  poorly  differentiated,  Bowen  did  not  mention  anything  about  differentiation  in  parents.      To  gain  a  deeper  understanding  behind  Fatima’s  low  differentiated  self,  we  would  first   have   to   look   at   the   marital   conflict.   Initially   there   was   no   marital   conflict   between  Fatima  and  Ahmad,  which  if  we  followed  Bowen’s  theory,  he  would  say  that  there  cannot  be  any  dysfunction  in  one  spouse.  Nevertheless,  I  would  have  to  argue  with  Bowen  on  this  
  • 5. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  point.  It  is  quite  obvious  that  Fatima’s  dysfunction  is  not  from  Ahmed  (since  he  is  not  even  in  the  picture),  but  from  her  father  and  brother’s  constant  over  powering  and  pressure  on  Fatima  to  agree  with  them  on  everything.  This  may  be  the  reason  behind  Fatima’s  crying,  feelings  of  anxiety,  and  constant  seeking  for  approval.  One  may  wonder  why  does  Fatima  give   in   to   her   father   and   brother?   To   answer   this,   I   believe   that   it   goes   back   to   her   ex-­‐husband  Ahmad.  Before  Fatima  and  Ahmad  got  married,  Fatima’s  family  did  not  approve  of  their  relationship.  However,  Fatima  convinced  the  family  that  Ahmad  was  a  “good”  man.  However,  since  Ahmed  stole  from  the  family,  which  disappointed  Fatima  and  proved  her  family  right,  I  believe  that  her  feelings  of  guilt  arose  from  this.  She  believed  that  she  is  to  blame  for  what  Ahmad  had  done,  and  therefore,  is  seeking  forgiveness  from  her  father  and  brothers  by  always  trying  to  please  them.  In  conclusion,  we  may  speculate  that  her  poorly  differentiated  self  is  a  result  of  her  dysfunction,  which  is  not  from  her  relationship  with  Ahmad,  but  from  her  father  and  brothers.          Although  there  was  no  initial  marital  conflict  when  Ahmad  was  present,  we  can  see  a  rise  of  marital  conflict  at  a  later  time,  when  Asma  was  all  grown  up.  We  can  find  that  although  Fatima  wanted  approval  from  everyone  in  the  family,  she  used  her  husband  as  a  person   that   she   would   externalise   her   anxiety   on   by   blaming   him   for   everything.   For  example,   whenever   Asma   would   rebel   or   act   inappropriately,   Fatima   would   blame   the  father,  by  saying  that  if  he  never  did  what  he  did,  Asma  would  never  have  acted  out.  This  not  only  gave  rise  to  marital  conflict,  but  the  increased  tensions  also  lead  to  an  impairment  of  their  child,  which  is  linked  to  Bowen’s  concept  of  Family  Projection.  Looking  at  all  the  problems  in  the  family,  including  the  divorce,  the  accident,  and  the  high  levels  of  anxiety,  Asma  eventually  got  depression.  Fatima  was  so  focused  on  her  child,  where  she  would  give  in  to  Asma’s  demands  because  of  her  guilt  for  all  the  problems,  Asma  only  became  worse  by  internalizing   all   the   family   tensions   which   affected   her   well-­‐being   and   academic  performance.      Looking  back  at  differentiation,  unlike  Fatima,  Asma  shows  signs  of  a  solid  self.  She  is  able  to  not  get  her  emotions  tangled  up  with  her  decisions,  and  knows  what  she  wants  to  do  and  does  it.  Although  she  can  be  very  selfish,  and  makes  decisions  that  make  her  happy,  she  does  not  seek  approval  of  others  and  does  not  care  about  what  others  think  of  her.  However,  although  Asma  does  show  signs  of  a  solid  self,  we  can  also  find  signs  of  a  poorly  differentiated,  or  pseudo  self.  Throughout  her  childhood  she  would  look  for  ways  to  rebel  against   the   family,   and   she   often   did   this   by   smoking   or   sneaking   out   of   the   house.   In  addition,  although  she  is  confident  in  her  decisions  and  thoughts,  she  does  not  act  selflessly  for  the  benefit  of  the  group,  and  only  does  what  she  wants.  As  a  result  of  finding  a  solid  and  pseudo  self  in  Asma,  I  would  have  to  criticize  Bowen’s  theory  of  differentiation  on  this  as  well.  Bowen  explained  differentiation  as  two  separate  categories,  and  not  that  a  person  can  be  in  between  the  solid  and  pseudo  self.   Due  to  the  marital  conflict,  missing  father,  and  
  • 6. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  dysfunction  in  her  mother,  I  would  say  that  Asma  is  psychologically  confused.  She  also  is  well  aware  that  her  mother  will  always  be  on  her  side,  because  of  the  guilt  that  she  feels.  This  has  led  Asma  to  not  only  be  confused,  but  to  be  a  very  manipulative  person;  by  taking  advantage  of  her  mother’s  guilt  to  get  what  she  wants.  As  a  result,  I  would  say  that  due  to  everything  that  Asma  has  been  through,  she  has  learned  to  put  off  a  persona  of  a  highly  differentiated  self  as  a  defence  mechanism,  which  does  not  allow  her  symptoms  of  a  poorly  differentiated  self  to  show  clearly.      We   can   also   link   Asma’s   need   to   rebel   to   Bowen’s   concept   of   Family   projection.  Bowen  mentioned  that  when  children  inherit  the  emotional  problems  of  the  parents,  they  might  act  “impulsively  to  relieve  the  tension  or  anxiety  rather  than  tolerate  it,”  (Martin,  n.d.).  We  can  see  that  Asma  may  have  absorbed  the  tension  from  the  parents,  as  well  as  the  emotional   instability,   and   as   a   result   she   feels   the   need   to   act   wild.   Under   the   family  projection  concept,  we  can  also  find  a  link  between  Fatima  being  worried  that  Asma  will  feel  neglected,  hence  giving  her  everything  she  demands,  and  this  resulting  in  Asma  being  dependant   on   her   mother   to   satisfy   her   need,   instead   of   growing   independently   and  maturely.      Emotional  Distance,  Emotional  Cut-­‐off,  and  Marital  Conflict    Bowen   also   mentioned   emotional   distance,   where   people   “may   move   away   from  their  families,  rarely  go  home,  or  avoid  sensitive  issues”  (The  Bowen  Centre,  n.d.).  We  can  see  this  trait  in  Asma  as  she  grew  older.  She  would  always  want  to  go  out  and  hated  staying  at  home.  In  addition  to  this,  Asma’s  relationship  with  her  father  shows  that  she  has  turned  to  Emotional  Cut-­‐off.  She  met  her  father  when  she  was  18  and  they  got  along  quite  well  for  a  year,  but  she  suddenly  stopped  answering  his  calls  and  now  refuses  to  speak  to  him.  I  believe  that  she  has  never  forgiven  him  for  what  he  did,  and  instead  of  dealing  with  the  problem,  she  found  it  easier  to  completely  cut  off  any  emotional  connections  with  him.  In  addition,  I  believe  that  Asma’s  emotional  cut-­‐off  has  to  do  with  the  marital  tension  between  her  parents  as  well.  After  Asma  reconnected  with  her  father,  to  fill  that  hole  of  a  missing  father,   I   believe   that   she   became   even   more   confused   because   of   her   mother’s   mixed  signals.  Although  her  mother  never  argued  with  Asma  directly  for  contacting  her  father,  she  would  constantly  say  how  her  father  was  a  bad  man  for  doing  what  he  did,  and  blamed  him  for  all  the  bad  things  that  happened  in  their  life.  Bowen’s  concept  of  Emotional  Cut-­‐off  involves  completely  cutting  any  emotional  ties  to  avoid  dealing  with  the  tension.  I  believe  Asma  has  done  this  with  her  father,  to  avoid  dealing  with  the  increased  tension  between  her  parents  and  herself,  after  the  reconnection.  Bowen  also  mentioned  “people  reduce  the  tensions  of  family  interactions  by  cutting  off,  but  risk  making  their  new  relationships  too  important.”   I   think   that   this   makes   sense,   as   I   noticed   that   Asma   expects   a   lot   from   her  
  • 7. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  boyfriend,  and  pushes  him  to  be  what  she  wants  him  to  be,  just  like  Bowen  predicted  (The  Bowen  Centre,  n.d.).      Multi  Generational  Transmission  process  The  final  concept  is  Bowen’s  idea  of  Multi  Generational  Transmission  Process,  which  states  “children  are  affected  by  the  emotional  demands  of  the  triangle,  and  not  genetically  predispositioned  to  malfunction”  (Rabstejnek,  n.d.).  Although  I  believe  that  Bowen  has  a  point   in   this,   explaining   that   children   grow   up   to   be   the   way   they   are   because   of   the  triangles   of   relationships   which   have   an   effect   on   them,   as   well   as   their   parents’  differentiation  levels  (Martin,  n.d.),  I  do  not  think  that  the  way  a  person  is,  can  be  entirely  blamed  on  that;  their  personality  and  experiences  have  a  major  influence  as  well.  This  may  help  in  explaining  Fatima’s  poorly  differentiated  self,  as  it  may  be  due  to  the  relationship  between  her  own  parents  when  she  was  little.  However,  since  her  mother  is  dead,  there  is  no  way  in  really  knowing  without  investigating  Fatima’s  own  childhood.    The  biggest  problems  I  faced  while  applying  Bowen’s  theory  to  this  family  is  that  his  theory   tends   to   discount   the   fact   that   not   all   families   are   as   simple   as   a   three-­‐person  triangle.   As   you   can   see,   Asma’s   family   is   extremely   complicated,   as   she   lives   with   her  extended  family,  and  does  not  have  any  siblings.  In  addition,  although  Bowen  stated  that  the  family  unit  is  like  they  are  living  under  the  same  “emotional  skin,”  I  found  that  not  all  members  would  necessarily  be  affected.  For  example,  there  are  certain  families  where  one  particular   member   is   so   distant   that   no   matter   what   he/she   does,   there   is   no   affect   on  others.  For  example,  in  Asma’s  family,  although  her  uncle  Hamad  lives  with  them,  he  tends  to  live  in  his  own  world  where  he  goes  to  work  and  comes  back,  having  no  influence  on  others  around  him.  Another  problem  I  found  was  that  Bowen  tended  to  label  people  as  “the  problem  child,”  “the  insider”,  and  “the  outsider,”  but  doesn’t  emphasize  that  it  is  not  always  the  same  person.  In  Asma’s  case,  I  found  that  the  outsider  and  insider  changed  all  the  time,  which  made  it  hard  to  keep  track  of  who  was  the  tension  reliever,  and  who  wasn’t.  The  final  problem  I  had  with  this  theory  is  that  a  lot  of  his  concepts  seem  to  be  black  and  white.  When   in   actual   fact,   families   are   very   complicated   and   usually   fall   into   the   grey   area   of  Bowen’s  concepts.  For  example,  when  I  wanted  to  describe  the  differentiation  concept,  I  realised  that  people  can  have  characteristics  of  both  a  solid  self  as  well  as  a  pseudo  self.  For  this  reason,  I  had  a  few  problems  with  fitting  Bowen’s  cookie  cutter  concepts  with  Asma’s  family.    In  conclusion,  I  would  say  that  Bowen’s  family  system  theory  has  some  interesting  concepts  that  can  be  applied  to  help  in  understanding  a  family’s  structure  and  influence  on  each   other.   However,   I   think   that   his   theory   needs   to   be   revised   to   allow   the   complex  
  • 8. Mira  Jamal    M80000771  PSY410-­‐  Individual  and  family  assessment  families   of   today   to   be   able   to   apply   his   theory   to   their   own   family   dynamic.   It   is   a  complicated  system,  but  if  revised,  can  be  useful  and  interesting.      References  Bowen  Theory.  (n.d.).  Retrieved  from  The  Bowen  Center:  http://www.thebowencenter.org/pages/conceptec.html  Martin,  L.  (n.d.).  Murray  Bowen,  M.D.  and  The  Nine  Concepts  in  Family  Systems  Theory.  Retrieved  from  Ideas  to  Action:  http://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/dr-­‐bowen/  Rabstejnek,  C.  (n.d.).  Family  Systems  and  Murray  Bowen  Theory.  Houd.info.  Retrieved  on  19  January  2013