Basic Family Systems Theory and Microskills Used by the Helper

In terms of a system, the meaning is a consistent arrangement of things connected to form unity or to operate as a whole. These systems are dated back in origins to the 1950’s and 1960’s. In this theory we must understand an individual’s family and how it works for that family daily in the community, neighborhood, social aspect, and etcetera. When one part of the system changes, the whole system changes.

When everything is balanced it is said to be in equilibrium or homeostasis which seemingly is a good thing (Poorman, 2003). There are many skills involved in working in the family system. I will address the three main microskills that I would use in my own setting as a helper toward this theory. There are a few basic things that need to be addressed first to begin to understand the concept of working in family systems. Within the family system as a whole there are similar smaller systems knows as subsystems. Generally, there has been focus on three primary subsystems: marital (or couple), parental, and sibling.

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These can also branch off into other systems. This is where the saying, “A family is greater than the sum of its parts” comes into context (http://web. pdx. edu, 2009). The subsystems are defined by who makes up each and what their purpose or goal is in the family as a whole. Related to this concept are boundaries. Boundaries occur at every level of the system and subsystems (http://family. jrank. org, 2009). Depending on the family and how they work, some have very open boundaries and other may have tight restrictions. These boundaries affect who and what is let in or out of the family as a whole and among the subsystems.

There have been many developments in approaches to family systems theories. There are a number of professionals in this field, I will try to discuss a few here in some detail and how they may be used in a helper setting. Salvador Minuchin focused primarily on structure of the relationships within the system and subsystems. I would tend to agree that you have to first identify the makeup of the whole family system and then also each individual subsystem to understand its organization. This is when you can address and understand the problems that shape not only the family problems and issues, but the individual problems and issues also.

Minuchin believes there are two types of family structure; disengaged family and the enmeshed family. I believe you have to identify which family type you are working with so you can focus on how to handle and help deal with the issues at hand. The boundaries and manner in which the system and subsystems approach each other directly affects how you as the helper should and would tackle your job. Disengaged families have rigid boundaries and share little or no contact with family members. They operate in a very neglectful and isolated manner. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the enmeshed families.

In this situation the boundaries seem to overlap and become over involved in each other’s subsystems (Poorman, 2003). This being said, it is my belief that when these are present they have to be addressed to get to the root of the problems or issues among the family and its subsystems. Even if you need to address one individual’s behavior above all others, it is still vital to understand the context of the family and how such problems develop. It is very crucial not to ignore or deny the importance of each individual that makes up the family system.

Murray Bowen, in a sense, built on Minuchin’s beliefs and thoughts about structure. Bowen believed that triangulation would improve issues- with a third parties involvement. Bowen believed that a triangle made a strong family structure (Poorman, 2003). With this, as a helper I would see it fit to use the Family Systems Theory because using the whole family would seem to be a sure way to bring about changes. If one person can change, but nothing else can, like the environment in which the problems are occurring, then what is really going to be achieved?

It is my job as the helper to facilitate the whole process. I would join the family in the discovery process, then help them understand and use their interacting with one another, then challenge them to change their interpretation of the problems and try to think of alternative ways to make things happen. It is not my job to be above them or against them but to join them and help the process. I am not there to preach or sit back and try to let them blindly discover something on their own. Communication is a very important skill for everyone to have.

An equally important skill that I think gets overlooked a lot of the time is the non-verbal communication. As a helper who is focusing on the family as a whole, you will need to be able to read and understand non-verbal quos and positioning, but you will need to be able to use them well. To be affective, you need to try to help the family as a whole understand non-verbal communication. Be aware of the setting, your position in consideration to the client(s), physical distance, posture, gestures, eye contact, facial expression, and other things that your client could take one way or the other.

Be aware also that silence is a non-verbal skill and use it as a listening skill. Non-verbal communication may sprout some other forms of communication that can get things that may not have been relayed out into the open. There are many ways of being a sort of intervention with a family in this type of situation. First you are going to want to use another of your micro skills and being asking questions. When your client(s) are there a lot of the time they are going to be in shut down mode. So, asking questions is a way to dig down into what is really going on and start from there.

Asking questions is a skill that you want to use when a client(s) experience, thoughts and/or feelings become unclear. Sometimes probing and exploring more into the experience, thought or feeling can be useful. It may also be beneficial to help your client(s) hear what they are saying so they can begin to understand more or start a different direction so that something can be more easily understood.

You want to be sure that when you are working with your client or in this situation your family that you be careful not to use poor judgment on the type of questions that you ask, or ow you ask them; it is important not to be accusatory or ask double-barreled questions, as this could lead to anger, frustration, misunderstanding and confusion. You want to be careful not to use questions that only require a yes or no answer also. Using questioning the whole time as your only approach will not get you very far, you do not want to seem controlling and uninterested in the issues (Poorman, 2003). When beginning with your family, you are going to want to know what their definition of family is.

You also will want to identify certain other characteristics in the family concept; boundaries, power and intimacy, freedom of expression, organization and value systems (Stratman, 2009). Then you are going to want to work on addressing what the factors are that are causing the problems. Lastly, you are going to want to use Preparing for Action! In preparing for action there are many requirements that you are going to want to meet with your client(s), but the main focus of this skill is to set goals. Make the goals realistic and obtainable.

You want to write them all down and then make a plan of action of how to make the goals happen. You have to operationalize the goals also. Set up a schedule with the client(s). Make time for brainstorming, a timeline and a written plan! In working with families it is definitely different from working with the individual. Working with the individual you focus on just that- the individual. Working with family in the theory is everyone combined into the system called family and finding out how it works and what makes up everything about them. Even when you are working with an individual I think the Family Systems Theory is a good one to use, to find out the root of the problems and get things on course.


  1. Poorman, P. B. (2003). Microskills and Theoretical Foundations for Professional Helpers. Pearson Education Inc. Family Systems Theory-Basic Concepts, “Family Systems Theory. ” http://www. family. jrank. org (Accessed 9. 29. 09)
  2. Using Family Therapy, “Family Systems Theory. ” http://web. pdx. edu (Accessed 9. 28. 09) Stratman, T. (2009) Power Point, “Family Systems Theory. ” (Accessed 10. 1. 09)

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