Imagine your family as a well-oiled machine. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. According to family systems theory, members of a family are not simply individuals linked by biology or living arrangements, but rather interconnected elements that together make a coherent whole—much like a machine.* Each member of a family affects how the other members function, which is why relationship difficulties between one or more members of the family can set off a tsunami of consequences for both individuals and the system as a whole.
Unfortunately, many families tend to see problem behaviors with a parent or adolescents in isolation. Someone in the family, usually the most overtly troubled, tends to become the focus of attention (the “identified patient”), while other relationship issues get neatly swept under the rug. An adolescent, for example, may begin to exhibit warning signals—mood changes, decreased communication, isolating, lower grades, and possibly self-medicating with drugs and alcohol or even cutting—as a way of coping with the pain he or she is experiencing. It is also common in wealthy, performance-oriented communities such as ours for symptoms to be well hidden, and a surprise to family members when they are discovered. While there may indeed be a family predisposition to depression or anxiety that leads to these behaviors, it is also probable that the family as a whole feels “stuck” in the ways they interact with one another.
We all want to feel heard by those we love most. Family therapy can identify stuck patterns of conflict and resentment, clearing the way for a more open dialogue and balanced approach to relationships. Instead of simply focusing on the identified patient, the conversation can be expanded to treat the family system: the crisscrossing fabric of family rules, patterns, and problem solving skills that may be contributing to the current crisis. Improvement comes when the family (with a therapist’s support) tries something new, such as different behavioral patterns or ways of interacting, that leads to more positive results. The goal is to alter the way that family members relate to one another, optimizing the functioning of both the machine and its interconnected parts.
* Thomas R. Chibucos and Randall W. Leite, Readings in Family Theory (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2005), p. 279.