One Way of Consulting to Families: A Possible Model for Training Families to See and Think Systems

buddha at pond

When the observing lens is opened to include the entire family field, there is increasing evidence that man is not as separate from his family, from those about him, and from his multigenerational past as he has fancied himself to be. This in no way changes what man is or has always been. He is as autonomous as he has always been, and he is as “locked in” to those about him as he has always been. The family focus merely points to ways that his life is governed by those about him. 

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 289). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


After writing several blogs about families with very serious problems, (such as the families involved in the Sandy Hook killings and the Boston bombing incident) I was challenged by readers to discuss how families, in the middle of serious problems, can be educated about family systems theory. After all many people do not want to go the normal mental health route or do not find useful treatment models focused on the individual.

Is there a different model we can consider?

Would it be possible to provide a learning experience, a way to enable motivated family members to understand the development of symptoms and to learn to alter his or her part in the increasing intensity around serious symptoms?

One possibility is to bring the important family members into a relaxed environment, far away from a medical/treatment atmosphere. Here people might be more relaxed and be encouraged to think about the issues as they have developed over generations.

By having a more objective and historical viewpoint people can become less reactive and are better able to take responsibility for their actions and reactions. Of course it is important to have someone trained in family systems theory to guide discussion and to enable people to keep from getting too emotional with one another. In addition, if the relationship system itself can be observed and discussed, far greater possibilities exist for people to resolve tensions and learn new ways to relate to one another. The overall effort is to become more self-defined or more of a differentiated individual.

Following are a few ways to track one’s effort to become of a self in a system.

 Becoming a better observer of relationships,

Understanding your impact on others and others impact on you,

Managing stress in relationships,

Noting times of increasing stress and the system responses,

Considering who am “I” and who are “you,” and whose responsibility is what?

Attending family functions.

Developing a 50/50 balance in relationships.

Focus on changing self rather than trying to make others change.

How am I using the words “I” and “you.”

Becoming more neutral as to content that leads to side taking and blaming.

Holding other people responsible when they bring you their problem.

Learning about your family history.

Being in contact with others in your three generational families.

Understand the family as a unit and how behavior is influenced by past habit. Developing more mature cooperative and well- defined relationships. 

Work on being more independent of the system and one’s own needs. 

Noting how the system changes as you change.

 A number of facets of the human phenomenon come into view in observing family members together that are obscured with any composite of individual interviews. Any person who exposes himself to daily observations of families as they “relate to” and “interact with” each other is confronted with a whole new world of clinical data that do not fit individual conceptual models. I use the terms “relate to” and “interact with” because these are a few of the inadequate terms that have been used to describe the family phenomenon. Actually, family members are being, and doing, and acting, and interacting, and transacting, and communicating, and pretending, and posturing in such a variety of ways that structure and order are hard to see.   

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pp. 152-154). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.

“What am I doing now?”

This is a challenging question as it is hard for us to perceive our own reactions and actions adequately. The possibility exists that in the future there will be greater use of a community model to “train” family members to become observers and reporters.

Mindfulness of one’s actions is a difficult task.

We are tasked with the job of observing interactions and becoming a self-observing researcher. This alters the focus from an effort to manage one’s behavior in interactions with a symptomatic individual, rather than today’s “treatment” mode, designed only for “fixing” the symptomatic person.

Currently, the mental health delivery system is built on “fixing” the symptomatic person while other family members are left in the dark. This is understandable but regrettable.

The consumer has become part of what I would call the “therapeutic industrial complex.” The growth of mental health since WW II has lead to a focus on pathology in the individual, backed by the “pharmaceutical industrial complex” focus on a quick fix.

The belief is that we must “fix” the symptomatic person. And what has been neglected is a thoughtful understanding of how the family relationship system participates in and deals with symptoms in individuals.

Mental disorders were one of the five most costly conditions in the United States in 2006, with expenditures at $57.5 billion. (AHRQ) (PDF, 615KB) Among the 8.9 million adults with any mental illness and a substance use disorder, 44 percent received substance use treatment or mental health treatment in the past year, 13.5 percent received both mental health treatment and substance use treatment and 37.6 percent did not receive any treatment. [1]

Family system training involves one or more family members learning how the emotional system functions, enabling people to see interactions between people more objectively and neutrally. Such training helps individuals learn to recognize the ancient mechanisms that distribute anxiety automatically and often unfairly.

A systems understanding of families allows individuals to take more neutral and different positions in relationships to others. This can tone down reactivity and lead people to better see how they get reactive and how they can control their own reactivity.

Individuals learn to be more for self, while still maintaining an active interest in and relationship with members of the larger system.

Becoming a more responsible self and learning to function from an “I” position is the crux of this effort.

The families that seem to do the best are those in which the individuals realize that they have been sucked into some kind of intense and automatic reactivity with their son or daughter or other close family member, and are willing and able to be disciplined and work on their part of the problem.

These families have often gone through all kinds of individual-oriented mental health treatment and have become aware that focusing on what is wrong with people is not helping them make progress in the relationship with the person.

In general I believe that intense fear is alive in the relationship system. People react to one another. Often they cannot thoughtfully talk or discuss hot topics. Instead they are afraid or quick-tempered, blow up and refuse to listen to the other without feeling some kind of a threat.

Often there are reality issues that seem like it’s the other’s fault/problem, e.g. drinking, acting out, refusal to go to school, etc. The challenge is how to see one’s fear and “focus on the other” is a big part of the problem. One parent will say it’s the other’s fault (the symptomatic one’s) and the symptomatic one needs to change. With this view, the “other focus” is fixed. “They” are the ones with the bad behavior or bad biochemistry and their symptoms/behaviors have nothing to do with me

How do people become more objective and neutral in these highly charged situations?

It almost seems counter intuitive to go from an “other focus” on the symptomatic person to look at one’s part in the symptoms that are showing up in another person. It is terribly hard, when feeling panicked or threatened, to take the time to look at the big picture.

The challenge is for people to think about how long it has taken for the identified symptomatic one/s to get where they are, and what each individual can do to unwind their part in the relationship quagmire.

Through an experience in my own family I have found a model that has been useful to other people.

See -(

My cousin Liz Eitt and I developed the Zen Farm as a model for others to use in their communities. As noted in the article, we were trying to allow family members to come into better contact with one another in a relaxed atmosphere where everyone can be learning. Partially because the Zen farm is a very peaceful environment, people feel at ease and far away from the treatment-orientation of hospitals and clinics or the stressed out energy in the home.

The process of learning usually goes like this. People arrive around 9 o’clock in the morning have some coffee, tea and pastries, and then each person talks to the coach about their view of the problem. The others listen in on the conversation and are eventually asked for their feedback. Of course there’s no cross talk or interruptions.

The coach has a researcher’s orientation: try to understand what people are up against and give them family systems theory based-thoughts about what has been said. People get a wide variety of ideas and feelings from listening to the conversation.

Although the main people are the three most involved (mother, father, child), we also have had sessions in which the grandparents, aunts and uncles or other important people, come to the talking part of the day.

Often other folks who have relationships with the family but are not part of the nuclear family, are confused as to what is going on and how they can be of use. This is why larger network type meetings are useful

Larger networks broaden the resource base for the family and decrease the intensity and dependency in relationships over time.

After the initial talking we break for neurofeedback ( and polarity therapy. This is training and relaxation for those who are the most involved in the day-to-day challenges. If there are more than two people doing neurofeedback or polarity therapy, then the others go for a walk or sit in on the sessions, depending on what seems most useful. This usually takes two or three hours depending again on how many people are being trained. These are nine-hour days where the expectation is that there will be an hour each of neurofeedback and polarity therapy with each person. We break for lunch at 1 PM and do some more talking about what people got out of the morning sessions and/or the neurofeedback and polarity therapy. This can go for another two hours until 3:00 PM and again we break up and do neurofeedback and polarity therapy again. We come back for a final session and some snacks before people head out at about 6 PM.

Often people will stay at a bed-and-breakfast in Fredericksburg and sometimes they stay another half day to do some more work with us before they leave.
People are encouraged to stay in contact with me each week for the first few months and may meet again either in three months depending on how well they are managing the situation. Often the phone consults are enough to tide people over until the next session. By talking to someone about a broader view they can put things into perspective and settle down. In addition people can work on reactivity in self by renting the neurofeedback equipment and continuing neurofeedback training two times weekly.

This is a very broad and general overview of one approach and of course each family presents different issues. The main point is that if people can look at taking a weekend out of their busy lives as a way to learn about managing self and learn how to think systems, a lot of amazing changes often occur.

In general I work with families in three different ways:

1) I consult with them at The Learning Space, or in my CT office. This is the least expensive at $200 an hour.

2) I go to people’s office or homes, bring my equipment and often spend the day with them at $3,000 a day plus travel.
3) The Zen Farm
I see a very few families who are motivated and can afford to take the time out to understand how their family is functioning as a system. They see Liz Eitt and myself for a day, during which we have meals, talk over the issues and then do neurofeedback training and polarity therapy. The cost is $4,000 a day. If it were possible to scale up a model like this, the cost would come down, and many more families could be seen. But the principle of a “training to understand the family as a system” not “a treatment for one” would be central.

Families are multigenerational and complex emotional units. However, individuals are capable of understanding the situation they are in and are able to alter their automatic participation in the system

People seem to do far better with a broad overview of just how systems function automatically to bind anxiety. This knowledge can enable people to alter the way they function and this changes the system and the situation. Often people get the idea of defining and managing self, grounded by a few guiding principles and very quickly can alter how they have been communicating with others.


Family Systems Theory is a completely different way of seeing one’s part in the family unit and therefore has very different implications for learning to manage self. The assumption is that without the effort to become aware of our part in the system, we are unable to see the influence of the family unit on our thinking and feeling systems. The family unit governs the behavior of individuals, despite our feeling that we are independent; we remain vulnerable to being a part of emotional problems and benefiting from our blindness.


Almost any natural or man-made “system” can be used to illustrate systems concepts, but I have chosen a biological system, the human body, to illustrate the ideas. The total organism is made up of numerous different organ systems. An intricate set of automatic mechanisms controls the smooth reciprocal operation of vital functions such as heart rate, temperature, respiration, digestion, reflexes, and locomotion.
Systems function at all levels of efficiency, from robust health to total failure. There are healthy compensated functioning states in which an organ can increase its functioning to handle an increased work load.
There are decompensated states in which the organ loses the capacity to increase functioning. These are situations in which one organ increases its function to compensate for the poor functioning of another organ. There are states of dysfunction that range from the short-term dysfunctions of acute illness, through the long-term dysfunctions of chronic illness, to permanent dysfunction in an organ system. An organ that functions for another for long periods of time does not return to normal so easily.

Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 260). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
In our experience, each family member functions in a variety of ways, determined quite as much by the reciprocal functioning of the family members as by forces inside himself. Bowen, Murray; Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 18). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Among the families who have done well in family therapy, we have seen changes in the usual, fixed, family patterns. For instance, a change in one member would be followed by changes in the other two. It was observation of the changes that led to the description of the “overadequate-inadequate” reciprocal functioning.


Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapyin Clinical Practice (p. 67). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
The individuality force is derived from the drive to be a productive, autonomous individual, as defined by self rather than the dictates of the group. Any emotional system has an amount of togetherness forces, and a reciprocal amount of individuality forces, which constitute a life style or “norm” for that group at the point in time. Optimum functioning would be somewhere near a fifty-fifty balance, with neither force overriding the other and the system sufficiently flexible to adapt to change.
In an anxiety field, the group moves toward more togetherness to relieve the anxiety, and a new balance would be established at perhaps fifty-five or even sixty on the togetherness side, and a reciprocal forty-five or forty on the individuality side, which becomes the new “norm” for the group at that period.
These figures are used to illustrate the principle and they do not have specific meaning other than to clarify the point. These two forces are in such a sensitive balance that a small increase in either results in deep emotional rumblings as the two forces work toward the new balance.
The presence of rumblings can provide a clue that a shift is in progress even before overt symptoms are present. The balance is sensitive to anxiety.


Bowen, Murray (1993-12-01). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (p. 277). Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.


tiger lilly

white purple lilly

purple flower

buddha at pond

liz gardening

butterflu wings open

water lilly

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s