HISTORY (an excerpt modified from the chapter on Systems Theory)

Family Therapy uses a model called the Systems Theory and has been used as a therapeutic technique in mental health quite extensively.

The systems theory was founded in the 1940's by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1945) and colleagues. The original theory was derived from the concepts of entropy, homeostasis and feedback, which originated in the fields of chemistry and mechanics and was borrowed in to the field of biology. Subsequently, pioneers in family therapy adopted this theory as a model for the way that interactions occur in social systems. 


Two early contributors to the development of systems theory in the field of family therapy were Murray Bowen (a psychoanalyst) and Gregory Bateson (an anthropologist and the husband of Margaret Mead). Bateson particularly applied the systems theory to human interactions and introduced the idea that people's relationships have to be seen in the context of their thoughts and actions as well as the external objects (or people in their relationships). The "Bateson Project" also involved the well known therapist Carl Whitaker, who paid a lot of attention to the patient's perspective.


Bowen began his work by attempting to help patients maintain their sense of individuality or self within a group (family) context and initially encouraged the use of a separate therapist for each family member. However, he found that this caused further fracturing of the family and moved to treating the family as a unit. As opposed to the more behaviourally oriented family therapists generated by Bateson, Bowen emphasised the thoughts and feelings of the individuals equally with the context of their relationships. 


Salvador Minuchin who was born in Argentina began working as a family therapist in the United States in the 1960's and particularly contributed to family therapy in evolving the structural view of families. 


The next major figure to be mentioned is Jay Haley who was qualified in communications theory and was initially influenced by Milton Erickson who was a humble medical practitioner who used indirect techniques of hypnosis and was published posthumously. Jay Haley was also influenced by Bateson and Minuchin and founded the Palo Alto group of Family Therapy with them. Haley used the technique of strategic family therapy to induce changes in the way family members related to each other and bridged a gap between strategic and structural models later. In strategic model reframing is used as a specific therapeutic strategy (see below). Other techniques include the use of paradox, metaphor and play which Haley most probably inherited from Erickson.


The most influential group in modern family therapy developed in Milan, Italy and was founded in the 1970's by four therapists (Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, Prata). They were particularly influenced by Bateson and the Palo Alto group but developed the theroy and practice further to include the history of development of circular processes within a family. This freed them from the here and now approach to the circular process used by the Palo Alto group. They called their model the Systemic model. Some of the techniques used by this group include circular questioning which includes references to the past to elaborate the development of a vicious cycle in relationships (in addition to other techniques of strategic therapy). In 1980 the core group split into two one group developing the theory further and the other continuing with training. In our model of ABC therapy this approach of circular questioning is particularly used with an individual ( in the absence of the family) and is useful in bringing alive the relationships the patient experiences as problematic. The aim is to help the patient reframe the relationship in a positive way and to feel empowered about their position in the relationship.

A current major figure in family therapy practice, Michael White lives works in Adelaide South Australia and began his working life as a mechanical draftsman. He has introduced the concept of life-narrative as a new concept in therapy. A principle tenet of this approach is that stories shape life rather than other way around. An innovative technique using this approach is to allow people to see that they can write their future-story. In our model the idea of a life-line is developed and human development in the context of the patient's past and conjectured future expectations is explored in order to provide the patient with a positive view of the future. Unlike Michael White who does not get engaged in talking about negative thinking of the patient, our approach also emphasises the importance of acknowledging real painful experiences of the patient and real fears and explores them empathically prior to positive reframing. In this we are influenced by the cognitive behavioural and the psychodynamic model of self-psychology as well.


Towards the end of the 20th century a new movement in Family Therapy called existentialism took root. 


Victoria, Australia:

Bouverie Family Therapy Centre
Williams Road Family Therapy Centre
Mednet can provide supervision for any clinician in training.

Learn more about systems theory and Family Therapy:

Down load the Mednet Text on "Systems Theory"

Watch an excerpt of a video on Family Therapy

Family Therapy at Mednet Australia

Mednet provides predominantly couple therapy as we deal mostly with adult patients at present.

When dealing with adolescents or a young adult who is living at the parents home in a potentially conflictual situation or an adult whose family dynamics are important to deal with in helping the patient move on, we may invite a broader family group for therapy.

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