Case study

profileSalman Wahid

Systems Theories

Module 5

Week 10

SWK313: Engaging Individuals and Families In Partnership

Broadens thinking beyond the individual person to see them in context – micro, meso, macro

General Systems Theory, Ecological Systems Perspective, Person in Environment Model, Life Course Model

Relationships, interaction, adaptation

Systems Theory Recap (Week 9)

Systems can be simple or complex, intrapersonal, interpersonal or environmental

Some examples:

Biophysical, cognitive, affective, behavioural functioning

Physical environment


Social support networks

Peer groups





Which systems are most important to the client?

Some types of systems…


Family unit has long been a focus for intervention and support in human services

Family understood as a social system that interacts with and is influenced by other systems

Incorporates family dynamics, interrelationships and interactions in assessment and interventions

Different strands/variations of family therapy

Different perspectives and approaches can inform family therapy (e.g. post-modernist, narrative, structural)

Family Therapy


How do we define ‘family’


“In view of the diverse family forms that exist, how families themselves define their members is best articulated by the family”

“…the focus of practice, is the extent to which the family has the capacity to perform the essential functions that contribute to the development and well-being of its members”

(Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney & Strom-Gottfried 2013 p.252)

Definition of family

“…families share both a history, memories, success and failure, aspirations and a future as they experience the lifecycle together”

(Hepworth et al. 2013 p.252)

Mutual care

Basic informal welfare system

Education, health & wellbeing

Attachment, development

Socialization, social identity, role learning

Family functions


“Does our practice involve families to the fullest extent possible in defining the problems and creating solutions, or does it replace a family function in a situation where with help, the family itself could meet the needs of its members?”

(Hartman 1981 in Hepworth et al. 2013 p.255)

Collaborative practice with families


Family Systems

All parts of the family are engaged in ‘transactions’ or interactions with each other

Whatever affects one part of the system will affect the whole family

Interrelationships between family members create the ‘whole’

The ‘whole’ also consists of subsystems and boundaries can be internal as as well as external

Family as a System


Anything that provokes change within the family system leading to a state of family disequilibrium

Sources of stress can be internal or external, or an interplay between the two

Assess whether stressors pose a risk to family functioning

Families cope and adapt to stressors depending on their resources, resilience, strengths, social supports…




Extraordinary life transitions & separations

Types of stressors


All families have patterns of relating, decision making, rules, scripts, roles

Interactions may be considered from an intergenerational or transgenerational perspective

Past reactions and ways of coping as a family provide a foundation for understanding current issues or presenting problems

Patterns of interaction


Interactions are governed by implicit and explicit rules

Family rules govern patterns of behaviour, relationships, communication

Rules can be shaped by context, including cultural norms and social expectations

Rules specify roles, power structures and communication styles (dynamic processes of the system)

Rules can differ between families and can change over time (e.g. young children vs teens vs adults)

Family rules & cultures

Changes can disrupt established family rules about behaviour and roles

The family system seeks to maintain stability and equilibrium (homeostasis)

Maintaining equilibrium requires cohesion within the system – without agreement factions emerge

Different types of rules

Some rules can perpetuate and reinforce problematic behaviours

Family rules & culture


What rules operate in your family?

Respect your elders

Bring honour to your family

Children should be seen and not heard

Keep the peace at all costs

You are still loved even if you make a mistake

Talking about emotions should be avoided

Expressing how you feel is important

Everyone’s ideas are valued

The father is the head of the family

Family matters are kept private…


New behaviours are introduced to the system

The system attempts to achieve equilibrium

Feedback provided to modify and regulate the behaviour

The behaviour and responses of family members are powerful - now and in the future

Sometimes family system responses allow for flexibility and new rules can be developed – adaptation and changed when needed – balance is achieved again

Changes to the system


Distribution of power within a family can be shaped by external structural arrangements

Internal power structures refer to the relative influence each member has on others within the system

Power is a socially constructed dynamic that varies according to a number of factors – power is not always a single, monolithic structure

Power may be reflected in decision making processes, communication patterns, rules, overt and covert behaviours…

Family Power Structures


Context is important – what is ‘normal’ for a particular family system?

Avoid generalisations, stereotypes and labelling

Critical reflection – what part do our own experiences, beliefs, values etc. play in assessment?

Is there a relationship between family problems and external oppressive forces

Assessment & Family Therapy


Different family members may have different levels of motivation for engaging

Safety concerns need to be identified and addressed – family interventions need to be considered carefully and may not be appropriate in all cases

Initial sessions build rapport and explore the viewpoints of different family members – core micro-skills are needed to support engagement

Principles for practice


Elliott, Mulroney, & O’Neil (2000) suggest that the key elements to working with families are:

1) starting where the family is at

2) developing successful relationships

3) setting goals

4) helping in practical ways

5) building networks

6) building on strengths

Principles for practice



1. Establish relationships with individuals & family as a group

2. Clarify expectations, reservations, concerns about the process of therapy

3. Clarify roles

4. Clarify choices for participation

5. Explore the family’s perception of the problems & different perspectives

6. Identify needs and and wants of family members – find common ground

7. Define the problem as a family problem –avoid blame of individuals

8. Emphasize individual & family strengths

9. Ask questions to identity patterns of behaviour and family structures

10. Identify counterproductive communication patterns

11. Begin to help members to relate to one another in more positive ways

12. Establish individual and family goals

13. Gauge interest in continuing, and negotiate a contract

14. Negotiate tasks to be completed before next contact

15. End with a summary of key issues, goals, tasks & progress

(from Hepworth et al. 2013 pp. 475-482)

Framework for initial family session


Range of family therapy interventions available

Use strengths, solution-focused, narrative approaches

Specific interventions might include:

Communication skill development

Identify, re-negotiate or modify family rules

Developing conflict resolution skills

Use of contracts and family agreements

Modify distorted cognitions, challenge myths and misconceptions

Family sculpting


Hepworth, D., Rooney, R., Rooney, G., Strom-Gottfried, K. (2013) Direct social work practice: Theory and skills. Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.

http :// (see Week 9 extension Learning Materials for link to this website)

Other web resources include:

http :// 1

http :// / / adolescents