Lesson 5 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance family

Use Family System
to Improve Your Members' Harmony

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/fam/system.htm

Updated  03/27/2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The video says the number of relationships in any family is N (the number or members) x (N-1) divided by 10. It should be "divided by 2: N x (N-1) / 2.

      This is one of a series of articles on evolving and enjoying high-nurturance (functional) families (Lesson 5). The series exists because the wide range of current social problems suggests that most families don't fill the primary needs of (nurture) their members very well. That suggests the epidemic effects of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle proposed in this nonprofit Web site.

      This article offers...

why most people should read this article

an overview of family systems, and...

how to use family-systems concepts to assess family problems.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • these Q&A items about families,

  • the traits of a high-nurturance family, and...

  • this quiz about basic family knowledge.


What is a "Family System"?

      It is a network of interactive "elements" like these:

purposes + people + relationships + roles + rules + boundaries + subsystems + properties

  • purpose - every family exists for several reasons: The core reason is to nurture, i.e. to fill the current and long-term needs of each family members. A secondary reason is to contribute to the larger society as a consumer and participant;

  • people - living and dead kids, adults, and fetuses; living together or spread out across the globe; and another system element is... 

  • relationships between the people: genetic or legal, weak to strong (bonds),  chaotic to stable, nurturing to depleting, platonic to sexual, one-way to mutual, and minor to primary.

          A key aspect of any human relationship is the effectiveness of communication. 

      And another element is...

  • family roles and role-titles - father / mother / daughter / son / sibling / uncle / aunt / cousin / grandparent / sister / brother / in-'law, etc. Each role-title stands for a set of responsibilities and "normal" behaviors - e.g. "a mother" traditionally bears and raises children and manages the home; and a "father" co-creates children, makes money, and "works around the house." Family roles are responsibilities, not people. They can be assumed or stated, and usually occur in pairs: parent-child, husband-wife, brother-sister, cousin-cousin, etc.

      More elements of every family system:

  • family rules define how each role-holder is "supposed to" act in various situations. Family rules are implied or declared shoulds, musts, have-to's, will (nots), ought-to's, can'ts, etc. Family rules can be unspoken or spoken, clear to vague; rigid to flexible; helpful to stressful, consistent to inconsistent, accepted to conflictual, and effective to ineffective.

      Family rules have little value unless there are clear, realistic  consequences for breaking them. Each family role usually comes with implied or stated rules - e.g. "This is how teen-aged nephews in our family are 'supposed to' behave with other members at holiday gatherings." Well-designed and implemented rules promote family order, security, and harmony.

  • boundaries are the tangible and invisible things that separate one person, subsystem, or family from another. Boundaries can be spoken, assumed, or implied; weak or strong; rigid or flexible; open (permeable) or closed; stable or unstable; and helpful to toxic.

;     and most family systems have...

  • subsystems - groups of members with their own special roles, rules, boundaries, and alliances, Typical subsystems include living and dead grandparents, parenting adults; siblings,; relatives, and inlaws. Subsystems can be detached or bonded, harmonious to conflictual, and dominant to dominated. And a final element is...

  • system properties:  e.g. family names, values, identity, priorities, human and physical assets, developmental stage, communication styles, ethnicity, religion, history, nurturance level, location, type (rural / suburban / urban),  and status (growing, stuck, or decaying).

      Every family system affects - and is affected by - larger environmental and social systems. These metasystems (systems of systems) can nourish or stress any family system - like yours.

      A growing number of mental-health professionals propose that normal personalities are like an internal-family system of dynamic "subselves" or "parts." They have the same elements as physical families, and range from functional (fulfilling their group purposes) to dysfunctional.

       Have you ever thought of your family as a dynamic set of elements like these? Do you agree that most adults and all kids are unaware of this mosaic and how to use it to get their needs met? Here are some options for doing that:

  How to Use Family-system Concepts

      Like your family, vehicles are complex systems of subsystems. When all subsystems function the way they were designed to, your vehicle "works" (provides safe, dependable transportation). When your vehicle "doesn't work," you take it to a mechanic who understands...

  • all the subsystems (he engine, electrical, lubrication, fuel, exhaust, drive train, brakes, diagnostic subsystems, etc. And vehicle mechanics understand...

  • how these subsystems function and interact. Sometimes a subsystem malfunctions, sometimes they interact poorly, and sometimes both.

      Family-systems therapists work the same way. They collect diagnostic information from initial interviews with family members to identify which family elements and subsystems (above) aren't "working right" Then through strategic interventions (suggestions, education, confrontations, and referrals), therapists seek to restore impaired family subsystems to healthy functioning so the whole family system "works" (consistently nourishes, protects, and supports all members).

      Note that family-life educators (CFLEs), marital and individual counselors,  and life-coaches provide information and encouragement, but usually aren't trained to provide corrective systemic interventions.

      From 36 years' experience as a family-systems therapist, here is a framework you can use to identify family-system problems - within limits. You can also use this framework with a professional therapist, like a road map.

      The goal here is to identify system elements (above) that aren't "working  well." Use steps like these after studying this self-improvement course.


      1)  Check to see if your true Self is guiding your personality.  If not, make achieving that your first priority. Otherwise, expect ineffective results from these  options. Recall: underlined links will take you to another page, so wait to click them until you're done reading this article.

      2)  Refresh yourself on...

  • family basics, including the traits of high-nurturance families, and...

  • the three levels of family problems.

      3)  Define which system you're focusing on:

  • someone's inner-family system of subselves, or...

  • one home - someone's nuclear-family system, or...

  • a family subsystem (e.g. spouses, siblings, parents-kids, grandparent-grown child, etc), or....

  • several related homes - part or all of someone's extended family system.

      4)  Define which people and pets are included on this system. Note the option of including any distant, unborn, inactive (passive), and dead family members, and key supporters, who influence your members "significantly." Option - make a visual map ("genogram") of the members of this system.

  • Decide who the leader/s of this system are - i.e. the people who most influence the other members' wholistic health. They may influence by being the most needy or the most assertive or aggressive. Be alert for wounded adults who have abdicated household or family leadership to a child, relative, or outsider.

  • assess whether the system leader/s are significantly wounded, and if so, whether they're in meaningful wound-recovery. If not, see this when you finish.

  • assess whether the leader/s are each knowledgeable. If not, invite them to invest time and effort in this self-improvement course for the sake of the family - specially any minor kids. If the leader/s are knowledgeable, are they motivating other members to learn at least Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7?

      Note - most (or all?) family-system problems are caused by wounded, uniformed leader/s, and perhaps incomplete grief. Any other problems are probably symptoms of these.

      Consider making a structural map of the family system as a visual reference tool for the following options:

      5)  Define the main responsibilities (roles) of each person in this system, according to (a) society (traditionally, 'mothers' are supposed to...") and (b) the members of this system. Interview members to evaluate whether there is any significant role confusion or conflict. See this for options after you finish here.

      6)  Evaluate the relationships between each pair of family members. Study these Q&A items and then use these factors:

  • the degree of bonding: _ none > weak > moderate > strong; and _ one-way or mutual;

  • the relationship quality for each person: nurturing > neutral > stressful (toxic);

  • the effectiveness of communication between each pair in calm and conflictual times: consistently effective to consistently ineffective. (Lesson 2 shows how to improve this effectiveness.)

      7) Assess...

  • which members make the key rules and consequences that affect this family system (or don't) - e.g. rules about priorities, food, shelter, asset management, responsibilities (roles), debts, health, membership, problem-solving, grieving, worship, time management, boundaries, activities, conflict resolution, socializing, etc. And assess...

  • whether family members understand the main rules, and accept how and when the rules are made (e.g. democratically, dictated, implied, before or after the fact, etc.) And assess...

  • how this family system resolves disputes about rules and consequences - effectively or not, promptly or not?

      8)  Evaluate the boundaries (a) around this system, and (b) between people and subselves within the system. Look for:

  • no boundaries (e.g. no appropriate marital or personal privacy);

  • over-rigid boundaries, ("Unbelievers are not welcome in our home!")

  • boundary conflicts ("I have the right to close my door!" "No you don't!"),

  • boundary violations ("I'm gonna read your email whether you like it or not!") and...

  • ineffective or inappropriate consequences of boundary violations.

All significant family-system boundary problems are sure symptoms of family-adult wounds and unawareness (#1 above). For options on resolving such problems, see this after you finish here.

      9)  Nurturance level - Based on these 8 factors, estimate the nurturance level of this family system - Low > medium > high, or 1 to 10. For perspective, review these traits of a functional family or group.

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       Pause, breathe, and reflect: we've just summarized nine broad ways of using family-systems concepts to help identify "problems" in and between your family members and homes. One reason (some) stressed people hire professional counselors is because they aren't aware of these basic systemic concepts or how to use them, Recall that these concepts can apply to one person (internal family systems of subselves), two people (mates, parent-child, sib-sib, etc), or all people in a nuclear or extended family. The can also apply to other human groups.

      These broad options are not exhaustive. Professional family-system therapists have other options and techniques not included above. See these relationship-assessment options to amplify those above.

      Once you identify systemic problems (i.e. with roles, rules, boundaries, communication, values, relationships, and/or membership), follow the underlined links above, and use these options to reduce or resolve the problems one or two at a time. Help everyone learn and stay aware of the difference between surface, intermediate, and primary problems (needs). Solve the latter or the symptoms will return.

Reality Check

      Take stock of where you stand with these family-system concepts: A = "I agree," D = "I disagree," and ? = "I'm not sure" or "It depends on ___ (what?)"

I'm sure my true Self is guiding my other personality subselves now; or if not, I know how to find out.  (A  D  ?)

I can _ name the main elements that comprise any system, and _ how they relate to each other.  (A  D  ?)

I can now clearly explain (a) personality subselves, (b) family relationships, (c) family roles and rules, (d) interpersonal and family-system boundaries, and (e) the difference between surface and primary needs. (A  D  ?) 

I can explain and illustrate family structure to an average teen now (A  D  ?)

I can confidently describe...

  • how primary needs relate to surface "problems,"

  • what effective communication is,

  • _ the seven basic communication skills and _ when to best use each of them, and...

  • the basic steps involved in win-win problem solving.  (A  D  ?)

I can answer most of the items on these quizzes now. (A  D  ?)   

My partner (if any) and I each can now describe how to use these family-system concepts to help us diagnose any problems that occurs in or between our family's homes.  (A  D  ?)

I want to invite our other family adults and older kids to learn _ these family-system ideas and _ how to use them to help us resolve our inevitable role and relationship problems. (A  D  ?)


      This article proposes that average adults can use family-systems principles to help manage their families. It describes...

  • the components of any system: elements + rules + boundaries + properties.

  • the elements and some properties of typical family systems - including "inner-family" systems of personality subselves, and the article...

  • suggests how average family adults and supporters can use family-system concepts and terms to help break complex family role and relationship problems into smaller, more manageable problems.

      Learning to do this together can help family members reduce the unawareness that stresses most persons, families and relationships. Teaching kids how to use systems concepts is a priceless life-long gift!

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      Reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not - what do you need now? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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