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Since the 1950's, many clinicians and training programs have
adopted a systemic (vs. individual) model of client assessment and
intervention. Do you
use such a model? In my experience, many human-service professionals say "yes"
without being able to clearly define what that means.
Based on 27 years' study and
experience, this page proposes
answers to "What is a system?" and "How does 'systems theory' apply to
typical human-service clients?"
+ + +
A system is a group of elements
that interact within a boundary according to rules or
"laws." The classic example is the solar system: a collection of sun, planets, moons, space, and "space matter,"
moving through "space" (a larger system) and affecting each
other dynamically according to physical (e.g. chemical and gravitational) laws. The
system's boundary is traditionally the outermost planet's orbit in
Most systems are composed of smaller subsystems, each with its own set of interactive elements,
boundaries, properties, and laws. Each organ of your body is a subsystem,
within the larger metasystem (system of systems) defined by the boundary of your skin.
The smallest (known) systems are atoms, composed of subatomic particles,
and behaving according to the laws of atomic physics.
A change in one
element of a system may
cause changes in (upset the balance of) related elements and systems.
That's why one member of a household or family system getting
"upset" affects other members emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or
spiritually. Those effects cause needs, which cause behavior.
Every system has properties
- traits or characteristics that help make it unique in a universe of
systems. An important property that all physical and human systems
have is balance, or a normal state ("homeostasis").
That means that the rules that govern how the system behaves will
automatically try to resume the normal state if events or forces inside or
outside the boundary upset it. Exchanging internal and interpersonal feedback
is a common way of seeking balance in human systems.
The state of personal and
family balance can be described
as peace, harmony, and
If these persist for a while, the people involved feel happy. Note
the paradox that in some ("dysfunctional") systems, the normal
state is perpetual imbalance. People from
childhoods often perceive "dysfunction" (imbalance) to be
normal, and get "uneasy" if too much balance
Our immune system automatically
promotes our resuming a normal state ("health") if our body
system is upset by the presence of certain microbes, viruses, or cellular
disturbances like cancer. Police "automatically" restore
community order (balance) if a riot occurs. Mates "make up"
(rebuild inner + relationship balances) after a fight or time apart.
are open or closed. Neither
is inherently better. An open system allows things to pass in or
out through its boundary. The laws and construction of a closed
system won't permit anything to enter or leave the system. A nuclear
(step)family with a rigid
set of beliefs which won't allow "strangers" to enter their home
and bring new ideas, beliefs, emotions, or customs can be said to be a closed
family system. Bigots and hate groups are usually closed
human systems. One way some systems preserve their balance (resist upset
and dis-integration) is by hardening or "closing" their
boundaries to resist terrifying change.
Systems can also be classed
as static (changing imperceptibly) like a boulder
dynamic (changing perceptibly).
In the latter our senses detect activity, motion,
or change _ inside the boundary and/or _ between the
system and its environment (metasystem). A corpse appears static, but is
decaying toward a new stable organic state. All human systems are
ever-changing and dynamic. Paradoxically, change appears to be a
constant property of all organic systems.
concepts and definitions form a theory about "systems." Pause and
reflect - could you have described the above to someone before you read it? If
you just learned something, what is it?
Applying Systems Theory to Clinical Work
Systems theory can help professionals assess and
strategically intervene with (change) individual and group
behavior. Professionals can focus on
different subsystems at different times during the course of the work with
one adult or child's inner-family system of
a dyadic system - mate-mate, parent-child,
co-parent - co-parent, client-therapist; therapist-supervisor or
the attending-client system - those who
participate in therapy, including the therapist;
the client-nuclear stepfamily, including those
adults and kids who don't participate in therapy;
the extended (multi-generational)
the therapist-agency or department system; and...
the client-professional metasystem - i.e. the
client and related service-provider systems - like school staffs, local
judges, mediators, and attorneys; law-enforcement officials, case workers,
medical service providers, clergy, the state welfare system, and relevant
church or neighborhood communities (systems).
A guideline to help choosing "Which subsystem do I focus on?" is: which
subsystem/s cause the most imbalance (discomforts) in each leader of my client
stepfamily, directly or indirectly? several See how this application of
system theory to (step)family clients compares to your beliefs:
Each child and
adult (like you) is an open system. Skin forms the boundary around our
many interactive organic and spiritual subsystems. Any home and family is a
metasystem of members' systems, with a boundary that separates it from the
human and earthly environments. This boundary is created and maintained by the
dominant adult/s, and ranges from open ("permeable") to closed
("impermeable"). Families with "no boundaries" and rigidly closed boundaries
are usually (always?) led by adults with significant psycho-spiritual
The Quest for Balance
preferred (least-stress) state of each
balance. "Life" is a span of years between egg-sperm union
and death, during which we each ceaselessly try to maintain periods
of enough balance ("comfort") as our body and environment inexorably
Stress is a subjective measure of how much unbalance (discomfort) a person
or family system feels now
and over time. (Possible reframing intervention: "Instead of your saying 'I'm
so stressed, see what 'I'm so unbalanced.' feels like.")
(clergy, therapists, counselors, case workers, lawyers, doctors, dieticians, beauticians,
pharmacists, mediators, teachers, realtors, tutors, coaches, consultants, entertainers, media people, ...)
are motivated and trained to _ help persons and groups regain enough current
balance, by reducing key discomforts. Some professionals try to help clients _ learn to become
of their current mind-body-spirit comfort-balance, and _ to intentionally stay balanced enough.
In this site, co-parent
and the related
guidebook offer a four-level framework for maintaining personal and
Needs Cause Family
Systems to Change
aging (cellular changes), and environmental events cause human systems
to change all the time. Our needs range from mild to
intense, and are neither good nor bad. At each moment, we all have a
kaleidoscope conscious surface needs ("I need to
talk to you") and semi-conscious or unconscious
needs ("to ease my anxiety that you're pulling away from me
and I'll be alone and lonely")
Effective clinical work
empowers all involved people (including therapists, supervisors,
and administrators) to (a)
(b) fill their
primary needs well enough.
We each have many concurrent needs, which flux (change) all the time. We
strive to fill our needs consciously and unconsciously. Our
now and over time rank which needs are most to least important -
i.e. which needs we'll act to fill before others. Crises occur when
someone feels too many intense needs at once, and temporarily distrusts that
balance will return safely, soon enough.
The paired concepts of _ inner family and physical-family systems and
_ human-system dynamics being caused by unfilled subself (primary)
needs (imbalances) create an effective way to
assess client systems for unbalance, and
intervene to improve personal and family balances over time - as judged by
client-family members. These concepts also empower therapists, supervisors,
and case or program managers to identify and reduce imbalances in _ individual
professional-client metasystems, _ their service-provider organization, and _
key professional metasystems.
Relationships and Family-system
form between people who choose to (or have to) fill their needs with
each other over time. In a nurturing
relationship, each person consistently gets many of their needs filled in a
pleasing (vs. painful) way. An unhealthy, dysfunctional, un-nurturing,
or toxic relationship blocks filling key needs of one or both people.
Relationships can change from bad to good (as judged by each
person), and vice versa. Because each person constantly changes, their
relationship does too.
") is the complex process in
which two people learn to need each other to help maintain their
wholistic balances. Expectations are un/conscious assumptions
about how, when, and why other people will fill our needs and ask or expect
us to fill theirs. Betrayals occur when someone's expectation of
another or themselves doesn't happen. Co-parent
here aims to help stepfamily members and supporters form realistic
expectations of themselves and each other.
and adults all try to satisfy their needs (balance their system) by communicating verbally and nonverbally. When everyone's
_ current primary (vs. surface) needs get filled well enough
_ in a pleasing way, interpersonal communications are
(vs. "open and honest"). Human systems which operate with effective
communications are more often in balance, as judged by the people in them.
here aims to
and interpersonal communication effectiveness. Clinicians who
are _ knowledgeable about and _ fluent in
effective communication are best able to _ assess
inner-family and stepfamily-client communication
patterns, and outcomes, and to _ facilitate clients' improving them. A
universal human-system stressor is unawareness of
effective-communication basics and
among other key topics.
are meta-systems of people living in one or more related dwellings.
Families form spontaneously and universally because they best fill key adult
and child primary needs. A household is a dynamic, open
physical/human system. A nuclear family system is a group of caregiving
adults and kids related by genes, emotions, and social, spiritual, emotional,
and physical laws, who regularly live with each other. Key elements that comprise their system of subsystems are
roles; rules; rituals;
communication beliefs and
; and human, spiritual and physical resources.
Each relationship can be seen as an interactive subsystem within the
family. Nuclear stepfamilies are comprised of all people
regularly living in
("functional") nuclear or extended family system is one
which all members genuinely agree that (a) their main primary needs
get met well enough, (b) in ways that each person likes well
usually have many more people, roles,
relationships, tasks, and hazards than
consistently filling everyone's current primary needs
well enough in a pleasing way is usually much
harder to do.
Nuclear and extended
family systems expand at times to include key other people who fill
special needs. So at a point in time, a stepfamily-client
(vs. household) system may include a therapist, several lawyers, a judge, key
teachers, an inspiring, comforting minister, financial consultant, law
enforcement and medical professionals, and kids and adults' "best
friends." Each of these supporters is (a) a system of personal subsystems and
(b) a member of an interactive group of dynamic, open subsystems and
metasystems - like departments, agencies, communities, and professional
societies. Each person is striving un/consciously to gain and keep enough
personal and environmental balance - often without clear awareness of their
and each others' true (vs. surface) needs.
To provide effective service (fill clients' needs), I propose that clinicians,
supervisors, and consultants need to maintain _ awareness of all these
systems, and _ how they dynamically interact and affect each stepfamily
client's system. Service providers also need to be able to communicate
effectively with different members of this larger relational system. That's
vital to us professionals as they are to our clients, congregations, students,
| A core application of systems theory in this site is the
(experience-based) premise that every person - clinician and client -
constantly striving for experiential balance. If you're unclear on this
or don't find it credible, most of the ideas in this site won't help
you raise your professional effectiveness.