Systemic therapy (psychotherapy)

Last updated

In psychotherapy, systemic therapy seeks to address people not only on the individual level, as had been the focus of earlier forms of therapy, but also as people in relationships, dealing with the interactions of groups and their interactional patterns and dynamics.



Systemic therapy has its roots in family therapy, or more precisely family systems therapy as it later came to be known. In particular, systemic therapy traces its roots to the Milan school of Mara Selvini Palazzoli, [1] [2] [3] but also derives from the work of Salvador Minuchin, Murray Bowen, Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, as well as Virginia Satir and Jay Haley from MRI in Palo Alto. These early schools of family therapy represented therapeutic adaptations of the larger interdisciplinary field of systems theory which originated in the fields of biology and physiology.

Early forms of systemic therapy were based on cybernetics. In the 1970s this understanding of systems theory was central to the structural (Minuchin) and strategic (Haley, Selvini Palazzoli) schools of family therapy which would later develop into systemic therapy. In the light of postmodern critique, the notion that one could control systems or say objectively "what is" came increasingly into question. Based largely on the work of anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, this resulted in a shift towards what is known as "second order cybernetics" which acknowledges the influence of the subjective observer in any study, essentially applying the principles of cybernetics to cybernetics – examining the examination.

As a result, the focus of systemic therapy (ca. 1980 and forward) has moved away from a modernist model of linear causality and understanding of reality as objective, to a postmodern understanding of reality as socially and linguistically constructed.


This has a direct impact on the praxis of systemic therapy which approaches problems practically rather than analytically, i.e. it does not attempt to determine past causes, as does the psychoanalytic approach, nor does it assign diagnosis, "Who is sick, who is a victim". Rather, systemic therapy seeks to identify stagnant patterns of behavior in groups of people such as a family, and address those patterns directly, irrespective of analysis of cause. A key point here of this postmodern perspective then is not a denial of absolutes but the humble recognition by the therapist that they do not hold the capacity to change people or systems; the systemic therapist's role is rather to help systems to change themselves by introducing creative "nudges":

"Systemic therapy neither attempts a 'treatment of causes' nor of symptoms; rather it gives living systems nudges that help them to develop new patterns together, taking on a new organizational structure that allows growth." [4]

Thus systemic therapy differs from analytic forms of therapy, including psychoanalytic or psychodynamic forms of family therapy (for example the work of Horst Eberhard Richter), in its focus on practically addressing current relationship patterns rather than analyzing causes, such as subconscious impulses or childhood trauma. Systemic therapy also differs from family systems therapy in that it addresses other living systems (i.e. groups of people) in addition to the family, for example businesses. In addition to families and business, the systemic approach is increasingly being implemented in the fields of education, politics, psychiatry, social work, and family medicine. [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

Emil Kraepelin German psychiatrist

Emil Wilhelm Georg Magnus Kraepelin was a German psychiatrist. H. J. Eysenck's Encyclopedia of Psychology identifies him as the founder of modern scientific psychiatry, psychopharmacology and psychiatric genetics.

Psychotherapy is the use of psychological methods, particularly when based on regular personal interaction with adults, to help a person change behavior and overcome problems in desired ways. Psychotherapy aims to improve an individual's well-being and mental health, to resolve or mitigate troublesome behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts, or emotions, and to improve relationships and social skills. There is also a range of psychotherapies designed for children and adolescents, which typically involve play, such as sandplay. Certain psychotherapies are considered evidence-based for treating some diagnosed mental disorders. Others have been criticized as pseudoscience.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a pseudoscientific approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States, in the 1970s. NLP's creators claim there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life. Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP methodology can "model" the skills of exceptional people, allowing anyone to acquire those skills. They claim as well that, often in a single session, NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, tic disorders, psychosomatic illnesses, near-sightedness, allergy, common cold, and learning disorders. NLP has been adopted by some hypnotherapists and also by companies that run seminars marketed as leadership training to businesses and government agencies.

Gregory Bateson English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist

Gregory Bateson was an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician, and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. His writings include Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1979).

Social constructionism Theory that shared understandings of the world create shared assumptions about reality

Social constructionism is a theory of knowledge in sociology and communication theory that examines the development of jointly-constructed understandings of the world that form the basis for shared assumptions about reality. The theory centers on the notion that meanings are developed in coordination with others rather than separately within each individual.

Clinical psychology is an integration of science, theory, and clinical knowledge for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote subjective well-being and personal development. Central to its practice are psychological assessment, clinical formulation, and psychotherapy, although clinical psychologists also engage in research, teaching, consultation, forensic testimony, and program development and administration. In many countries, clinical psychology is a regulated mental health profession.

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), is the most common, chronic rheumatic disease of childhood, affecting approximately one per 1000 children. Juvenile, in this context, refers to disease onset before age 16 years, while idiopathic refers to a condition with no defined cause, and arthritis is inflammation within the joint.

Solution-focused (brief) therapy (SFBT) is a goal-directed collaborative approach to psychotherapeutic change that is conducted through direct observation of clients' responses to a series of precisely constructed questions. Based upon social constructionist thinking and Wittgensteinian philosophy, SFBT focuses on addressing what clients want to achieve without exploring the history and provenance of problem(s). SF therapy sessions typically focus on the present and future, focusing on the past only to the degree necessary for communicating empathy and accurate understanding of the client's concerns.

Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, is the recursive application of cybernetics to itself. It was developed between approximately 1968 and 1975 by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster and others. Von Foerster referred to it as the cybernetics of "observing systems" whereas first order cybernetics is that of "observed systems". It is sometimes referred to as the "new cybernetics", the term preferred by Gordon Pask, and is closely allied to radical constructivism, which was developed around the same time by Ernst von Glasersfeld. While it is sometimes considered a radical break from the earlier concerns of cybernetics, there is much continuity with previous work and it can be thought of as the completion of the discipline, responding to issues evident during the Macy conferences in which cybernetics was initially developed. Its concerns include epistemology, ethics, autonomy, self-consistency, self-referentiality, and self-organizing capabilities of complex systems. It has been characterised as cybernetics where "circularity is taken seriously".

Salvador Minuchin was a family therapist born and raised in San Salvador, Entre Ríos, Argentina. He developed structural family therapy, which addresses problems within a family by charting the relationships between family members, or between subsets of family. These charts represent power dynamics as well as the boundaries between different subsystems. The therapist tries to disrupt dysfunctional relationships within the family, and cause them to settle back into a healthier pattern.

Social therapy is an activity-theoretic practice developed outside of academia at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in New York. Its primary methodologists are cofounders of the East Side Institute, Fred Newman and Lois Holzman. In evolution since the late 1970s, the social therapeutic approach to human development and learning is informed by a variety of intellectual traditions especially the works of Karl Marx, Lev Vygotsky and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. It also refers to a form of splitting in which one person manipulates a relationship between two parties by controlling communication between them.

Emotionally focused therapy and emotion-focused therapy (EFT) are a family of related approaches to psychotherapy with individuals, couples, or families. EFT approaches include elements of experiential therapy, systemic therapy, and attachment theory. EFT is usually a short-term treatment. EFT approaches are based on the premise that human emotions are connected to human needs, and therefore emotions have an innately adaptive potential that, if activated and worked through, can help people change problematic emotional states and interpersonal relationships. Emotion-focused therapy for individuals was originally known as process-experiential therapy, and it is still sometimes called by that name.

Mara Selvini Palazzoli (1916–1999) was an Italian psychiatrist and founder in 1971, with Gianfranco Cecchin, Luigi Boscolo and Giuliana Prata, of the systemic and constructivist approach to family therapy which became known as the Milan systems approach. Worked with families of schizophrenic and anorexic children. With her colleagues, she developed a therapeutic model that is based on Gregory Bateson's cybernetics theory.

Structural family therapy (SFT) is a method of psychotherapy developed by Salvador Minuchin which addresses problems in functioning within a family. Structural family therapists strive to enter, or "join", the family system in therapy in order to understand the invisible rules which govern its functioning, map the relationships between family members or between subsets of the family, and ultimately disrupt dysfunctional relationships within the family, causing it to stabilize into healthier patterns. Minuchin contends that pathology rests not in the individual, but within the family system.

Family therapy, also referred to as couple and family therapy, marriage and family therapy, family systems therapy, and family counseling, is a branch of psychotherapy that works with families and couples in intimate relationships to nurture change and development. It tends to view change in terms of the systems of interaction between family members.

Vincenzo Di Nicola psychologist

Vincenzo Di Nicola is an Italian-Canadian psychologist, psychiatrist and family therapist, and philosopher of mind.

A Stranger in The Family: Culture, Families, and Therapy is a text written by Vincenzo Di Nicola integrating family therapy and cultural psychiatry to create a model of cultural family therapy, published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1997 (ISBN 0393702286).

Robert Rocco Cottone American academic

Robert Rocco Cottone is a psychologist, ethicist, counselor, poet, and professor in the Department of Counseling and Family Therapy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis (1988-), where he is a colleague to the social activist Mark Pope. He is also the founder of the Church of Belief Science. Academically, he is best known for his socially oriented theories of counseling and psychotherapy. In the mid-1980s he developed a “systemic theory of vocational rehabilitation”, which constitutes the first comprehensive social theory of vocational rehabilitation. He has been widely cited for his later work on advanced theories of psychotherapy, and he has been rated as having one of the highest publishing records among his peers. He published his first book, “Theories and Paradigms of Counseling and Psychotherapy” in 1992, which defined Kuhnian paradigms of mental health treatment. He then developed a fully social model of decision making, the social constructivism model, taking decisions out of the head, so-to-speak, and placing them within the sphere of social discourse. His social theorizing advanced from that of social systems to social constructions.


  1. DiNicola, Vincenzo F. Road map to Schizo‑land: Mara Selvini Palazzoli and the Milan model of systemic family therapy. Journal of Strategic & Systemic Therapies, 1984, 3(2): 50‑62.
  2. DiNicola, Vincenzo F. Carte routiére pour le schizo-land: Mara Selvini Palazzoli et le modèle de Milan de thérapie familiale systémique. Systèmes Humains, 1986, 2(1): 61‑74.
  3. DiNicola, Vincenzo F. Mara Selvini Palazzoli et le modèle de l’école de Milan de thérapie familiale systémique: Bibliographie [Mara Selvini Palazzoli and the Milan model of systemic family therapy: Bibliography]. Systèmes Humains, 1986, 2(1): 129‑135.
  4. Arist von Schlippe and Jochen Schweitzer, Lehrbuch der Systemischen Therapie und Beratung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 1998, p 93.
  5. Arist von Schlippe and Jochen Schweitzer, Lehrbuch der Systemischen Therapie und Beratung (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 1998, pp 245-261. For the field of family medicine see also Susan H. McDaniel, et al. Medical Family Therapy: A Biopychosocial Approach to Families with Health Problems (New York: Basic Books) 1992 pp 26-35