Family Systems theory

Why study families?

•Traditional psychology – problem an individual one

– Externalise distress – act out

– Internalise distress – withdraw


– Psychoanalytic – e.g Freud – fixated at a phase due to trauma and regress to this level

– Behaviourists – e.g learn inappropriate response

– Attachment – insecure primary attachment

•Sociological perspective

Bronfenbrenner’s model – ecological approach

a)Life cycle stresses

b)Stresses related to cultural expectations

c)Stresses related to historical time

d)Random fate

e)Stress reactions which create more stress

Does research support the sociological viewpoint?

– Distress related to lack of social support

– Overcrowded housing, father in gaol, depressed mother

– Parental stress & maternal negativity plus child temperament

– Poverty

What is family’s position in the sociological model?

– most influential part of child’s social context

– buffer between child and outside world – serves to protect or expose child

– usually positive

Do families need support?

– Bronfenbrenner’s model less applicable now?

– Less sense of community

– Increased fragmentation

How do families work?

Can be seen as a system – stress -> distress

– child most likely to be the distressed person as most powerless

Basic premises

Circulatory causation – interactive model

Non-summativity – whole more than sum of parts

Communication – feeling and content

Governed by rules – spoken or understood

Homeostasis – in some sort of balance

Morphogenesis – flexibility to respond to change

How do you measure family relationships?

Research relies on two dimensions

– Affection (aka warmth, acceptance, cohesion, closeness)


– Control (aka power, autonomy, flexibility)


What happens when families get stressed?

Timberlawn studies (Walsh 1993)

Optimal families

•Strong, warm relationships especially marital one
•See causes and effects as circulatory
•See events as multi-causative.
•Actively involved in world outside family
•Negotiate effectively
•Feelings and thoughts expressed and accepted
•Little blame or personal attack
•See human nature as benign – do best in a situation
•Flexible – adjust to new situations


Seek control rather than intimacy


Rule bound
Power battles
Severe – eg sects

More comfortable with negative feelings
Blame and attack
Children expected to be independent early
Material wealth takes preference over relationships
Extreme – chaotic, intimidating, very unstable

How can early childhood educators help?

Recognise difficulties
Emotionally supporting
Referring on
Helping with children if in crisis

What do you think?

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