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Systemic Therapy 2022: What Is It, Types and How It Works

Mitchelle Morgan

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Melissa Mitri, MS, RD

systemic therapy

In all kinds of relationships, quarrels and disagreements are unavoidable. And no matter what the altercation is about, both parties should come to an amicable agreement to either meet halfway or have one party compromise.

These are all general therapy techniques used for in-person and online therapy aimed at helping resolve relationship issues.

In this post, we will discuss systemic therapy, one form of therapeutic approach. This therapy aims to solve the deeply entrenched patterns that an individual exhibits in their relationships, with the goal of breaking such patterns. This therapy also focuses on group and family dynamics.

What Is Systemic Therapy?

The systemic therapy definition is an umbrella term describing a type of psychotherapy that connects a person’s interpersonal interactions, behavioral habits, and life decisions to their problems.

Systemic therapy takes a functional rather than a theoretical approach to solving issues. It seeks to identify persistent behavioral patterns in a given ecosystem or a group of individuals, like a family or business. It then explicitly addresses those tendencies without looking into what caused them.

Systemic treatment does not try to diagnose or pin down underlying reasons, such as subconscious urges or previous trauma. Instead of attempting to cure causes or treat symptoms, it encourages people to form new patterns.

This type of therapy does not assign guilt, as this type of approach is counterproductive. Instead, the focus is on providing the individual with the support necessary to make positive changes in a positive environment.

It requires gathering everyone involved in the situation to discuss the factors that keep current behaviors going and the factors that make positive change possible. 

The therapy also picks up some of its principles from what is known as the systems theory. It studies the structure of networks in nature, culture, and science. Systems theory is a framework for analyzing or describing any collection of entities that interact to bring about a particular outcome, i.e., a school, a family, or a company’s staff team.

The therapist’s role is more akin to that of a facilitator, as they assist the people involved in the system in formulating, discussing, and attempting to implement their own remedies.

The systemic approach is used in family medicine, psychology, business, teaching, and politics.

Types of Systemic Therapy

Systemic therapists can offer you one of three types of systemic therapy – individual, group, and family therapy.

Individual Systemic Therapy

This type of systemic approach combines Sigmund Freud’s views with the principles of systems theory in psychodynamic psychotherapy[1]. The psychodynamic theory’s basic premise is that unconscious factors cause people’s actions.

Many subconscious motives and behavioral patterns that have an impact on a person’s life, connections, and situations are resolved through this method.

Family Therapy

Family therapy[2] seeks to identify the dynamics of each family member’s relationships. This kind of therapy also scrutinizes members’ communication patterns, highlighting if they block or promote positive change within the family unit. 

Family therapy aims to help the family members communicate and relate better.

Group Therapy

A group systemic therapy[3] that offers collective therapy concentrates on the group and family dynamics using the systems theory. Systemic group therapy sessions examine how a tightly knit unit is created and how participants engage with one another to meet individual objectives.

How Does Systemic Therapy Work?

Systemic therapy involves creating a safe space in which all members of a system can freely express their thoughts and feelings. This occurs without the threat of being punished or evaluated.

The goal of many family therapists is to identify long-standing patterns in the way a person interacts with other people and members of their teams. The technique helps shed light on how individuals of the network engage with one another and communicate, and it does so by making assumptions about their respective roles.

Through their interactions with the family therapists, members of the whole system will better understand one another’s differences and gain insight into potential sources of distress. The specialists in the healthcare field work together with each team member to ensure that nobody feels alone or unheard.

This process helps those involved to better understand each other.  The techniques the therapist offers improve the teams’ interactions on all levels, making work easier for everyone. 

Examples of the systemic therapy techniques[2] used to improve each member’s individual experience are 

What Systemic Therapy Can Help With?

Psychology using systemic therapy is most effective in those with suppressed emotions because they are afraid of coming off as arrogant or hurting other people.

The length of systemic therapy varies depending on those being treated and the nature of the problem. Both in-person and virtual interactions fit all ages and genders and help family members foster young and adult relationships, even if they don’t have insurance.

Here is a list of some specific issues systemic therapies may help solve

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Low-self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety[6]
  • PTSD
  • Anger issues
  • Emotional difficulties

Benefits of Systemic Therapy

Most individuals evaluate whether or not a treatment is effective based on the benefits that can be obtained. The following are some of the ways families may benefit from partaking in systemic treatment interactions, whether face-to-face or via an online platform:

  • Better self-understanding
  • Better family dynamics for healthier future relationships and interactions
  • To gain different perspectives on conflicting issues
  • Improved communication
  • Better relationship skills
  • Better control of reactions due to past experiences
  • Better working relationships
  • The identification, understanding, and setting healthy boundaries within the unit
  • The identification of working networks within the system

Final Thought

The effectiveness of systemic treatments has been documented as helpful for teens, children[7], and adults[8]. However, the studies in all these areas require more research for a more affirmative conclusion.

The evidence that systemic therapy has successfully treated many mental health and relationship problems implies that it is an effective treatment option.

Systemic therapy can achieve greater success when administered by skilled healthcare professionals with the necessary knowledge and expertise.

For best results, all participants must maintain an attitude of openness and cooperation throughout the process.

It is essential to be aware that although systemic therapy is a realistic treatment option, it may not work for your family or your problem. Before beginning the treatment, you must consult with your primary care physician or therapist to obtain a definitive diagnosis.


+ 8 sources

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  1. brings (2010). Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Brings Lasting Benefits through Self-Knowledge. [online] https://www.apa.org. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2010/01/psychodynamic-therapy
  2. Varghese, M., Kirpekar, V. and Loganathan, S. (2020). Family Interventions: Basic Principles and Techniques. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, [online] 62(8), p.192. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.indianjpsychiatry_770_19.
  3. Rambo, A., H, A., Rhoades, E. and Nathalie (2010). Introduction to systemic family therapy. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/216258779_Introduction_to_systemic_family_therapy
  4. Standish, K. (2012). Circular Questioning as a Therapeutic Tool: Theoretical Basis and Application to Couple Therapy. [online] Academia.edu. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/2060944/Circular_Questioning_as_a_Therapeutic_Tool_Theoretical_Basis_and_Application_to_Couple_Therapy
  5. Jamie M. Jacobs, PhD. (2020). COGNITIVE REFRAMING. [online] Available at: https://www.mskcc.org/sites/default/files/node/218479/documents/cbt-c-manual_session-3_040121.pdf
  6. Hunger, C., Hilzinger, R., Koch, T., Mander, J., Sander, A., Bents, H. and Schweitzer, J. (2016). Comparing systemic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorders: study protocol for a randomized controlled pilot trial. Trials, [online] 17(1). doi:10.1186/s13063-016-1252-1.
  7. Cottrell, D. and Boston, P. (2002). Practitioner Review: The effectiveness of systemic family therapy for children and adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, [online] 43(5), pp.573–586. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00047.
  8. Kirsten von Sydow, Beher, S., Schweitzer, J. and Retzlaff, R. (2010). The Efficacy of Systemic Therapy With Adult Patients: A Meta-Content Analysis of 38 Randomized Controlled… [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/47810911_The_Efficacy_of_Systemic_Therapy_With_Adult_Patients_A_Meta-Content_Analysis_of_38_Randomized_Controlled_Trials
Mitchelle Morgan

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

Mitchelle Morgan is a health and wellness writer with over 10 years of experience. She holds a Master's in Communication. Her mission is to provide readers with information that helps them live a better lifestyle. All her work is backed by scientific evidence to ensure readers get valuable and actionable content.

Medically reviewed by:

Melissa Mitri

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