As often occurs in the evolution of the modern therapies, it is hard to identify a precise point of origin of what is now known as Systemic Family Therapy. It can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s, when work groups began to be set up (not necessarily coordinated) to study the relationship between psychological disorders or distress on the one hand and interpersonal relationships and dynamics within family structures on the other. This interest grew out of a certain degree of dissatisfaction on the part of some psychologists with the application of the orthodox psychoanalytical model in the treatment of children. Those working with children felt the need for a more significant involvement of parents, which could not be easily achieved within the traditional psychoanalytical setting, solely based on the patient-therapist relationship.

Moreover, the contemporary advancement of new disciplines within the sphere of the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, offered significant contributions towards the understanding of the social contexts in which individuals live and grow, and, in particular, towards the study of the influence which relationships within families - and also their organisation - may have on the development of the personality. A substantial contribution towards the elaboration of the ‘systemic’ model was also made by the pioneers of cybernetic theories, who were influential in the development of ideas and concepts which would later allow the researchers and social scientists of the Californian Palo Alto school (including Beavin, D. D. Jackson, Watzlawick etc.) and also Gregory Bateson to construct the model which subsequently evolved in the direction of Systemic Therapy as we know it today.

In this perspective the family is seen as a system or as a social unit with its own characteristics, rules and particular norms. It thus becomes possible to comprehend the mechanisms and dynamics of the system when the criteria at the base of its functioning are analysed and clarified. This is the same principle underlying organised society, within which each individual has his/her own place, role and function and interacts with the other members of the group. The family, which in turn exists within the broader context of a community and society in general, has its own structure of rules and mechanisms which determine its evolution in a certain direction and each member of the family contributes towards its development.

Every member of the system has an effect on and influences the other members of the group; at the same time such influences have a repercussion on the entire family system. Unlike the other approaches, which are based on the individuality of each single subject, in family therapy the individual is considered a part of the whole, this being the system itself. From the systemic point of view, the individual is capable of influencing the group, just as the group has an influence over the individual. Working from this premise, a person who is ‘suffering’ is seen as an ‘expression’ of the context within which he or she spends a great amount of time and which, in turn, is also suffering from a series of imbalances and dysfunctions that have a negative effect on the individual members. However, the same person presenting the malaise or disorder is a part of that family system and is thus partially responsible for the situation that has arisen. The patient then, is not the only one who has succumbed to certain difficulties and is now presenting a symptom but, paradoxically, can be seen as being a symptom himself or herself: a living symptom of a dysfunctional family. This does not mean that the cause of his/her malaise is due to any personal guilt or misdemeanour but that, in any case, the person contributes towards maintaining certain dysfunctional family dynamics. For example, if an adolescent is suffering from severe anxiety and, being aware of his condition, the other members of his family tend to offer him excessive attention and protection, constantly distancing him from any opportunity to face and cope with his fears, he will tend to perpetuate his anxiety. Simultaneously, he will be increasingly dependant on the other members of the family, again, maintaining the dysfunctional dynamic. Family therapy has thus developed its clinical methodology around the idea that psychic malaise and distress can be comprehended through the observation of human relations.

On the basis of such premises, the general theory of systems has led to the elaboration of a form of therapy stemming from the idea that:

  • A psychological illness presents a series of constantly-repeated relational schemes. They are therefore stable.
  • In order to effect change or promote an improvement it is necessary to interrupt or modify these patterns.
  • When the relational patterns are short-circuited or changed, a new phase is initiated characterised by a period of reorganisation of the individual-family-community system.

The therapeutic intervention occurs in this latter stage of the process. Applying his skills, methods and experience, the therapist will remain present throughout the process of change, leading his clients in the direction of non-pathological forms of interaction and behaviour.

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