What Is Systemic Therapy?

Boy in therapy with family member.

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Systemic therapy is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on how an individual's personal relationships, behavior patterns, and life choices are interconnected with the issues they face in their life.

The concept springs from systems theory, which looks at how parts of a system affect one another to sustain the stability and equilibrium of the whole system.

Types of Systemic Therapy

Systems theory has been applied to individual, family, and group therapy. Each type takes a slightly different approach based on the systems theory model.

  • Individual Psychotherapy: Psychodynamic psychotherapy is an example of systemic therapy that incorporates the theories of Sigmund Freud with those of systems theory. It works to resolve unconscious motivations and patterns of behavior that affect an individual's life, relationships, and circumstances.
  • Family Therapy: Family therapy examines how the family interacts as a cohesive unit. It also looks at patterns among individuals that influence or impede the potential for change within the family system.
  • Group Therapy: Systems theory may be applied to group dynamics as well as to family dynamics. Therapy groups look at how a cohesive social unit is formed and how its members interact with each other to fulfill individual needs so the group can function successfully as a whole.

Techniques of Systemic Therapy

Below are some examples of techniques employed during systemic therapy.

  • Circular Questioning: This approach helps the therapist explore a problem from different angles to identify its core issue.
  • Conceptualization: This technique helps a therapist put a client's symptoms into a context that spans time and space, or applies to one or more members of a family. It looks at how an individual experience is part of larger patterns within the person, family, community, or culture.
  • Reframing: This tactic involves identifying the way a client views him or herself and offers an alternative perspective that can help to deepen or broaden understanding of the self. It's often used in conjunction with circular questioning, which helps clients identify their own patterns of behavior within social contexts.

What Systemic Therapy Can Help With

Systemic therapy can help people of any age, including children. Depending on the issue, it may take anywhere from a few sessions to years to resolve problems. It's particularly useful for situations where emotions are being repressed or denied due to fear of appearing selfish or hurting others.

For many individuals, systemic therapy provides insights into how patterns established early in life may now be limiting the individual's future options.

For example, a young woman who feels uncomfortable asserting her own needs and desires may suppress all of her feelings. As a result, she may fail to develop interpersonal skills that would allow her to maintain healthy relationships.

As another example, a man who never learned how to manage his anger may lash out at those closest to him in increasingly destructive ways. Systemic therapy can help both individuals address these problems and, in some cases, understand where they originate.

Below are some examples of specific issues that can be helped through systemic therapy:

  • Addictions and substance abuse: Systemic therapy can help individuals identify what factors in their lives may have contributed to their substance abuse. It provides treatment that emphasizes the connection between an individual's drug or alcohol addiction and how it affects other aspects of his or her life.
  • Anger management: Many people with anger problems never learned appropriate ways to express feelings of frustration and anger. Systemic therapy helps individuals understand how anger can be expressed in damaging ways that affect their relationships and interpersonal communication.
  • Mood disorders: People with depression or bipolar disorder often have longstanding issues they may need to work through before they can address the more immediate symptoms of these mental health problems.
  • Relationship difficulties: Sometimes couples or families come to therapy hoping to learn how to communicate more effectively with each other. Systemic therapy can help them identify hidden issues that may be sabotaging their attempts at mutual understanding and create a platform for evolving more effective ways of interacting.
  • Conduct disorder: This is a childhood condition marked by aggressive and destructive behavior. Systemic therapy can help the individual improve impulse control, develop appropriate social skills, and understand how family dynamics may be influencing their actions.
  • Anxiety: A systemic approach can help individuals identify the origin of their fears and provide strategies to overcome them.
  • Eating disorders: Individuals with eating disorders often have longstanding issues with self-image, including low self-worth. Systemic therapy helps individuals understand their feelings of inadequacy and how they affect decision-making related to food and exercise.
  • PTSD: Systemic therapy can help individuals who have experienced traumatic events understand how their memories of these events are affecting their current lives.
  • Schizophrenia: In some cases, individuals with schizophrenia may be able to work through their symptoms with help from a systemic approach.

Benefits of Systemic Therapy

Systemic therapy provides many benefits. It helps individuals understand the ways their emotional life affects how they interact with others.

It provides a safe space for people to talk about personal issues that may have been too painful or difficult to share with others. And, it can provide insights into relationships that may not be handled well by other forms of counseling or therapy.

Below are some specific benefits of systemic therapy:

  • Self-understanding: Individuals are given tools to help them better understand themselves. With greater self-understanding, people can develop healthier relationships with others and reach their potential in life. The individual is an active participant in exploring his or her own patterns of thoughts, actions, and emotions.
  • Understanding of different perspectives: Systems theory helps individuals understand the different perspectives people have in different contexts. This awareness can help them identify when others are trying to exert power, when they are being influenced by someone else, and how these interactions affect their behavior.
  • Empowerment: Systemic therapy provides an opportunity for individuals to be empowered in their own lives. It is not about giving up control to someone else or surrendering power to an expert or professional. Instead, this type of therapy empowers the individual to take charge of their life.
  • Relationship skills: Individuals are taught how to communicate with others in more effective ways. They may learn how to better handle conflict and resolve problems. This can help them have more loving and fulfilling relationships.
  • Core beliefs: This therapy helps individuals identify the core beliefs that may be destructive for their lives, such as perfectionism or having to please others before themselves.
  • Identification of strengths/resources: Systemic therapy helps individuals identify their own strengths and resources, which can lead to increased self-confidence and self-worth.
  • Empathy: Systemic therapy can help clients develop greater empathy for others, which is essential for healthy relationships with parents, partners, and children.
  • Learning to work together with family: Systemic therapy encourages family members to work together for the benefit of one another.

Effectiveness of Systemic Therapy

Systemic family therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment for children and adolescents. However, more studies are needed to determine the best type of therapy and how well it works.

Things to Consider

Systemic therapy can help identify how different relationships affect an individual. However, this type of therapy is not for everyone.

Below are things to consider before committing to systemic family counseling or therapy:

  • Is the therapist trained in working with families?
  • How much experience does the therapist have in dealing with the problems you want help with addressing?
  • Is the therapist well-versed in systemic therapy?
  • Does the therapist have your best interest at heart? Do you feel comfortable with them?
  • What are their credentials, board certifications, and affiliations?

How to Get Started With Systemic Therapy

To get started with systemic therapy, find a licensed therapist who is well-versed in the modality. From there, you are encouraged to share your goals for working together. For example, you may want to work on improving relationships within your family or resolve problems at school. Be as specific as possible when detailing issues that need remedying.

A Word From Verywell

Systemic therapy can be an effective approach for family counseling. There is some evidence that this type of treatment is helpful in addressing relationship issues and helping people with communication skills. However, it may not be the best form of help for all individuals. It's important to explore this treatment option before committing to working with a therapist.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Varghese M, Kirpekar V, Loganathan S. Family Interventions: Basic Principles and TechniquesIndian J Psychiatry. 2020;62(Suppl 2):S192-S200. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_770_19

  2. Retzlaff R, von Sydow K, Beher S, Haun MW, Schweitzer J. The efficacy of systemic therapy for internalizing and other disorders of childhood and adolescence: a systematic review of 38 randomized trialsFam Process. 2013;52(4):619-652. doi:10.1111/famp.12041

  3. Cottrell D, Boston P. Practitioner review: The effectiveness of systemic family therapy for children and adolescentsJ Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2002;43(5):573-586. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00047

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.