Early Childhood Education

Family Systems Theory (FST)


Family Systems Theory (FST) describes principles of family functioning believed to be true for all families. It is one example of a larger developmental systems theory orientation that has been applied widely to the natural and social sciences. Simply put, systems theory studies the relationships of parts to wholes, parts to parts, and describes change therein. Thus, Family Systems Theory describes how various family members relate to each other and—importantly—to the whole, and describes the ways in which families accommodate change. Early childhood educators have long recognized the importance of understanding the family as the primary context for the child’s development. Educators place high value on communicating with family members, particularly parents; and on fostering strong connections between home and school. Thus, early childhood education is strengthened by understanding family dynamics, and FST elucidates these dynamics.

When FST was first developed in the mid-twentieth century, “family” usually meant a mother, father, and their biological children living under the same roof. When educators examined the family, it was usually to identify the things parents—especially the mother—did to “cause” the child to behave in certain ways. Later, the field recognized that the direction of effect goes both ways: young children affect parents as much as parents affect children, and attention was directed toward these “bi-directional influences.” FST became the next step in understanding families by describing the ways in which the entire family functioned. This is a critical perspective for the twenty-first century because families have become much more complex. Currently, the concept of “family” has changed to include blended families after divorce and remarriage, foster families, single-parent families, families parented by gay and lesbian couples, and homeless families. In addition, educators are teaching children of families from a vast number of cultural and religious contexts. The increasing complexity of families makes it even more important to understand how they work.

The following are six basic principles of Family Systems Theory, including their application to early childhood education:

1. A family system is an organized whole and all parts of the whole—members of the family—are linked and interdependent. Families have identifying traits (e.g., “Her family is very close-knit”). When something happens that affects one member of a family, the family as a whole changes and thus all family members are affected. The child cannot be understood outside the context of the family, so early childhood educators benefit from learning as much as they can about the family structure and values of the children in their centers and classrooms.

2. There are identifiable subsystems within the family. Such as the parent subsystem, the sibling subsystem, or the grandparent subsystem. The young child may be a member of a number of subsystems. These subsystems also have implicit rules that govern their behavior. For example, in the early childhood setting, the sibling subsystem might be relied upon for children having trouble separating from their parents.

3. There are boundaries around family subsystems and around the whole family, and there are rules that govern the behavior of the family and its subsystems. These boundaries define how people interact and who is considered part of the family or subsystem. Boundaries can be strong and impermeable (e.g., “In our family the parents make the rules and the children follow them”), or weak and permeable (e.g., “In our family the older children and parents talk about family rules together”). Early childhood educators must be aware of where the boundaries are drawn; for example, the oldest sibling may have an important status within the sibling subsystem, or the grandparents may have ultimate authority. Obviously, boundaries and rules are very dependent on the cultural background of specific families.

4. Patterns of interaction between individuals and between subsystems are circular rather than linear. It is not useful to think about one member “causing” another member to behave in a certain way. Rather, individual members influence other members who, in turn, influence still others and the family as a whole. The family constantly changes in a spiral-like pattern. For the early childhood educator, for example, rather than blaming the father for being “too strict,” it is more useful to think of the parent and child creating a system in which child behavior and father behavior influence each other which, in turn, influences the other family members and the whole.

5. Family systems have features that maintain their stability or equilibrium, and when something happens to alter a pattern, the family tries to return to the previous stable state. An example of this might be a family with a child identified with ADHD who requires a lot of attention. Intervention might cause the child’s behavior to change and become more typical. But it may be easier to continue to think of the child as the designated “problem child” because things were more predictable that way for the parents, who had established ways of interacting with the child, and also for the child, who was accustomed to receiving a great deal of parental and family attention and resources.

6. Families are always changing. When something happens to one member, the entire family as a whole must also change, in addition to the individuals and various subsystems. This happens in obvious ways, such as when a new baby is born or adopted into the family or when a primary caregiver goes to work, but also in subtle and less visible ways, such as when a parent finishes a graduate program or an older sibling learns to drive. Early childhood educators must be aware of these changes because they change the place of the young child in the family and the ways in which family members relate to each other.

Many theorists have contributed to the development of Family Systems Theory, drawing upon philosophical traditions going back many centuries. It is a theory that is still changing. It is an especially well-known and useful perspective for therapists and developmental psychologists. Many credit Murray Bowen (1913-1990) with first describing FST as we know it today. Bowen, a psychiatrist, conducted a research project at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1950s in which he examined families with a schizophrenic member longitudinally over a five-year period. He described the ways in which the family member with schizophrenia influenced other family members, and the ways in which changes in family functioning influenced the ill family member as well as other members. He explained this in a widely read book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, published in 1978. Esther Thelen was another contributor to systems theory as it relates to self and other, publishing a major work on the topic in 1989 in the Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology. She was perhaps best known for applying and popularizing dynamic systems theory to the study of child development. Arnold Sameroff, a developmental theoretician and researcher, wrote about family systems in a chapter published in the first volume of the Handbook of Child Psychology in 1983. He is perhaps best known for explaining the impact of changes over time by describing “transactional analysis” as it relates to FST. And perhaps the most extensive contributions to our current understandings of FST (particularly as it impacts family therapy) comes from the work of Patricia and Salvador Minuchin, therapists who defined the basic principles of FST in numerous publications in psychology, beginning in the 1970s and continuing today.

Only recently has FST been applied in any detail to early childhood education. In January 2006, Linda Christian published an article in Young Children, the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), describing some principles of FST and giving examples of how the principles can be applied to practice in the early childhood setting.

Very few cross-cultural examinations of FST have been conducted, and therefore the claim that its principles apply to all families has not been demonstrated. Yet the principles are general and common to all systems, and thus are assumed to have ecological validity. In addition, FST has been criticized for describing what goes on in families but not how change occurs; in other words, the theory lacks a way of showing mechanisms of family change. Clearly, studying the family is difficult and complex, and there will always be much to examine. Nevertheless, Family Systems Theory has added a great deal to our understanding of this critical context for the socialization and education of young children. See also Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; Families; Gay or Lesbian Parents, Children with; Parents and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson. Christian, L. G. (2006). Understanding families: Applying family systems theory to early childhood practice. Young Children 61, 12-20. Washington: NAEYC; Minuchin, Patricia (1985). Families and individual development: Provocations from the field of family therapy. Child Development 56, 289-302; Minuchin, Salvador (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Parke, R. D., and R. Buriel (1998). Socialization in the family: Ethnic and ecological perspectives. In N. Eisenberg and W. Damon, eds., Handbook of child psychology. 5th ed. Vol. 3: Social, emotional, and personality development. New York: Wiley; Sameroff, A. J. (1983). Developmental systems: Contexts and evolution. In W. Kessen, ed., Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 1: History, theory, and methods. New York: Wiley; Thelen, E. (1989). Self-organization in developmental processes: Can systems approach work? In M. R. Gunnar and E. Thelen, eds., Systems and development. The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology. Vol. 22. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 77-117.

Martha Pott