Intergenerational Family Therapy

Family therapy is a kind of psychotherapy or psychological counseling. It is performed by a psychologist, a licensed therapist, or a clinical social worker. We define family therapy as a form of counseling that helps family members to improve communication between them. This will help them to resolve problems and conflicts that affect the healthy functioning of the family unit. 

What is intergenerational family therapy?

Intergenerational family therapy is a form of therapy developed by the psychiatrist Murray Bowen. It acknowledges that the dynamics of the family, and of the individual members in it, is influenced by previous generations. Patterns of behavior can be passed down from generation to generation. Helping people to identify and relate to the problems of their predecessors can assist them in managing their own issues in the present.

An important part of this therapy is the creation of a genogram. To create this pictorial representation, Bowen would interview each member of the family individually. He would ask them to detail their family’s medical history going back as far as they could remember or investigate. He was particularly interested in any evidence of mental illness in previous generations and the general psychological health of family members. Bowen questioned patients about the interpersonal relationships of their predecessors and about any hereditary traits. Also, if any significant traumatic events had happened in the family’s history.

Bowen’s aim was to create as detailed a history of as many members of the family as possible and covering at least three generations. He used this information to identify repetitive behavior patterns or mental health issues that could be relevant in the treatment of the current situation.

Intergenerational family therapy can be used for couples, and individuals, as well as for families. Frequently, scenarios from other families are used to illustrate situations, and members of the family receiving therapy express their opinions regarding this. They are discouraged from using accusatory statements and instead inspired to use the more positive “I” statements. These encourage the speaker to focus on their own thoughts or feelings rather than to blame and accuse the other party. This can lead to a calmer and more productive exchange of ideas, instead of putting people on the defensive.

Bowens therapy aims to improve the intergenerational transmission process so that future generations will not follow in the same destructive patterns. By making the person aware of the contributing factors from his past that have influenced his current condition he can be helped to find ways to break the ongoing cycle for the benefit of his own descendants.


What is intergenerational theory?

Murray Bowen’s intergenerational theory looks at how an individual’s behavior is influenced by the behaviors of previous generations of his family. Although called a theory, Bowen used close observation and detailed family histories to discover patterns within families. It has been said that his theory cannot be learned, it must be experienced.

The multi-generational transmission process looks at how the triangular relationship between parents and child can determine the person the child will become. The result of this is then passed on to the next generation often becoming more marked with each subsequent generation. Bowen noted that even small levels of differentiation between parents and their child could lead to notable and problematic differences over several generations. Relationships are the way in which differentiation is passed on. Transmission can occur in different ways. It can occur as the result of a conscious teaching/learning process, or as an unconscious and automatic programming of emotions.

Parents often actively try to shape their children into what they want them to be, and for each child, they will have a different vision and expectation. The child’s development of “self” will be influenced by the desires of their progenitors. Additionally, the child will also be shaped by his parent’s unconscious moods, actions, and attitudes which in turn had been formed by those of their parents. As human development is a slow process, children will gradually either submit themselves to the wishes of their parents or rebel against them. It is common in families with several children that some will develop a stronger idea of “self” than the others and that of their parents, and others a lower level of self-differentiation.

When the time comes to choose a partner, most people look for a mate with a similar level of self-differentiation. Due to these factors, one sibling will have a marriage that is more differentiated than that of his parents while another may have one that is less. These marriages in turn will produce children who are more, or less differentiated, and who will form marriages that are so also, and so the process continues. Eventually, the result can be clearly seen. People that are highly differentiated normally develop nuclear families that are stable, and they make a positive contribution to society. Poorly differentiated people rely on others to support them and generally lead chaotic, shallow lives. A person’s level of differentiation can influence their health, the stability of their marriage, and what they make of their life and the lives of their children.

According to Bowen’s intergenerational theory, most severe emotional and behavioral problems that people suffer have their roots way back in the past. Equally, those people who are well adapted also have their ancestors to thank for it to a large extent.

The complex nature of families makes it hard to understand the exact details of their dynamics, especially over a long period of time. However, Bowen’s theory stands strong and the therapies that he developed from it have helped many people to improve their own quality of life, that of their children, and that of future generations.

What is the Bowen family systems theory?

The Bowen family systems theory is based on the premise that our emotional system that governs our relationships is the product of evolution. We have a practical part of our brain which controls our day to day necessities, just like all other lifeforms. Humans, however, also have a “thinking brain” which controls our emotions and forms an important part of our psychological makeup, language, and culture. Our emotional system is evident in most of our human activities, and when it is unbalanced it can cause mental instability and illness.

Bowen’s family systems theory is based on the interactions found within the family unit and the result that these have on each individual member. It is a symbiotic theory in that whatever one member of the family is feeling or experiencing inevitably has an effect on the other family members. His theory of human behavior sees people as a product of their family circumstances.

The family unit is a natural form of social grouping. Relationships within a family are complex, changeable, and mutually influencing. Members experience intense feelings due to the proximity between them, which is inherent in the family unit. The dynamics of a family are unique to that particular group of people. Members are often vying with each other to gain approval, support, or attention. This can lead to tensions, alliances, and distancing.

If one member is experiencing problems this inevitably affects the rest of the family, and there is a level of interdependence between all members. Families are a cohesive unit where each person should cooperate to ensure that the basic survival needs of food and shelter are provided. However, frequently tensions arise, differences occur, and anxieties develop. Once the integrity of the family unit begins to deteriorate, the stress and anxiety can quickly spread to all members.

When this happens, relationships become strained, and often there is disintegration where one or more members feel isolated and distanced. Sometimes this person or persons will try to return to a balance within the family by absorbing the anxiety within the unit themselves. This can make them emotionally unstable and vulnerable to both mental and physical illness.

What is systems theory in family therapy?

The theory is based on systems thinking. This approach believes that an integrant of a system, in this case, a family member, will act differently when they are not in the system or the systems environment. In other words, to understand the behavior, emotions, or problems of an individual, they must be observed within their family unit and their position within the family considered.

Family systems theory consists of eight concepts that overlap and interlock.

1. Triangles

This involves the relationship between any three family members. It is the building block for all other relations within the unit and consists normally of an alliance between two of the people and the exclusion of the third.

2. Differentiation of self

A person with a well-developed idea of “self” generally exhibits calmness and is emotionally stable. Those with a poorly defined idea of who they are, tend to be easily influenced by others in their search for approval and acceptance.

3. The Nuclear Family Emotional Process

Defines four damaging relationship patterns. These are marital conflict, dysfunction in one spouse, impairment of one or more children, and emotional distance.

4. Family Projection Process

is the way in which parents pass on their own emotional problems to their children. These can include issues like feeling responsible for the happiness of others or depending on others to be happy, constantly seeking approval or attention, blaming oneself or others, acting impulsively, or becoming excessively anxious.

5. Emotional Cutoff

This occurs when a family member isolates themselves from the rest of the family because they have unresolved emotional issues that they cannot deal with.

6. Sibling Position

Is the idea that across families, children in the same sibling position exhibit common traits. Older children tend to be leaders while younger ones are more commonly followers.

7. Societal Emotional Process

Is the name given to the extension of Bowen’s theory into society and how this can promote periods of progression and regression in society.

8. Multigenerational Transmission Progress

The way differentiation between parent and child develops over generations, as discussed above.

What techniques are used in family therapy?

Family therapy theories fall within three categories.

  •         Structural family therapy

In this method, a therapy session is used to evaluate the relationships, behavior patterns, and structure within the family. An individual’s symptoms can only be understood when examined within the interactional patterns of the family. Therapy sessions focus on the present and center around current problems.

Family therapy activities include enactment or role-playing where the therapist proposes a scenario. Initially, the therapist will observe how the family members react in this situation, and later he will guide them towards more productive responses. Therapy also involves boundary-making, which can be both physical and verbal. Joining is an important ongoing technique used to create empathy and trust between the family and the therapist which is essential for progress to be made. As therapy advances restructuring will be used to change the way the family unit operates. This can include altering the current hierarchy to confront problems in a different way. Reframing is another technique where the therapist will give a different perspective on a situation and encourage the family to take a step back and look at the problem in a different light. Structural family therapy believes that relationships within the family will change when the attention is focused on altering the dysfunctional structure of the family.

  •         Strategic family therapy

has a more hands-on approach. The premise of this technique is that a dysfunctional family structure will naturally resolve itself once the relational strategies are modified. To do this the therapist evaluates the dynamics of the family outside of a therapy session. He will discuss with the family to identify the problems within the unit and work with them to set up goals. Reframing and redefining are again used to create the desired changes. Supporters of this technique believe that rapid results can be obtained without the need to get to the deep-seated root of the problem.

  •         Intergenerational family therapy

As discussed above, focuses on the influences that previous generations have on the current behavior of the individuals in the family and hence on the entire family unit, and on future generations.


author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings

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