Family System Theory: Definition and Changes Over Time

Family System Theory: Definition and Changes Over Time
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  • 0:07 Family Systems Theory
  • 1:38 Types of Families
  • 3:35 Models of Influence
  • 5:40 Changing Trends
  • 6:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melissa Hurst
The term 'family' can have different definitions, such as a family of a mother, father, and children, or family units that consist of extended family members and friends. This lesson will define the family systems theory and explore various types of families, models of influence, and changing family trends.

Family Systems Theory Defined

To one person, family may mean a mother, a father, and children. To another person, family may mean a father, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sisters.

There is no right or wrong way to define family, and all of these various makeups influence the interaction of each person within the family. This lesson will define the family systems theory and take a look at different family types. We will also discuss how family members are influenced in various ways by other family members. Finally, we will talk about the current trends of families in the U.S.A.

The family systems theory conceptualizes the family as a system. That is, the family consists of interrelated parts, each impacting the other and contributing to the growth (or detriment) of the other. Further, the family is always changing, self-organizing, and adapting to its members and the outside environment.

This idea of a family operating as a system is a more recent perspective of human growth and development researchers. In the past, the focus on family research was almost entirely on the relationship between mother and child, and researchers indicated that the mother was the greatest influence on the child's development. This, however, is not what current research tells us.

Types of Families

In the past, there was typically one type of family in America, the nuclear family. The nuclear family consisted of father, mother, and at least one child. Even a family comprised of this few members can be complex. The child interacts with its mother, causing the mother to interact back and creating a reciprocal influence.

The presence of two parents, the mother and the father, makes this a more complex system. The child interacts with both parents, causing interaction in return from both the mother and father. Also, the mother and father influence each other in terms of parenting styles and interactions with the child.

If the simple nuclear family system is complex, just think of what would happen if we add more children to the system. The siblings interact with each other and their parents. Subsystems will form, and the coordination of parenting and functions will change depending on these types of interactions. Important questions, such as 'Will the mother back the father in his choices' arise or 'Will the rules be consistent for each child?' These types of questions will impact the family system operation.

The extended family system is where parents and children live with other combinations of family members. This system could consist of grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. In the United States, extended family systems are more common in African-American and Hispanic-American households.

Each member of the extended family plays a role in the system. The system becomes more complex as more members are added, and each have their own ways of dealing with children and each other. Different family members may have differing opinions of how to raise children, how to care for elderly grandparents, and what roles each member should play.

Models of Influence in the Family

In the past, there has been one model of influence in the family, the parent effects model, which assumed a one-way interaction of influence from parent to child. This model, however, does not take into account the influences of the other family members. Researchers have identified other sources of influence.

The child effects model of influence highlights the influence of children on their parents. A child's behavior, age, and disposition can greatly influence how a parent makes decisions and interacts with their child.

For example, a young infant requires a lot of one-on-one attention, causing the parent to have an attentive and sensitive interaction style. On the other hand, a toddler that is learning to walk and loves to say the word 'no' causes the parent to approach the child differently.

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