What is a family system?
The definition of family starts with your immediate or nuclear family, meaning parents and children. And it also includes anyone who has frequent, direct contact with the immediate family. This can be grandparents, aunts and uncles, or family friends.
In blended families, the system includes former spouses, stepparents, half-siblings, and step-siblings. As you can see, a family system can be relatively simple or it can get rather complicated.
The system part involves how each person fits into the family. Probably the most important thing to know is that what happens to one person affects everyone in the family. The effect can be obvious like a job change or a school change. Or the effect can be subtle such as making a new friend or having a disagreement with someone.
For us science nerds, the relevant concepts are entropy and homeostasis. Entropy refers to the tendency of a system to fall into disorder or chaos. Homeostasis is the tendency for that system to return to its balanced state.
Every family has its own form of stability.
Every family has its own balance, which can be healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. If that balance is disrupted, that is entropy at work. The family will become less organized and may even lapse into chaos.
When this happens, the family will seek to return to the balance it had before the disruption. This is the power of homeostasis and it’s a powerful force.
Imagine an infant’s mobile that often hangs over a crib to entertain them. Various items hang on strings attached to an arm. They start in one place and move when touched. No matter how they move, they always return to where they started. A family is like that.
First and Second Order Change
Any changes will disrupt the family balance. Changes can be first order or second order. First order change can be tolerated by the family and is reversible. The disturbance is relatively minor and the family returns to its balance without much difficulty. An example could be that a child goes away to college. This requires an adjustment, but the family adapts and finds its balance again.
Second order change is more dramatic and it can happen by choice or it can be forced upon the family. What happens is so disruptive that the family is changed permanently and must find a new balance. Examples are a divorce or a death. There is no going back to the way things were. The family must find a new balance, which can be very difficult and unsettling.
Why is this helpful to know?
The main reason to know this is that change in the family is inevitable. It’s going to happen and there’s no escaping it. There will absolutely be changes and disruptions to your family system. Given that fact, how the family adapts to change will determine how healthy and functional it is.
Recognizing how your family system works do the following:
- It normalizes the anxiety associated with change.
- You can predict how voluntary change will affect everyone.
- You can understand better how to move in a healthier, more functional direction.
- You can understand better what is making the family unhealthy and dysfunctional.
Looking at your family system in this way provides a bigger picture perspective that leads to greater understanding, better health, and improved functioning.