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20 Feb 2023

Theory Series: Family Systems Theory in a Military Context

By , Graduate Research Assistant

This month, Military REACH continues our Theory Series, where we break down the common frameworks family scientists use to better understand family experiences. Specifically, we will focus on Family Systems Theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). We will provide an overview of the model with examples from a vignette, connect it to military family experiences, and suggest how military families can use knowledge of Family Systems Theory to overcome the challenges they face.

Family Systems Theory Overview

Vignette: The 2002 Disney film Lilo and Stitch follows the adventures of Lilo and Nani Pelekai, two Hawaiian sisters, who must look out for one another after their parents die in an accident. Nani, the older sibling, becomes Lilo’s primary caretaker. To complicate things, the sisters are forced to adopt Stitch, an alien who crash-landed on Earth, as their pet. Throughout the film, the Lilo and Nani navigate their grief and adjust to their new family structure. Lilo and Stitch highlights the challenges that arise when life throws you curveballs, but also gives hope that family members can work together to overcome obstacles and create a new normal.

According to Family Systems Theory, a family system is a collection of interdependent family members who seek to maintain a balance in overall family functioning. Each family member adopts a role (e.g., parent, child, sibling) based on the behavior they exhibit when interacting with other family members. These interactions can take place among subsystems of family members (e.g., parent-child, spouse-spouse, sibling-sibling) or among the family system as a whole.

Key principles of Family Systems Theory (Smith & Hamon, 2017, Chapter 5):

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The family system is not merely a collection of independent family members. Rather, family members are interdependent, and their interactions and experiences contribute to family functioning as a whole.

  • Each member of the Pelekai family takes on an individual role (i.e., older sister/guardian, younger sister/dependent, and alien/pet). In addition to members as individuals, the network of relationships among Lilo, Nani, and Stitch (i.e., sister-sister, guardian-dependent, owner-pet) further constitutes their “family” unit.

Individual and family behavior must be understood in context. Each individual is a cog in the machine of the family. Understanding an individual family member’s actions or behavior requires considering their needs, perspectives, or experiences.

  • After losing their parents, Nani struggles to adapt to her new role as a parental figure and Lilo struggles to process the loss of her parents. The sisters’ individual stress influences their interactions with each another and leads to tension in their relationship.

A family is a goal-seeking system. Family members work together to achieve common goals. These goals change as families grow and develop over time.

  • At the threat of Lilo’s removal from Nani’s custody and placement into foster care, the sisters work to prove that Nani is a competent caretaker for Lilo.

Families are self-regulating systems driven by feedback. Families respond to change through positive feedback loops (i.e., change that sustains or enhances) or negative feedback loops (i.e., change that causes fluctuations in family functioning).

  • Though Stitch is initially a self-serving alien who creates chaos for the Pelekai sisters, Lilo’s repeated attempts at teaching Stitch kindness eventually lead the alien to understand the value of family love.

Family systems seek to achieve equilibrium. In response to change, family systems look for stability and return to the status quo (i.e., equilibrium).

  • Despite the wild adventures Lilo, Nani, and Stitch embark on throughout the film, in the end, their small family finds balance and creates a new normal.

Family Systems Theory and Military Families

Family Systems Theory emphasizes the importance of understanding the experiences of family members in the context of the family as a whole. This perspective of interdependence is particularly relevant for military families. For example, though Service members are deployed overseas and technically independent of their families, the at-home family members must respond to the stress and effects of deployment on their lives. Another example of familial interdependence is the lasting effects of trauma. Service members and Veterans who suffer traumatic experiences may develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD and its related symptoms (e.g., increased sensitivity, shorter temper) can alter how Service members and Veterans interact with their family members and it can affect their daily lives.

Thus, just as a pebble tossed into a pond creates ripples regardless of the pebble’s size, individual experiences – military-specific or otherwise – have consequences for all family members, interactions among family members, and family functioning (Monk & Marini, 2022).

Implications of Family Systems Theory for Military Families

Family systems theory is a useful tool for military families to understand how to respond to stressful events. Here are some points your family can keep in mind moving forward:

  • A family is a team. Think of each family member as a puzzle piece. Together, the pieces form a completed puzzle. One family member’s struggles can affect their relationships with and the well-being of other family members. Remembering that you are all on the same team and working together to support one another through family challenges (e.g., trauma, transition out of the military), can boost individual and family resilience.
  • Instability doesn’t last forever. Change is normal, whether the result of stressful events (e.g., deployment) or common family transitions (e.g., parenthood, children leaving for college). Though changes can disrupt a family’s functioning, families have a natural tendency to return to stability. Like the pebble tossed into the pond, ripples will form – but, with time, they will also cease.

    In some cases, families can stabilize on their own by reevaluating their needs and collective goals and proceeding accordingly. Other times, families may be unsure how to overcome especially stressful circumstances on their own. Instead of a pebble, think of a boulder dropped into a pond. This time, the ripples are waves, and they may overturn your boat. During uncertain periods, seeking professional guidance (e.g., marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling) may help your family overcome stress and change and create a new normal.
  • Communication is key. No one is a mind reader. When stress arises, family members need to communicate their needs. Doing so is easier when families establish clear communication plans and boundaries during periods of stability. Make it a habit to check in with one another and openly communicate your feelings. Ask what may be causing stress in your family members’ lives, so you’ll know when to be supportive. For example, when deployment looms, talk about what topics you will want to discuss during the deployment, how frequently you want to keep in touch, and which topics you want to wait to talk about until after the deployment.

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