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Bowen Family Systems Theory – Psychology Report

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2020


Family assessment is increasingly becoming a fundamental area of concern for agencies dealing with child welfare and protection services. Hence, it is important for relevant professionals to adopt and implement tools and theories that will ensure all aspects of family assessment are covered (Johnson et al 1-2). The present paper uses Bowen theory to assess a neighborhood family, with the view of demonstrating a critical analysis of how the family dynamics can be explained using the theory.


The family in focus is made up of five people of Black American origin – the husband, wife, two children, and one relative. The father of the two children is an alcoholic who have neglected family responsibilities and is perceived as a pedophile. The wife receives financial support from the relative and well-wishers. Although the two children are bright academically, teachers have raised concerns that the children are no longer concentrating in class and appear withdrawn.

The older child, who will celebrate his tenth birthday this October, has been involved in a couple of fights with other children in and out of school. The other child, who is eight years old, maintain a distant relationship with peers and is not an active contributor in class discussions, not mentioning that he gets angry at the slightest provocation. Their mother appears socially withdrawn and does not attend community meetings.

Analysis of how Bowen Theory is Relevant to the Family

There is a general understanding among scholars and practitioners that Murray Bowen’s family systems theory (hereafter, Bowen theory) was among the pioneering theories that were intrinsically concerned with family systems functioning (Brown 94). In the development of the theory, Bowen’s major emphasis was predicated upon the patterns that develop in families in order to neutralize anxiety that is brought by the perception of intimacy or detachment in family relationships.

A major premise of Bowen theory is that “the degree of anxiety in any one family will be determined by the current levels of external stress and the sensitivities to particular themes that have been transmitted down the generations” (Brown 95). In this context, the theory is relevant in demonstrating that the level of stress prevalent in the family due to alcoholism and irresponsible behavior of the family head is directly responsible for the development of antisocial behavior among the school-going children.

Another important theme that can be identified in Bowen theory is that it treats the family as an organic unit consisting of equal members within a fluid, dynamic organization, which may assume either growth-promoting or pathogenic orientations. Consequently, according to Bowen, “the emotionally disturbed individual is not only a product of the family’s dynamic constitution but also a predictable component of the family’s operating system” (Schiff 16).

In this context, the theory best explains how the family’s dysfunctional nature as a result of alcoholism has impacted upon the normal growth and development of the children as well as the socialization capacity of the mother. The family’s operating system is geared towards enhancing stress and anxiety rather than stability and growth, giving rise to the observed antisocial behavior and emotional breakdown among the children.

This analysis of the family dynamics is further reinforced by Bowen’s assertion that a family is essentially an emotional unit whose normal functioning is meticulously sanctioned by its patterned approach to anxiety management (Schiff 16). In the case scenario, it appears that there is no patterned approach to anxiety management within the family due to dysfunctional relationships among its key members. Consequently, it is plausible to mention that the children formulate their own self-identity using the lens of their family’s emotional and behavioral characteristics (Johnson et al. 3). The fact that the differentiated sense of self of the father is that of a pedophile explains why the children are exhibiting aggressive behavior in and out of school.

Many scholars and practitioners apply Bowen theory to actual practice settings through his eight interlocking concepts, which include “triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional system, family projection process, emotional cut-off, sibling position, and societal emotional process” (Schiff 18). Although it is not possible to discuss these concepts in detail, it is clear they operate to some degree in every family. In the family context, for example, the most frequent triangle formation involves parents, one or more children, and the extended family, with extant literature demonstrating that such a formation reduces confrontation by enabling parties to use a third person to discuss their difficulties (Rabstejnek 5).

But due to the dysfunctional nature of the family in the case, children are left with no alternative than to engage in antisocial behavior as there is no triangle that forms the basis of stable relationships. The mother may be forced to transfer her affection to other people owing to the fact that the husband component of the triangle is absent, hence the relationship is unstable.

Another important concept in Bowen theory which can be used to explain the case family is the differentiation of the self or “the degree to which oneself fuses or merges into another self in close emotional relationships” (Schiff 23). Owing to lack of stable emotional relationships in the family, the children lack enough “self” to achieve their goals and hence may use mechanisms such as bullying, aggressiveness, rebellion or guilt to manipulate or influence others. Indeed, such behavioral orientations have already been reported by teachers.

In briefly discussing Bowen’s concept of the nuclear family emotional system, it is clear that the alcoholic nature of the family head is leading to dysfunctional relationships and therefore the progression of anxiety (Rabstejnek 7).

The relative only makes the family dysfunction more, at least according to Bowen, by accomplishing tasks that are otherwise reserved for the family head. This predisposition affects the family projection process and emotional cut-off concepts not only because of the fact that the family does not have an extended family to rely on in times of need, but also due to the fact that the children are still young and hence are unable to reduce or totally cut off emotional contact with their abusing father (Schiff 23).

Weaknesses of using Bowen’s Theory to understand the Family

The theory has received criticism for its male-dominated paradigm at the expense of mothers’ contribution to the family system, thereby failing to contextualize maternal behavior. Additionally, the theory has been criticized for lack of feelings in dealing with family systems and therapy. Indeed, it is asserted in the literature that Bowen theory “focuses on being rational and objective about emotional processes, which relegates to a low priority the expression of emotions in therapy” (Brown 101). However, in my view, the theory provides a balanced approach in dealing with emotional issues within the family system.


Bowen theory provides a tenable and practical framework through which interested parties can assess the needs and problems of families and provide the needed therapy or solutions to ameliorate the concerns. As demonstrated using the case family, the theory is relevant in attempting to understand pertinent issues as to why families’ dysfunction and the root causes of undesirable behavior exhibited by children from dysfunctional families.

Works Cited

Brown, Jenny. “Bowen Family Systems Theory and Practice: illustration and Critique.” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 20.2 (1999): 94-103. Web.

Johnson, Michelle A., Susan Stone, Christine Lou, Cathy Vu, Jennifer Ling, Paola Mizrahi and Michael J. Austin. Family Assessment in Child Welfare Services: Instrument Comparisons. 2006. Web.

Rabstejnek, Carl V. Family Systems & Murray Bowen Theory. n.d. Web.

Schiff, Sarah Eden. . 2004. Web.

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