A Family System and Social Care Service Users


As social systems, families are complex organizations that are hierarchical in nature (Conoley, 2009, p. 1). Family dynamics consists of stable, predictable patterns of relationships. Rules normally unspoken, but known to members, guide these relationship patterns. Whenever one element in the system is altered, for instance, if an alcoholic member stops the habit, all other elements are affected. The entire family system attempts to compensate for the change. Thus, systems theory puts more emphasis on the wholeness of the social unit, and the interdependence of all the members of the system is emphasized (Zastrow, 2009, p.32). This paper examines the main dynamics of a family system, and the impact of a family system upon social care users, such as, drug abusers and alcoholics.

The Dynamics of a Family System

It is helpful to see the family within a systems perspective in order to understand the functioning of family. Understanding the concepts of systems theory assists one to know dynamic relationships among people. Systems perspective helps to conceptualize how a family functions. It also assists us understand how a family system is intertwined with many other systems. For instance, each member of a family is affected by what happens to any of the other members. In essence, the basic systems theory concepts applicable in family situations may include systems, subsystems, boundaries, rules, and others such as homeostasis, subsystems, input, output, and so on (Friel, 1988, p. 5).


A system is a set of elements that form an orderly, interrelated, and functional whole. Hence, families are systems. Any specific family is made up of a number of individuals, the elements that constitute a system. Each member has a unique relationship with the other member in the family. For instance, spouses have a special physical and emotional relationship with each other. Regardless of what relationships may be, together the family members function as a family system (Conoley, 2009, p. 2).


Boundaries are repeatedly occurring patterns of behavior that characterize the relationship within a family. Family system theories mainly concentrate on how families establish and maintain stable patterns of functioning. It looks at families as emotional units identifiable by certain boundaries. Family boundaries are parameters which determine who qualifies to be a family member and who is considered an outsider. They direct the way information, support, and validation of the family unit are sought and the manner new members are integrated into the family. Some families have very stringent rules that maintain a narrow boundary around the family. Limited sources of information or contact are permitted. Other families, however, extend the sense of belonging to a wide range of people who contribute ideas and resources to the family system (Thombs, 2006, p. 190).


Family togetherness is maintained to the extent that all family members adhere to a limited number of rules or implicit agreements that prescribe the rights, duties, and range of appropriate behaviors within the family (Anderson 1998, p. 173). Rules are formulas for relationships, and are guides for scripts, conduct and interactions in the family. They represent a set of prescriptive behaviors that define relationships and organize the way in which family members interact. Implicit rules, that is, unwritten, covert laws governing behavior, are often beyond the participants’ level of awareness; thus they must be inferred from observing family interactions and communications (Conoley, 2009, p. 9). Implicit rules that dictate the behavior of family members in relation to family issues may include; a father having the last word, children not talking back to their parents, children not involved in the affairs of adults, avoiding saying what you really feel, elderly parents being cared for by their children, respecting the privacy of other family members, never speaking about unpleasant things or feelings, never talking private family matters in public, and many others (Thombs 2006, p. 91).

Impact of Family System upon Social Care Users

Substance abuse can be described as a familial disease. Alcohol and drug use problems is familial in nature due to an apparent genetic predisposition toward substance abuse that runs within family and across generations (Johnson 2003, p. 64). Goodwin (Connors 2004, p. 147 ) estimates that “the risk of developing alcoholism to be seven times higher among first degree relatives of alcoholics than in appropriate comparison groups; the risk being particularly higher and the sons of alcoholic fathers”. Generally, substance abuse develops within a family system, often one that includes alcohol and drug abuse by parents and siblings. These families are often characterized by other problems in addition to providing an in appropriate method for substance use. These problems also include a high degree of conflict, chaos, unpredictability, and inconsistent messages to children about their worth (Johnson, 2003, p. 57). Rules that are exhibited in a more stable family system are broken. These environments are associated with family members having poor communications, perceived stress, domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, emotional or physical abuse, and sexual abuse. People raised in such environments of substance abuse will continue to experience emotional problems into adulthood, including depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder as well as substance abuse (Hepworth et al 2009, p. 382).

Consequently, there is clear evidence that substance abuse has negative implications on psychological and physical health of substance abusers; it also affects those members of the family who do not involve in substance abuse. Cook and colleagues (Connor, 2004, p.148) discovered that “alcoholics with more serious dependence have a greater number of and more severe alcohol related medical challenges than less severely dependent individuals”. Spouses and adult children of alcoholics have also been discovered to posses’ higher levels of psychological symptoms than comparison groups (Connors 2004, p. 149). As a result, families of individuals with substance abuse problems have increased use of health care services. Roberts (Connors, 2004, p.148) compared the health services use of members of intact nuclear families that included an alcoholic with those of matched controls from families not including an alcoholic. The results reflected significantly more physician visits and more medical diagnoses among alcohol involved family members than did the comparison group. They tended to have a higher degree of diagnoses of trauma and stress related ailments, reflecting the difficult emotional environment of the family setting of substance abusers.


In sum, absence of cohesion within family systems of substance abusers’ families is related to both the severity of the individual’s and the family’s psychological challenges and poorer prognosis of substance abuse treatment (Connor, 2004, p.147). Therefore, family systems impacts upon social care service users directly. For instance, if the physical and psychological problems of family members as well as those of substance abuser are not addressed, the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment may be compromised. In addition to possibly enhancing treatment efficacy and family functioning, substance abuse also tends to exhibit a positive effect of reducing use of health services by both the substance abuser and family members (Johnson, 2003, p. 160).


Anderson, H. (1998) The Family Handbook. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press.

Connors, Donavan, DiClemente (2004) Substance Abuse Treatment and Stages of Change. New York, Guilford Press.

Conoley, J. (2009) Positive Psychology and Family Therapy. New York, Wiley Publishers.

Friel, L. (1988) Adult Children: Secrets of Dysfunctional Families. Maryland, HCI Publishers

Hepworth, Rooney, Strom-Gottfrid, Larsen (2009) Direct Social Work Practice. New Zealand, Cengage Learning.

Johnson, S. (2003) Therapists Guide to Substance Abuse Intervention. California, Academic Press.

Thombs, D. (2006) Introduction to Addictive Behaviors. New York, Guilford Press.

Zastrow, Karen, Kirst-Ashman (2009) Understanding Human Behavior and Social environment. New Zealand, Cengage Learning.

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