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Who developed the intergenerational model of family function?

Assignment Instructions

Write briefly in response to the following, using your text and one other reference (preferably from the APUS online library) and citing both in APA format. Your paper should be 1200 – 1500 words long, with no more than 50 words as direct quotes from a source.  Remember, the cover page and the reference page do not count as part of the word requirements.

Assignment 1:

Write a script for a conversation among 3 family members that illustrated a dysfunctional cross-generational coalition.  The script should be 1/3 to 1/2 of your paper.  Use the remainder of your paper to analyze the script, using relevant concepts and constructs from the text and whatever other article that you find.

Possible grade

Student grade

The paper addresses the issues specified by the assignment


The author shows insight and sophistication in thinking and writing


Two academic citations were used


Paper was well organized and easy to follow. Paper was the required length. Cover page, paper body, citations and Reference list were in the American Psychological Association format.


Few to no spelling, grammar, punctuation or other writing structure errors






  • The Family as a System
  • What Is a Family?
  • Traits if Family Systems
  • Structural Properties of Families
  • Essential Family Tasks
  • First-order Tasks
  • Politics of the Family
  • Family Strategies
  • Identity Strategies
  • Coping


In this course, you’ll learn about the different ways families interact, both with children and without children. Some are the traditional family made up of two married parents and their children, but there are several different and varied family types. These include single-parent families, stepfamilies, and same-sex couples and families.

Regardless of the type of family, all families must complete some family tasks and develop the skills and foundations necessary to complete those tasks. These common tasks are essential to the function of every family. However, the ways they are completed are unique to each family.

In this lesson, you will learn to understand how the family functions as a system, as you develop an understanding of family systems theory. You’ll learn about family tasks, and the strategies different families employ to complete those tasks. Topics covered include:

  • Defining the Family
  • Family Systems
  • Family Tasks
  • Family Strategies

The Family as a System

Family systems theory, developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, states that the individual cannot be understood outside of the context of the family. The family is a single, functional emotional unit, and all parts impact and change one another. All types of families, both traditional and non-traditional, function as systems.






What is a Family?

Families today, sometimes called the postmodern family, including traditional families, families with two working parents, single-parent families, divorced and remarried families, families formed through adoption, and families based on domestic partnerships. There are even families based on long-term, platonic relationships.

Today, only 24 percent of families are made up of a married couple with their shared biological children. Some 26 percent of families with children are headed by a single parent.

“In an expanded look at the structure of the American family the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2007, of the nearly 74 million children under the age of eighteen living in the United States, 67.8 percent lived with married parents, 2.9 percent with two unmarried parents, 25.8 percent with one parent, and 3.5 percent with no parent present”
(Anderson, Stephen, & Sabatelli, p.4).

As of 2006, more than 60 percent of women worked outside the home, and divorce rates have increased significantly. Around 40 percent of people will go through a divorce in their lifetimes. Divorce is correlated with many concerning factors, particularly for children. These include economic instability and poorer educational outcomes.

Several key struggles plague families today. These include child abuse and neglect, as well as intimate partner violence. These problems are more prevalent than many people expect or believe and are often not reported. Lack of reporting of intimate partner violence and child abuse has an ongoing and detrimental impact on families today.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of family systems theory?

Families are part of a microsystem, mesosystem, and microsystem.

A family is a complex structure made up of individuals with a shared history, bonding, and goals.

Families have boundaries, both internal and external.

Families use strategies to accomplish tasks and meet needs.

I don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Traits of Family Systems

To understand the family in the context of family systems, “the family can be defined as a complex structure comprised of an interdependent group of individuals who (1) have a shared sense of history; (2) experience some degree of emotional bonding; and (3) devise strategies for meeting the needs of individual family members and the group as a whole” (Anderson & Sabatelli, 2010, p. 6). The family system is defined by two parts.



In a family system, the most important factor is how the different parts of the system relate to one another. For a traditional family, this might mean the marital relationship between mom and dad, relationships between parents and children, and relationships between siblings. These all matter more than who the individuals in the family are, or how you might define the individuals in the family.

For instance, consider a two-parent family. Mom and Dad are married to one another and both are employed. They have three children, ages two, four and six. Imagine their daily life for a moment. Now, consider how your perceptions change if you’re told that Mom is a neurosurgeon. Dad works part-time from home. Does their daily life look different than you assumed when you first thought about it?

You probably imagined that either the couple shared parenting and home tasks equally, or that Mom carried more of those tasks than Dad. When told that Mom works an intense job, and Dad has changed his work schedule to accommodate the children’s needs, your image of this family changes. When you only knew the composition of the family, you had a poor understanding of how it functioned. When you learned about the rules that governed the family and recognized that the distribution of responsibilities was not what you expected, your understanding of the family changed.

Structural Properties of Families

Families are characterized by several distinct structural properties. The structure of a family includes both its composition, or members, and its organization, or rules. In the example above, you realized how the organization of a family could change or alter what you expect of the family.

While the structure is made up of composition and organization, family structures are characterized by a number of distinct properties.





Essential Family Tasks

Every family system must accomplish a range of different tasks. The rules in the family facilitate these tasks or enable them to be executed. Tasks vary widely. Keeping the home clean is a task, but so is socializing the children. Some tasks are shared by all families, known as first-order tasks. They exist regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Other tasks are more specific to individual families and family cultures and are known as second-order tasks. To execute tasks, families must be prepared to adapt their strategies over time. Families with higher levels of adaptability will more effectively be able to manage stress and change.

In this section, you will learn about each of the tasks. The strategies to complete or execute these tasks will be discussed in significant detail later in this lesson.


First-order Tasks

There are several different types of first-order tasks. As mentioned above, first-order tasks are tasks that must be executed by all families. These include identity tasks, boundary tasks, maintenance tasks, and tasks associated with managing the emotional needs of the family.


Identity tasks develop an identity for the family and the individual. There are three different and interrelated identity tasks essential for every family system. These are:

Constructing family themes. These themes become organizing principles for family life.

Socializing family members in biological and social issues. This includes gender roles.

Establishing a congruence of images of the family members. These impact the self-image of the individual.

While not a positive part of the identity tasks associated with family systems, some families may also establish family myths. Family myths are identity tasks that don’t match the image presented or interactions with the outside world.

Second Order Tasks

Second-order tasks are responses to stress or changes in the family system. The family system has to adjust and shift to adapt to both internal changes and external changes. Changes that trigger second-order tasks, like adaptability can be positive, negative or neutral. Examples of triggers for change, or for second-order tasks could include developmental changes in children, the birth of a child, death or divorce.



  • AdaptabilityAdapting to change in the family is the fundamental purpose of second-order tasks. Openness and responses to stress are essential to adaptability. Openness means that the family system adjusts based on external input and changes. Stressors can vary widely and may be internal or external. Changes in the family stress the strategies in place to execute tasks, and the strategies have to change to accommodate the changes in the family system.

Politics of the Family

When you think of the family, you likely think in private terms. You may think that the family largely impacts individuals, rather than society. While a common assumption, in fact, the stability of the family, and even the definition of the family, is also of significant importance to society at large. The government is involved in families in a variety of different ways, so there are clear political interests in the family.


  • You’ve already learned about the definition of a family for family systems theory. This is, “a family exists whenever a group of individuals regularly interact with one another over time, experience some degree of emotional bonding, share a common history and legacy and together devise strategies for the accomplishment of family goals and tasks” (Anderson, Stephen, & Sabatelli, p.16). Most of the time, families are formed through blood or marriage, but they don’t have to be—they can be formed through domestic partnerships or even very close friendships.

Family Strategies

All families must develop strategies to execute tasks, and all families must execute similar tasks. There are three distinct and interdependent aspects of the family system. These include the composition of the family, the tasks associated with the function of the family, and the strategies essential to accomplish those tasks.



Identity Strategies


Identity strategies  are family themes that let the family define itself, both internally and externally. Family themes are purposefully chosen. Sometimes, traits people identify as cultural are part of these family themes. For instance, if asked what you think of an Italian family, you might picture boisterous family meals, close relationships, and shared religion. Family themes can be positive or negative, shared by the family of origin of one or both parents in the family.

Family strategies are often based on these family themes. In this case, the themes may support positive behaviors or may repeat negative behaviors. Identity strategies can impact how members of the family see themselves and how those outside the family perceive the family.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Choose the answer that describes an identity strategy.

A couple chooses to dress their infant and toddler in gender-neutral clothing.

A married couple has two children and adjusts to childcare.

In a single parent family, the children have more chores than in a two-parent family.

A couple shares chores evenly in the household.

I don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Boundary Strategies

There are two different types of boundary strategies: external boundaries and internal boundaries. External boundaries define the family in relation to others outside of the family. Internal boundaries exist within the family, between different individuals or subsystems.


External boundaries divide and define what is inside the family from what is outside of the family. These boundaries can be quite varied. External boundaries may exist between the family and people who are not family, but also between the immediate and extended family.

In some cases, external boundaries take a physical form or are represented by a physical form. Imagine inviting a new acquaintance into your home. You probably sit in the living room or dining room, and you don’t invite them into your bedroom or other private spaces. This is an external boundary. Your best friend, who you think of as family, on the other hand, would follow you into your bedroom without a second thought.

These boundaries can also be set out in how physical spaces are defined. Think about two different neighborhoods. In the first, neighbors often sit out on each other’s porches, visit with one another, and have open yards. Children run from one house to the other in different yards. In the second, each house has a large privacy fence. Some homes even have fenced front yards. All the houses have alarm systems, and people rarely visit with one another. In the second neighborhood, external boundaries are much more significant than in the first neighborhood.

External boundaries can be quite open or tightly closed, as you can see in the neighborhood example. Different families have different external boundaries. The middle of the range of boundaries is the healthiest. Permeability defines how open or how closed the family’s external boundaries are.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

The Smith family rarely speaks, even though they all live in the same house. They don’t share information about one another’s life. They have:

Enmeshed boundariesPoor boundaries

Disengaged boundaries

Engaged boundariesI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Maintenance Strategies

Maintenance strategies are all those things that are done to provide the family with necessities, like food, shelter, healthcare and education. Maintenance resources are the time, energy and money used to complete maintenance tasks. There is a range of different options in terms of maintenance strategies. These options may reflect priorities and decision-making.

In addition to financial resources, maintenance strategies include how the home and family are managed and organized. Who cooks dinner, does the laundry, and pays the bills?

The level of organization or disorganization in terms of these maintenance strategies may vary. If the system for completing maintenance tasks is extremely disorganized, bills may not get paid. The family may not have groceries for dinner and meals may not be served on time. The family system is more likely to be chaotic. In a family with very rigid maintenance strategies, groceries are bought, bills are paid, and meals are cooked on time, but the rigidity may pose challenges in the home or family—for instance, children may not be allowed creative play because it’s messy.

Family systems are considered adequate if they successfully complete maintenance tasks. However, you do need to remember that maintenance strategies and the rules used to implement them often reflect the rules, values, and priorities of the family. For instance, in a family that stresses individuality and creativity, a much higher tolerance for mess may be acceptable.

Emotional Management Strategies

Healthy family systems provide the members of the family with support, nurturing and love. These promote security within the family for both children and adults. For most families, this is a goal, but not all families succeed.


Stress Management Strategies

According to Anderson and Sabatelli, (2010, p. 33), “Stress, from a family systems perspective, is the degree of pressure exerted on the family to alter the strategies it employs to accomplish its basic tasks.” There are two different types of stressors in families: normative and non-normative stressors. Normative stressors are expected developmental transitions in the family, like having a new baby or a child moving out as a young adult. Non-normative stressors are unexpected events, like the sudden death of a child, or a devastating and destructive event to the family home.

Stressors can also be divided into horizontal stressors and vertical stressors. Horizontal stressors are stressors that occur over time. Vertical stressors are specific to how families relate and function with one another from generation to generation. Multiple horizontal stressors at the same time can lead to significant dysfunction, but even minimal horizontal stressors can be a serious problem for a family with extensive vertical stressors.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

A family has battled a multigenerational pattern of addiction and poverty. This is:

A non-normative stressorA vertical stressorA horizontal stressorA normative stressorI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Coping Strategies

Adaptations are the ways in which families cope with various stressors. Coping is the use of strategies to reduce stress and maintain family functioning. Coping strategies include cognitive coping strategies and behavioral coping strategies. Coping resources are the skills and attribute the family has available to reduce and manage stress. Some families may have more coping resources than others, and may, therefore, better manage stressors. Coping efficacy is the success with which families can employ coping resources. Families that cope well with stress are considered resilient. Resilient families share a number of traits.



Cognitive coping strategies are the way individuals frame stress. For instance, a child moving out of the family home can be thought of as positive and exciting or negative and frightening. While not all stressors can, in any way, be framed in a positive light, some can. Even negative stressors can be talked about, and strategies developed to support the functioning of the family.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

A family loses their home to a tornado. When faced with the loss, the family tells a reporter that they are so thankful that their dog survived, even though he was in the home. This is an example of:

Behavioral copingCognitive copingFamily themesMaintenance strategiesI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.


Family systems theory provides a framework for understanding how families function, both in terms of shared traits of all families and unique qualities of each family. Family systems theory requires that the individual is understood in terms of the family. They are part of the overall system. The structure of the family includes its structure and its organization. Every family develops strategies and rules to complete tasks. While these tasks may be the same or similar from family to family, the strategies may differ widely.

Key Terms

  • C
  • E
  • F
  • H
  • I

Composition: Who is a part of the family.

Coping: The use of strategies to manage stress.

  • M
  • N
  • O
  • R
  • S
  • T
  • V
  • W

Maintenance Strategies: Strategies to accomplish essential tasks for daily living.

Morphogenesis: Processes that encourage or embrace change.

Morphostasis: Processes that resist change.


Anderson, Stephen A., Sabatelli, R. (2010) Family Interaction: A Multigenerational Developmental Perspective. London: Pearson Learning Solutions.

Dominguez, M. (n.d.) Performance competence framework: theory and practice. Retrieved from https://www.d.umn.edu/~kbrorson/TSWadapted/resources/PDFS/PCFramework1.pdf

Hardmann, A. (2016) Parental stress. Retrieved from http://www.extension.umn.edu/family/live-healthy-live-well/healthy-minds/dealing-with-stress/parental-stress/

Kerr, M. E. (2000) One family’s story: a primer on Bowen theory. Retrieved from https://www.thebowencenter.org/theory/

Life Enhancement Counseling Services. (2013) Healthy boundaries. Retrieved from http://lifeenhancementcs.com/relationships/healthy-boundaries/

Missouri Department of Social Services. (n.d.) Family systems theory. Retrieved from https://dss.mo.gov/cd/info/cwmanual/section7/ch1_33/sec7ch1.htm

Morgaine, C. (2001) Family systems theory. Retrieved from http://web.pdx.edu/~cbcm/CFS410U/FamilySystemsTheory.pdf


  • Models of Family Functioning
  • Defining of Structural Models of Family Functioning
  • The Organization of the Family
  • Coalitions and Unclear Boundaries in the Family
  • Development, Resources, and Composition of the Family
  • Adapting to Stressors
  • Creating Maps of the Family Structure
  • Defining the Core Concepts of the Intergenerational Model
  • Differentiation and Emotional Management
  • Unresolved Family of Origin Issues
  • Multigenerational Transmission Processes
  • The Genogram


In this lesson, you will learn about two different models of family functioning. These describe how families function within the theory and organization you already understand. You learned, in Lesson One, about some basic concepts, including the family systems theory, and that while families are unique, they all share many of the same basic tasks. Topics to be covered include:

  • Defining a functional or dysfunctional family.
  • Understanding the use of models of family function.
  • Structural models of family function.
  • Intergenerational models of family function.

Models of Family Functioning

Models of family functioning help to explain the strategies families use to complete basic tasks. According to Anderson and Sabatelli, these models highlight the ways in which the regular, patterned, and predictable patterns of interaction that occur within the family elicit predictable responses from family members (2010, p. 44). In order to understand family functioning, you need to know what defines a functional family and what defines a dysfunctional family.

For the purpose of this discussion, functional means workable. The family is accomplishing essential tasks. They may not be doing the tasks well, or in the best ways possible, but they are doing essential tasks. A dysfunctional family is not able to complete or execute essential tasks or to cope with stress. Understanding the impact of the family context is critical, as it provides information about how individuals act within the family. Family context also explains why some people act very differently with their family than they do in a classroom or workplace.

The first of the models of family functioning in this lesson is the structural model. The structural model of family functioning looks at the structural foundations of the family. The structural foundations of the family enable it to address its problems or to fail to address those problems.

The second model of family functioning in this lesson is the intergenerational model. The intergenerational model of family functioning is focused on how patterns of behavior and modeling established in past generations or the family of origin impact behavior in the family today.

Defining of Structural Models of Family Functioning

According to the structural model, the family has an underlying structure. Think of this as a foundation, like a building has a foundation. This structure shapes and supports all the interactions between family members. If the family has a strong structure, it will be better able to withstand stress. If the structure is less effective, the family is more likely to collapse into dysfunction during times of stress.

Three different dimensions support you in understanding family systems structure. You need to recognize and understand the family’s organizational characteristics, the ways in which patterns of family transactions are suitable to the family system’s developmental level and available resources, and the means the family uses to respond to stress.


The structural model of family functioning was developed by Salvador Minuchin and his colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s. They drew on their research into families, as well as their clinical work. In order to understand the structural model, you must understand the three assumptions that shape this model.

Organization of the Family

Family organization is made up of three different and interdependent factors. These are the organization of family subsystems—you’ll remember that a subsystem is a grouping of individuals within the family, relationships between the different subsystems, and the boundaries between the subsystems.

Subsystems in the family can be based on generational lines, gender divisions, interests or functions in the family. There are three primary subsystems in the family: parental, marital and sibling. Each of the primary subsystems has tasks it must execute for the family to function properly.




Subsystems are organized into a hierarchy. Some subsystems are above others in that hierarchy. Essentially, the family has levels of power, and there are often hierarchies within individual subsystems. For instance, in the sibling subsystem, the oldest sibling may hold the most power. Parents should always maintain the top point in the hierarchy. That doesn’t mean that the children’s thoughts are disregarded, but rather than the nurturing and resources flow from the top downward to the lower levels of the hierarchy. If the children in the family take on parental tasks, either in terms of nurturing or responsibility for the parents, this is called parentification. Parentification often leads to dysfunctional families and a poor upbringing for the children.

Boundaries are essential to the fully functional family. Boundaries “define who is in the system and its subsystems and regulate how family members are to interact with one another” (Anderson & Sabatelli, 2010, p. 47).

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which subsystem should be at the top of the hierarchy?

SiblingParentalFamily of originMaritalI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Coalitions and Unclear Boundaries in the Family

While boundaries are healthy and essential, some boundaries may be unhealthy. These can, over time, even lead to family dysfunction. When used effectively, boundaries help to preserve the hierarchy in the family and maintain stability. In the last lesson, you learned that boundaries could be disengaged, or overly rigid, or they could be enmeshed, or too diffuse. Neither option is positive within the family structure.

Think of boundaries on a continuum. Enmeshed boundaries are at one end of that continuum, and disengaged ones at the opposite end of the continuum. Healthy and appropriate boundaries fall in the middle of the continuum (Gilles, 2014).

Coalitions occur when two or more members of the family side together against another member or members of the family. An alliance occurs when two or more members of the family unite in a shared interest that, which may exclude another family member. Coalitions interfere with family function and health, alliances do not. Cross-generational coalitions, when a parent and child side together against the other parent, are especially damaging to family hierarchies and structure.

Boundaries and hierarchies within the family depend on a number of factors, including the family’s organization and composition, developmental level of family members, and available resources in the family.



What does a healthy boundary look like?

  • Parents in the family keep marital issues private from their children, whether those relate to sexuality or conflicts.
  • Parents do not use children as confidants or overshare personal information. If directly asked, they provide a vague and age-appropriate answer.
  • Parents do not publicly side with a child against the other parent. If need be, any discussions about conflicts in parenting style are private, rather than public.
  • Children feel open and comfortable speaking to their parents about private issues.
  • Conflicts are discussed and dealt with quickly. Issues are not left to fester.
  • When providing information, parents are conscious of what is suitable or appropriate for children.
  • Parents are thoughtful about what they share with one another if a child confides in them, based on family rules and ideas.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which of the following is the most damaging in the family?

SubsystemsCoalitionsBoundariesAlliancesI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Development and Composition of the Family



The developmental level of the family relates to the ages of the oldest children in the family. As children get older they gain more autonomy and may have more say in the general operation and tasks of the family. In some families, they may also have more responsibilities, or contribute to available resources in the family.

Consider two different families. In the first, the oldest child is four. She has two younger siblings, two and only three months old. In this family, the parents retain full control of the household, as children are not yet particularly capable of offering input. In the second family, the oldest child is 20 and no longer living at home. The children still at home are 14 years old and 16 years old, as well as a four-year-old sibling. The two older children still at home provide after-school care to the young child and help manage several maintenance tasks. In this family, the two older children are entitled to a larger say in the structure and management of the family.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Which of the following is an example of a resource adaptation to meet family needs?

Parents shifting work schedules to care for children.Parents caring for children.Teens moving out to go to college.Grandparents providing childcare for their grandchildren.I don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Adapting to Stressors

A functional system can adapt or adjust to meet the needs of its members. Adaptations are necessary for a variety of different reasons, including the changing developmental needs of children in the family, as well as shifts in family composition and structure. External factors may also require adaptation, like a new job or move for the family.

Adaptations can take different forms and may be appropriate adaptations or inappropriate adaptations. For instance, in a healthy family, when children grow up and leave the home, parents might choose to travel more, take up new hobbies, or start volunteer work. In a less-healthy family, this change might be met by a range of different and socially inappropriate adaptations, like a mental health crisis, feigned health issues, or excess drinking or reliance on drugs. The healthy adaptations to this change prepare all members of the family for a new future and an adult relationship. The unhealthy adaptations may leave children unable to leave home or move on and are psychologically damaging for all members of the family.

Families with effective hierarchies and appropriate structure in the parent-child relationship are more able to adapt to stress and change effectively. These families are less likely to become dysfunctional and fail to complete essential tasks.

Young family packing boxes to move

Creating Maps of the Family Structure

The structure of the family can be diagrammed or mapped to provide a visual understanding of how relationships, interactions, and boundaries work within the family. According to Anderson and Sabatelli, “Each family’s map is defined by its boundaries, the hierarchical relationships among family members, and by the alignment of subsystems within the system” (2010, p. 51).

Mapping allows you to answer a number of questions about the family structure, including:
Who has the power in the home and family, including dead people and non-relatives?
Who’s in charge of the home?
Who is aligned and who is conflicted?
Is anyone excluded from full family membership? By Whom? Why?
How does the family structure react to crises, major conflicts, and membership changes?” (Gerlach, 2015)

Maps provide a visual representation of family structures, useful to the structural therapist, or to the individual. You may want to try drawing a map of your own family structure to practice this technique.



Defining the Core Concepts of the Intergenerational Model

According to Anderson and Sabatelli, “Bowen’s model of family functioning focuses on how experiences in the family of origin establish a legacy that affects (1) the development of individual family members and (2) the patterns of adjustment found in subsequent generations of the family” (2010, p. 56). While the structural model looks at how individuals and subsystems relate within the family, the intergenerational model of family functioning focuses on how those relationships came to be, what led to these patterns of interaction in the first place.

While there are several different intergenerational models of family functioning, one of the most important was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen in 1978. Bowen’s model provides a functional framework to help therapists understand family interaction, based on extensive experience and research.


Differentiation is the key defining concept of Bowen’s intergenerational model. Differentiation is the amount of difference tolerated or accepted within the family. A family that is well-differentiated is tolerant of differences among individual members. A family that is poorly differentiated is not tolerant of differences among the members of the family. Tolerances are regulated in three interdependent processes: the regulation of internal boundaries, the management of emotional needs and responses and the execution of identity tasks (Anderson & Sabatelli, 2010, p. 57).

‘Difference’ here should be understood as individuality. This includes personal autonomy, independence, and privacy within the family structure. In a poorly differentiated family, fusion negates individuality. Families are closely meshed together and may believe that they think and feel as a single entity.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

Who developed the intergenerational model of family function?

Jay HaleyMurray BowenSalvador MinuchinSigmund FreudI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

Differentiation and Emotional Management

Differentiation impacts a number of different family functions, including the emotional management of the family. In a well-differentiated family, each member of the family’s thoughts, ideas and feelings are respected. The family’s goals for emotional management include empathy, sensitivity, and concern.

The more poorly differentiated a family is, the more likely it is to rely upon triangulation. Triangulation, much like the coalition described earlier in this lesson, is where two parties in the family join together to transfer tension or stress to a third party in the family or outside of it. The third party is not always a person—it can be a hobby, alcohol, drug use, or another external factor. Even healthy and well-differentiated families can, on occasion, experience triangulation.

Consider several examples of triangulation. Some of these types of triangulation are more appropriate or helpful than others.

Example 1: A married couple argues, perhaps over money or their intimate relationship. The wife in the couple confides in her sister. The two share complaints and this relieves some of the tension the wife is experiencing. In this case, diffusing the tension improved the marital relationship. The couple discussed the conflict calmly and were able to move forward.

Example 2: A father and teen daughter are not getting along well. Dad begins to spend more time away from home. He plays golf, and when he’s home, he’s in the basement drinking. There is less conflict because he’s not present, but the relationship between father and daughter continues to degrade.

Triangulation takes place in nearly every relationship. Well-differentiated relationships experience less conflict and therefore are less likely to experience triangulation. Well-differentiated individuals feel more secure and capable of managing their own emotions and resolving conflict in healthy and appropriate ways.

In moderation, it may not be harmful. For instance, using triangulation to distract from minor annoyances may reduce conflict without damaging the relationship. In some cases, diffusing tension may enable calm conflict resolution. More often, triangulation acts to avoid resolving the conflict. Unresolved conflict increases stress and tension within the family.

Differentiation and Identity

Identity tasks share family themes and stories to create a clear understanding of the family’s goals, values, and ideas. Differentiation plays a key role in how identity develops in the family and how identity relates to the individuals in the family.


In this lesson, you already learned that differentiation supports autonomy and independence. Identity can be more or less flexible in the family. In a poorly differentiated family, identity is more important than individuality. In a well-differentiated family, identity supports individuality. Differentiation in the family system is essential for differentiation of the self. Differentiation of the self is, according to Bowen, “the extent to which one has successfully resolved emotional attachments to one’s family of origin” (1978).

Differentiation of self is essential for healthy emotional functioning for the individual and within the family. Adequate levels of self-differentiation reduce relationship stress and provide individuals with the ability to remain an individual while participating in close personal and emotional connections. These individuals are able to be flexible in their relationships, sharing close emotional spaces, empathy, and conversation, while remaining separate from others.

People with a poor differentiation of self-are less able to remain individuals with their own identity while in a relationship. Fusion is common in their relationships, and they may place unhealthy or inappropriate demands on others in the relationship.

Unresolved Family of Origin Issues

According to Bowen, many people experience unresolved issues with their family of origin. These continue into adulthood, and may, for people who are well self-differentiated, be minor. For those with poor differentiation of self, they are likely to be more severe and have a greater impact on the individual and their daily life (The Bowen Center, 2016).

Unresolved family of origin issues often lead to immaturity, both with the parents and the younger adult. Many adults, even long after beginning to live independently, still feel like a child when visiting parents. This is a minor example of an unresolved family of origin issue. Unresolved family of origin issues may also present as anger or guilt. For instance, an adult child remains angry at one parent due to conflict within the family and works to create distance between herself and her parents. When she interacts with them, she feels guilty because their relationship is limited and relatively minimal.

People with significant unresolved family of origin issues may cope in three different ways. These mechanisms don’t just impact their relationships with the family of origin, but also relationships on a day-to-day basis with people outside the family of origin, including their relationships with intimate partners, and later children.




Multigenerational Transmission Processes


When individuals marry, they typically choose people with a similar level of differentiation of self to themselves. They come into the marriage with equal levels of family of origin issues. They bring their issues to the marriage and then pass those issues down to their children. This is called the multigenerational transmission process.

Children gain more or less self-differentiation in the family. This can depend upon several factors, including their position in the family projection process. A child that is less enmeshed with the parents is more able to develop differentiation of self. While multigenerational transmission may vary, it helps to understand why families so often repeat patterns of unhealthy relationships and interactions.

Understanding the impact of multigenerational transmission helps the therapist to recognize and understand how families relate to one another. Family patterns will, in many cases, repeat from generation-to-generation. Individuals can often work to resolve many of the issues created by their family of origin, but it can take active work and effort.

Knowledge Check


Question 1

In a family, one child bears the brunt of the parents’ anger. This is an example of:

AllianceTriangulationFamily projection processMultigenerational transmission processI don’t knowOne attemptSubmit answerYou answered 0 out of 0 correctly. Asking up to 1.

The Genogram

The structural model of family functioning uses mapping. Intergenerational models also use a similar sort of mapping, called a genogram. The genogram includes names, dates, and key events in the life of the family. Standard symbols are used to identify relationships. Using the genogram, it can be much easier to see and recognize the multigenerational transmission process.

You can create genograms by hand. However, you can also opt to make genograms using digital tools. Simple drawing programs can easily enable this, or you can use software designed for genograms, like GenePro. GenePro offers a free version, available at http://www.genopro.com/free/.


In this lesson, you have learned about two different models of family functioning: structural and intergenerational. These two share some traits and can be looked at separately or used together in a family therapy setting.

Structural models provide you with information about subsystems, boundaries, coalitions and adaptation in the family. Intergenerational models help you to understand the emotional impact of family relationships and strategies in the family of origin. You can likely recognize several overlapping ideas in these models.

Both structural and intergenerational models have a strong and ongoing interest in boundaries, stressors, and interdependence among members of the family. In some cases, these two models use different terms to describe similar concepts, like coalitions and triangulation. Both offer the option of using a graphic organizer to recognize family dynamics and interactions, with the structural model relying upon mapping and the intergenerational model using genograms.

Key Terms

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Alliance: When two members of the family join together over a shared interest, without damaging another party.

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Models of Family Functioning: Models used to explain how families interact with one another and their relationships.

Multigenerational Transmission Process: Passing family of origin issues from one generation to the next.

Overfunctioning: A partner who takes on too many responsibilities or a parental role.


Anderson, S. A., & Sabatelli, R. (2010). Family Interaction: A Multigenerational Developmental Perspective. London:Pearson Learning Solutions.

The Bowen Center. (2016). Eight Concepts. Retrieved from https://healdove.com/mental-health/A-Guide-to-Structural-Family-Therapy

Gerlach, P. (22 September 2015). Use structural maps to manage your family well. Retrieved from http://sfhelp.org/fam/map.htm

Gilles, G. (14 May 2014). Establishing healthy family relational boundaries. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/establishing-healthy-family-relational-boundaries/

Kerr, M. E. (2000). One family’s story: a primer on Bowen theory. Retrieved from https://www.thebowencenter.org/theory/

Stuart, Y. (20 September 2016). A guide to structural family therapy. Retrieved from https://healdove.com/mental-health/A-Guide-to-Structural-Family-Therapy


“Genogram Symbols” is licensed under public domain.

“Example genogram or family mapping symbols” by  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Genogram_symbols.svg .

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