Parents often bring their child (or children) to a counselor or therapist to help "fix" behavioral problems exhibited by the child. These behaviors could be some form of conduct or adjustment disorder, general disobedience, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, relationship issues or any number of psychosomatic complaints. Although this is likely a good step to take, parents need to realize that a child's misbehavior is more often than not a symptom of a family dysfunction. That is, problematic behavior on the part of a child, or adolescent, can be viewed as a message that the whole family system is in need of examination. The child is just the one acting out to bring attention to the fact that there is a "systems problem." Parents take their child to a counselor/therapist and say "fix my child." A much better approach would be for the family to go to a counselor and say "fix us."

A family is a system. A system is a collection of parts that act together. Systems tend to be self regulating. There is a mechanism which ensures a system will operate within a certain limits. The technical term for this mechanism is "homeostasis." It's much like a thermostat set to a specific temperature. If the temperature is set to 70 degrees and it starts to get too cold, the heater kicks on to raise the temperature. If it starts to get too hot, the cooler kicks in to bring the temperature down. In human terms it works like this: let's say a student is accustomed to getting C's on their report card. Their personal thermostat is set for average. If the student should start to get above average A's or B's the thermostat kicks in and causes the grades to go back down to average C's. Likewise, if the student starts to get below average D's and F's, the thermostat kicks in and efforts are put forth which raises the grade to the status quo of C. The family system also has a homeostatic function and every member of the family works to maintain that status quo. It is for this reason that behavior change in any one family member is difficult because the family system as a whole will tend to resist the change in that one member because the change in that one member can disrupt the established family system which strives to maintain its status quo through homeostasis.

As an example, consider a traditional nuclear family with two teenagers in which one is depressed and antisocial and the other is outgoing and friendly. The father is a busy professional and the mother is a busy homemaker with a part time job. The depressed teenager is labeled as having a problem. But, in some way, the family system is not only generating that behavior but is also supporting it. What does the family system, as a whole, gain from this behavior? That is the question a family therapist would explore, as opposed to focusing entirely on the depressed teenager. Because the family system is maintaining a depressed member as one of its components, the family system itself needs to change, not the single component. Attempts to change a single component within a family system without adjusting the thermostat within the family system as a whole often results in failed attempts to change the component. A family member can exhibit improvements in therapy and outside the home, but once that family member returns home, the homeostatic functions within the family system exert tremendous pressure to get back to the status quo.

It is said that a system is more than the sum of its parts. It is also said that when two people communicate there is actually six people; there is each person, how each person views the other person and how each person views themselves. In a family of four, there are many more than 4 present. Family systems communication can be very complex. Behavior problems within a family system are really not problems at all but rather signals from the system itself that the system itself needs to make some changes. The family system is not only self regulating but also self correcting. Rather than looking at any one person in the family as having a problem, look at that person as a voice of the system asking for help.

Author's Bio: 

Ken Fields is a nationally certified, licensed mental health counselor. During the past 25 years, he has helped individuals, couples, families and groups address a variety of issues ranging from spiritual malaise to children with autism. He has been a family therapist, a crisis intervention counselor and an administrator at a human service agency. Currently, Mr. Fields provides online counseling at