Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Guest Blogger: Wayne’s World, 2013 Conference Reflections

By Wayne Caruana
Psychologist at CAMHS and an Early Psychosis Service

I wanted to share some of my thoughts about this year’s conference, firstly by congratulating Jenny and the team at the FSI for such an achievement in facilitating the 10th FSI Conference. I have been to 5 conferences now and have found them all very rich in learning in a very clinical and relevant way. This particular conference was a particularly special one for me, mainly because of the theme of the child focus, and also because I had the opportunity to present my own work which I enjoyed and meant that I felt a lot more connected to the conference. The pre-conference symposium worked very well, I believe, and was a great way to be introduced to the next two days of thinking and learning.

Some of the things which stood out for me during the Symposium were: The Parents as Teachers presentation from Dr Susan Colmar – I thought her work on the child-lead interactive book reading was so successful in improving the language of pre-schoolers because of the simplicity of the intervention. It was very accessible to parents and children, it encouraged parents to self-regulate and left children the space to experience their own success in story-telling.  Also it meant that mostly parents were able to follow-through with the work due to the rewarding interaction it stimulated between parent and child- this is not the case so much for parents who are asked to do homework with their children by a speech therapist. I know this from my own experience.  Anne-Marie Bickerton’s video from the “Staying Connected” program was a great tool which would enable parents to discuss their own struggles in managing reactivity in relationships in a way that was non-threatening, non-blaming in simple language. I look forward to this resource becoming more widely available to Clinicians. Sue Harte’s presentation demonstrated to me how genuine curiosity, and an attitude of co-researcher was able to facilitate a young adult stepping up in her functioning and gaining more separateness in the emotional system of her family. I took away some great questions to help me in my own work.

When I listened to Jenny’s presentation on her research in looking at family satisfaction with inpatient treatment for their adolescent, I liked the clarity of the presented dialectic between parental blame and the medical focus on the patient. It is clear that mental health systems have always struggled with this dialectic, and for me it is difficult to see how anybody listening to this presentation would not be clear about how Bowen Family Systems can provide a “synthesis” in this age-old unresolved nature-nurture debate. The things that stood out for me in Peggy Chan’s presentation were the cross-cultural relevance of working from a Bowen family Systems Framework, and how this work was able to calm the family system enough to see a significant improvement in a severe behavioural presentation in a 4 year old boy. One of the things that this presentation helped me clarify through some of my questions was that single-child families did not increase child-focus in the way I thought they would. According to Peg Donley’s observations, one of the important factors contributing to child-focus was the triangle between the mother, and often same-sex siblings. Jill Grundy it seems had taken on an ambitious research project in trying to separate child capacity from the relationship process with respect to educational achievement. I would think that the reciprocal process between teacher and parental anxiety would add an extra layer of complexity to the research. Jill’s hypotheses are clear and I can see how findings in this area would add value to intervention approaches to a child’s school under-achievement.

I want to also add that there were at least 7 of us from Newcastle Mental Health who attended the conference this year. Renee Verdon is a Clinical Psychologist who has recently left Newcastle CAMHS to enter Private Practice, and who has been interested in Bowen Theory for some time and came to her first conference this year. This is what she said about her experience:  “Overall, I found the conference very useful and it has definitely expanded my thinking around family relationships. I found the conference got me reflecting a lot on my own family of origin and beginning to question my relationships. Obviously this is an important aspect to working with clients in this way. I think this approach fits well with my values of working with people- i.e. there is no ‘superiority’ in the therapy room, no expert stance and at the end of the day no difference in all of our ‘human’ struggles. I think learning more about working in this way will improve me, not only as a clinician but also as an individual. “

If I was going to pick only one or two things I would highlight in my own learning from this conference I would say that it was the idea that Peg presented that “we tend to marry our parents’ relationship, and that we tend to marry the relationship to our primary care giver” For me this was very new, but also made a lot of sense and added more depth to my systemic understanding of the multi-generational process.  I know I have often thought of marriage in psychodynamic terms where we tend to marry someone who resembles our parent of the opposite sex. However Peg’s well founded observations have given me more clarity about this process.

With respect to Elizabeth’s research, I was quite surprised by the impact it had on me.  I am normally not very interested in research and more focussed on the clinical work. There were many complex ideas I did not think I fully understood but have been more motivated to go back over one of her papers in an effort to make more sense of how she is measuring the process of how parental differentiation is transmitted to their offspring. One of the things that I think I understood from Elizabeth’s research was that it was the parent’s ability to support their child’s autonomy that was overall the best predictor of the child’s functioning and ability to self-regulate. This was a better predictor than say positive synchronicity between parent and child.

However what I think I got mostly from Elizabeth’s research was a much greater respect and appreciation for the systematic notion of research. I was reminded of a Bowen quote:

“Thirty years ago, I was guessing it might be two centuries before human behaviour could become an accepted science. The events of the past 30 years have caused me to change that original estimate… During the past 10 years, the profession has suddenly become more interested in theory….When the human being believes he/(she) can do something it will be done. It leads me to believe human behaviour will become a science by the middle of next century.” (Bowen and Kerr, 1988 p. 386)

. There was also a quote which Peg presented:

“Although Psychology can continue to deal with the loftiest human aspirations it also must become rooted in the evolutionary realities of the brain if it is to become a true science.” (Affective Neuroscience, p. viii, Jaak Panksepp)

.  I observed Elizabeth’s approach to her area of research to be what I think, was a differentiated one, which showed real leadership in the quest for the study of human behaviour to be a science. Her presentation helped me to make some sense of what this process would look like, and inspired me to want to take some of my own steps to answer some of my own questions about family therapy.

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