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

A Psychiatrist reflects on Bowen theory

“The idea that a child’s symptoms may be connected to interactions with their parents is not unique to Bowen family systems theory; however the lack of blame and the clear explanation of how this may happen is something very useful…”

Dr Cybele Dey, Child, Adolescent and Family Psychiatrist, graduate of the FSI Certificate Program and now in Private Practice from the Family Systems Institute, writes on how the June conference presentations on the family engaged her thinking:

“Unraveling the Complexity of Child Focus”, the 2013 Annual Conference of The Family Systems Institute, was a wonderful opportunity to think and learn about clinical work involving concerns about children with Ms Margaret Donley, to gain useful insights from well-conducted research with Dr Elizabeth Skowron and to see how the two areas of research and clinical work relate based on Bowen Family Systems Theory.

The idea that a child’s symptoms may be connected to interactions with their parents is not unique to Bowen family systems theory, however the lack of blame and the clear explanation of how this may happen is something very useful that both speakers brought to life at this conference.

Ms Donley explained how while an interaction between a parent and child may not be helpful, it is done inadvertently by a parent who is unaware of how their response to the child is not based on a realistic assessment of the child’s needs and capacities at that point.

A lovely clinical example was where a mother described shifting from “what’s wrong with my child?” to “she (my child) can do it”. Ms Donley’s description of another shift allowing the mother to become aware of her own anxiety about her daughter starting a new school (rather than only seeing the potential problems for her child) and how this gave the mother options in how she could respond without involving her daughter in her own concerns.

Ms Donelly described how she understands the mother-child interaction as the main immediate influence on the child’s symptoms, but that this was simply the expression of the broader family relationships and not something located in a problem in the mother or the mother-child dyad.

I was challenged by Ms Donley’s presentation on “Sex, Drugs and Neuropeptides” with her elegant description of male and female partners’ response to stress, and observations of how similar these are in humans and non-human monogamous pair bonding mammals. Her observations of male prairie voles moving towards their female partner with more interest in sex and mate guarding in times of stress and females moving towards their children and broader female community and becoming less interested in sex seem to fit with many people’s experience. If these findings reveal human responses to stress, this may shed light on child presentations where the mother withdraws from the father and focuses on a child and the father seeks closeness through sex with the mother, perhaps explaining some of the challenge for parents to manage their relationship with their partner when stressed.

Keeping connection while supporting autonomy by allowing the child to solve their own problems was a theme that came through both in both main speakers’ presentations. Ms Donley described the “value in staying present while the child solves the problem”. I was interested to see that the idea of a “Good Enough Parent” (initially coined by Paediatrician, Donald Winnicott and widely accepted in Attachment-based work) was also a point of common ground for the two presenters.

Dr Skowron’s recent research was in a different population where the amount of life difficulty was very high and child neglect and abuse was occurring along with poverty, lack of education, substance use. Dr Skowron’s thoughtful work using a Bowen family systems theory lens with a genuine “research attitude”; in which she observed and responded to findings including those that challenged her expectations. Another overlap with other theoretical models was how parents initiating “repair” after a relationship “rupture” linked to being healthier, and research showing that children’s, rather than mother’s, attempts to do these were not as protective was intriguing.

I learned many things, and in particular was struck by her observations of the physiological stress response (seen in Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia) in mothers and children depending on whether the mother was involved in child maltreatment of that child or not. The increase in physiological stress experienced by mothers from the child maltreating group when interacting in a healthy way with their child contrasted with the non-maltreating mothers where their physiological stress was not related to their interaction with their child – “warm, affiliative parenting appears physiologically costly to Physically Abusing mothers”.

Dr Skowron’s finding that support for autonomy while staying present and connected was more strongly associated with healthy interaction between mothers and children, and much better at distinguishing the groups than warmth or other support was fascinating.

I look forward to the next chance I have to hear from either of these speakers and to think about the ideas that they have raised for me. Both presenters were so approachable and engaging – thank you!

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