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A Systemic Approach to Family Therapy

Now that your child or family member is enrolled at Open Sky, do you find that you are asking yourself, “what now?” While your loved one is hard at work in the wilderness, rather than simply waiting to see what happens, you also have a unique opportunity to also look inward and to reflect on your family system through a new lens.

Open Sky emphasizes a systemic approach to our work with students and families. Systemic therapy is defined as:

“…a form of psychotherapy that conceives behavior and especially mental symptoms within the context of the social systems people live in, focusing on interpersonal relations and interactions, social constructions of realities, and the recursive causality between symptoms and interactions.” (Haun, Kordy, Ochs, Zwack, and Schweitzer, 2013)

As you can see, there are many variables to consider when assessing one individual within a family! Family systems theory, introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, asks us to consider how individual family members are influenced by each other. Behaviors of one family member can be better understood when taken in the context of a family’s history and family members’ interrelatedness.

At Open Sky, we understand that human beings are not “islands” with emotional, mental, and behavioral patterns unaffected by other societal and familial systems. We look closely at various degrees of connection and disconnection to family members and friends. Patterns of communication and behavior in students’ relationships with other students, guides, and therapists in the field are often indicative of patterns the student displays within the family system.

Family Systems Approach to Counseling

First-Order Change

Often, parents and families attempt to influence change in their loved one in a myriad of ways prior to even considering wilderness therapy. Many of these attempts create first-order change. First-order change occurs when a problem is addressed by performing more or less of a given action within the existing system. This is akin to changing your foot’s pressure on the gas pedal in a car with a manual transmission. By changing your foot’s pressure, fuel is added or removed from the system and this affects the speed and RPM’s of your car. The following is an example of first-order change:

  • Daughter comes to mom, describing struggle with substances and depression and the resulting bad grades she is earning at school this semester.
  • Mom attempts to “rescue” daughter. She signs her up for treatment and calls school administration asking to excuse her absences and grant extensions, due to “family matters” at home.
  • Daughter’s substance abuse and depression is addressed temporarily in treatment, but she feels no agency or control over her situation or the treatment selected. She distances herself from mom as a way to gain more autonomy.

Second-Order Change

First-order change is not as sustainable as second-order change, a fundamental rewriting of the system’s underlying rules.

“A system which may run through all its possible internal changes without effecting a systemic change, i.e., second-order change, is said to be caught in a Game Without End. It cannot generate from within itself the conditions for its own change; it cannot produce the rules for the change of its own rules.” (Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, 1974)

Returning to the example of driving a car, second-order change is akin to shifting gears. When we add gas within a particular gear we can achieve a restricted range of speeds and RPMs. After shifting gears we are able to achieve new speeds that were previously not accessible to us or were damaging to the transmission. Here is an example of how the mom in the previous example might initiate second-order change within the family system:

  • Daughter comes to mom, describing struggle with substances and depression and the resulting bad grades she is earning this semester at school.
  • Mom does a 3-fold breath and is aware of her own desire to “rescue.” Instead, she practices reflective listening and asks daughter what she can do to help. Daughter asks for help in researching treatment options and they select a path forward together.
  • Daughter feels more a part of the process, motivating her to take an active role in her recovery and relationship with her mother. She works on the underlying reasons for her depression and substance abuse, builds coping skills, and takes pride in her personal progress.

Systemic Second-Order Change is Essential to Individual Growth

We offer several theory- and research-driven Family Services to families at Open Sky and encourage them to dive deeply into the work of the Family Pathway. If a student returns home after Open Sky or an aftercare program and the other members of the family system haven’t created meaningful changes to their own relational patterns, it is likely that the system will eventually revert to old, familiar patterns.

An incredible opportunity for change is now before you. As the parents and elders of your family, you may be more in tune with the patterns and systems in your family that aren’t working. Take an active approach to Open Sky’s family-centered treatment to increase your self-awareness, evaluate your patterns that contribute to these old “rules” that aren’t working, and initiate healthy second-order change in your family system.

Learn more about first-order change, second-order change, and our family systems approach at Open Sky in our blog article, Family Matters: Family Programming in Wilderness Therapy.


Haun, M. W., Kordy, H., Ochs, M., Zwack, J., & Schweitzer, J. (2013). Family systems psychiatry in an acute inpatient setting: the implementation and sustainability 5 years after its introduction. Journal of Family Therapy, 35, 159-175.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution.New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Updated November 2019 – Originally published April 2018.

November 22nd, 2019

Brian Leidal, MA, LPC | Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys & Young Adults