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Brian Leidal

April 27th, 2018

Family Matters: Creating Systemic Change for Lasting Success

Brian Leidal, MA, LPC | Family Services Therapist

The “What Now?”

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.

Open Sky Blog - Second-Order change

At Open Sky, we understand that human beings are not “islands” with emotional, mental, and behavioral patterns unaffected by other people and societal/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.

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. You may remember from our previous blog on family programming that first-order change occurs when a problem is addressed by performing more or less of an action within the existing system. This is akin to changing your foot’s pressure on the gas pedal in the car. 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:

  • Mom discovers that her son is abusing his social media privileges. Mom confronts son, which results in a yelling match.
  • Mom restricts son’s privileges and their conflict is not resolved or revisited.
  • Son’s social media use is temporarily addressed but the underlying reasons for son’s abuse of this privilege aren’t addressed. Additionally, the ensuing conflict between Mom and son isn’t addressed in a meaningful way.

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 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:

  • Mom discovers that her son is abusing his social media privileges. Mom confronts son through sharing an I-feel statement. (e.g. – “I feel frustrated and distrustful when I find out that you are using social media in a way that violates our family values.”) The confrontation is tense, yet both mother and son use mindfulness to become aware of their escalating emotions and 3-fold breathing to de-escalate themselves.
  • Mom informs son that as a result of his behavior, which has violated trust and values, son has lost certain privileges related to social media use. Details of this consequence will be determined later, away from the tension of the conflict.
  • Son’s social media use has been addressed in the moment. A larger dialogue between mother and son about social media use, family values, and son’s wants and needs may occur later.

Open Sky Family Matters Blog - Second-Change

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 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.

The “What Now?” (Revisited)

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.


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.

Brian Leidal

April 27th, 2018

Brian Leidal, MA, LPC | Family Services Therapist