Image credit: Ben Earwicker

Think. Discuss. Act. Family

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Family as a Social System

To understand better the structure and dynamics of a particular family as a social system.


Family Observation Guide

We remind ourselves that we are not professional counselors or social workers. Yet, in a real sense, youth leaders and family/youth ministers are para-professional social workers and counselors and should receive some basic training in these areas. Some of the deepest emotional pains humans suffer come from families. Consider carefully, therefore, what is appropriate to share and the ability of the group and its facilitator to handle such possible pain.

We are looking at the family as a social system in the process of dynamic change—whether it is a more closed or open, “dysfunctional” or more functional unit. Whether an originally single-parent family, a divorced or blended family, or a gay family, these types may all be open, learning systems and be functioning well.

A family, like a community, is meant to function for the common good. That means the growth, healing, welfare and dignity of each member should be respected. Where there is basic trust, communication can be honest and helpful.

You are asked then to reflect on basic features of three families: first your family of origin from the standpoint of a child, tween or teen; then a family you judge to be well-functioning; then a family struggling with some obvious obstacles. You will notice several things about these families—one in the past the other two in the present.

Family Structure

First of all, who is included in this family? Would it be described as a nuclear or an extended family? Are there two biological parents in this home, or is there a single parent? Are there a grandparent or relative, step or foster children, or any other resident making up the group living in this home?

Does any member present this family with a special challenge: a physical or mental disability, an addiction or special behavior problem? How do you see this issue affecting the family equilibrium and functioning? Does it affect one or more members with greater intensity? Has the family adjustment worked to improve or diminish family wellbeing?

Family structure also refers to the way a family is organized. Experts and practitioners have used a box with four quadrants, which might also be seen as a spectrum from an autocratic structure (extremely hierarchical, perhaps even dictatorial), to authoritarian (set rules from the parents/top down by room for explanation and discussion), to democratic (where time is taken allowing for the family discussion and decisions, to permissive or laissez faire (where kids are left pretty much on their own). The very important issue of discipline (philosophy and practice) is included here.

Family Relationships and Communication

Here we might draw some scenic pictures and ask a set of questions.

Pictures might present a family sculpture of where people sit at the dining table or while eating. How they might place themselves at a family party or reunion? What kind of vacation, trip or excursion they might select, and the place of each family member on such occasions? (This might be a rough sketch.)


  1. How are emotions expressed in this family?
  2. What kind of physical touching occurs among the members of this family?
  3. What volume and tone of voice do different members use?
  4. How are boundaries set among the members of this family and between this family and relatives…and outsiders?

Family Among Other Systems

What external system(s) is/are most affecting this family positively and negatively? How is this family affecting systems beyond itself? How do you see the equilibrium among these social systems?

Family Planning and Concern for Each Member’s Growth

As a family system, how is this family respecting and learning with each of its subsystems or individual family members? How much is this family investing in the welfare and growth of each person living here? Are the personal needs for space, recreation, spiritual life, healing and growth being overlooked in the case of a breadwinner, caretaker, child, older son or daughter, or an elderly person?

Final Conclusions

What conclusions have you drawn from your observation and reflections on this family? What tone, temperature and color might you assign to their family life? Should you be Minister to Families, Youth, and Community, how might you, and the church, encourage and support this family?

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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