All counseling and psychotherapy approaches share a common goal of producing change in clients. In this section, family therapy applications are differentiated from the applications of the individualistic approaches presented in the previous chapters. The goal is to help readers find ways to add systems-level interventions to both their clinical reasoning and their counseling or therapy tool bag.

Goals of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Family therapy represented a watershed in the history of counseling or therapy. Before family therapy the focus of counselors or therapists had been solely on the individual. The goal of counseling or therapy was always to change some cognitive, affective, or behavioral component of an individual. In contrast, family therapists aim to change systems within which individuals reside. Becvar and Becvar (2008) compared how the worldview of individual psychotherapy differed from that of family systems psychotherapy. Table 13.2 details the major differences they mentioned.

Table 13.2. Becvar & Becvar's (2008) Worldview Comparison

Individual Psychotherapy

Family Systems Psychotherapy

Asks "Why?"

Asks "What?"

Linear cause /effect

Reciprocal causality

Subject-object dualism


Either-or dichotomies


Value-free science

Subjective / perceptual

Deterministic / reactive

Freedom of choice/proactive

Laws and lawlike external reality


Historical focus

Here-and-now focus







The Process of Change

Family therapists use cybernetics to understand change – specifically, the cybernetic control processes involving information and feedback. Information in the form of feedback precipitates shifts that either amplify or counteract the direction of change. Family therapists differentiate between first-order change and second-order change. Lyddon (1990) defined these different types of change as follows:

First-order change is essentially "change without change" – or any change within a system that does not produce a change in the structure of the system. In contrast, second-order change is "change of change" – a type of change whose occurrence alters the fundamental structure of the system, (p. 122)

At any given moment, counselors or psychotherapists can only bring about one or the other type of change in their clients.

First-Order Change

First-order change occurs when a family modifies problem behaviors yet maintains its present structure. An example of a first-order change intervention is a family therapist's instructing parents when they can fight with their son over bedtime. By this intervention, the family therapist hopes to give the family relief from their problem behavior; radical change of present family system is not a goal. Family therapists call the process of bringing about this type of change negative feedback.

Second-Order Change

In contrast to first-order change, second-order change refers to transformations in either the structure or the internal order of a system. Family therapists often seek to generate or amplify change processes that will alter the basic structure of a family system (Nichols & Schwartz, 2003). This goal embodies second-order change. An example of a second-order change intervention is a family therapist's directing the more passive parent to take over bedtime compliance responsibility with the goal of changing the power dynamics in the marital dyad. Family therapists call the process of bringing about second-order change positive feedback.

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