The multigenerational approach to family therapy

We’ve all heard comments about how we resemble our parents or grandparents, not just in appearance but also in personality traits and habits. From “You’re just like your dad; he loves football too!” to “You’re as stubborn as your Grandmother!” or “Your calmness reminds me of your Grandpa.” While this mix of genetics and environment is usually harmless, negative generational thoughts and actions can impact family dynamics. If you sense such influences, it might be the right time to explore family therapy.

In today’s blog, we will delve into the details of this concept and discuss how it could assist you and your family in identifying and addressing any existing issues.

What is the multigenerational approach in family therapy?

The multigenerational approach is about taking a broader look at family dynamics, encompassing three or more generations. Therapists who incorporate these approaches cast a wide net, considering the individual and their extended family. They explore how intergenerational processes shape current functioning and collaborate with individuals and their family members.

According to the multigenerational theorists, we all carry a bit of emotional baggage from our parents; if not dealt with, it could sneak into every new relationship we venture into. These theorists argue that addressing these unresolved issues with your original family is crucial in personal growth and getting in sync with your multigenerational family system.

What is the Bowen Family Systems theory?

Murray Bowen’s family systems theory sees the family as a complex social system where members interact and affect each other’s behaviour. Instead of focusing on individuals, it considers the family as a whole. Changes in one person can impact the entire system, causing shifts in other members.


What are the key concepts of Family Systems Theory?

Emotional triangles

  • Involves three people and the interactions between them.


  • Triangles can help stabilise relationships but may also contribute to tension and conflict.


Differentiation of self

  • Refers to an individual’s ability to separate their thoughts and feelings from those of the family.


  • Higher differentiation allows individuals to maintain a sense of self in the midst of emotional intensity.

Nuclear family systems

  • Focuses on the immediate family unit and the patterns of interaction within it.

Family projection process

  • Describes how emotional issues are passed down from one generation to the next through projection.

Multigenerational transmission process

  • Examines how patterns of behaviour and emotional functioning are transmitted across multiple generations.

Emotional cutoff

  • Involves individuals distancing themselves from their family to manage unresolved emotional issues.


  • Can lead to challenges in forming and maintaining intimate relationships.

Sibling position

  • Suggests that the position of a person among siblings can influence personality and behaviour.

Societal emotional process

  • Explores the impact of societal and cultural factors on the emotional functioning of families.


Source: The Bowen Center



Unhealthy generational patterns

Generational patterns extend beyond the immediate family, influencing lives across generations. Think of it as a ripple effect that shapes how family members interact, behave, make decisions and navigate life. This ripple effect isn’t just about the individuals directly involved; it’s about the legacy we unintentionally pass down to our kids and their kids. Below, we take a closer look at some of these common examples:

Communication styles

Have you ever seen (or maybe you’re a part of) a family that never communicates? That tendency can be a hand-me-down, causing the next generation to struggle with expressing feelings and addressing issues head-on.

Coping mechanisms

If Aunt Mary always found solace in a bottle during tough times and Cousin Joe picked up on that, there’s a chance Joe might reach for a bottle too when life gets tricky. Breaking this chain becomes vital for encouraging resilience and finding healthier ways to deal with life’s curveballs.

Relationship dynamics

Family relationships, too, are part of this grand inheritance. If your parents had a rocky relationship with their parents, that dynamic might echo through your relationships and onto the next generation. Family therapy could hit pause on this generational soap opera, allowing everyone to sit down, discuss and hopefully rewrite the script for healthier connections.

Roles within the family

If Grandma always played the peacemaker or Uncle Bob was deemed the troublemaker, these roles might stick around like stubborn gum on a shoe. Family therapy is the intervention that helps scrape off that gum, allowing for a more balanced distribution of responsibilities and giving everyone the chance to break free from their assigned roles.

So why is it important to recognise these generational patterns?

Recognition and breaking the cycle

Recognising those generational family patterns is more than just acknowledging their existence; it’s a crucial step toward positive change. By understanding and acknowledging these patterns, you’re showing that you, as a family, are ready for change. And that change can come with therapy.

Therapy isn’t a magic fix but provides a structured space to work on your family dynamics. It’s not about placing blame or dissecting family members; it’s a collaborative effort. In therapy, you examine those generational patterns, decide which ones are worth keeping and actively work towards creating a healthier family environment.


What are the benefits of a multigenerational approach?

Multigenerational therapy doesn’t just stop at addressing generational patterns; it also benefits other factors:

Holistic understanding: A multigenerational approach in family therapy helps individuals and families develop a more holistic understanding of their issues by exploring the intergenerational patterns and dynamics that may contribute to present challenges. It considers how family history and relationships impact current functioning.

Communication improvement: The therapy focuses on improving communication within the family. By exploring and addressing communication patterns, misunderstandings and conflicts across generations, family members can learn more effective ways to express themselves and understand each other.

Enhanced problem-solving skills: Families often face challenges that require effective problem-solving skills. Multigenerational therapy helps individuals and families develop these skills by addressing issues systemically, considering the perspectives of multiple generations and finding collaborative solutions.

Increased empathy: Exploring family history and understanding the experiences of different generations can lead to increased empathy among family members. This enhanced understanding can contribute to more supportive and compassionate relationships.

Cultural sensitivity: Multigenerational therapy recognises the impact of cultural factors on family dynamics. This approach is sensitive to cultural differences and acknowledges how cultural values and traditions may influence family relationships.

Long-lasting change: Multigenerational therapy aims to create long-lasting change by addressing underlying systemic issues within the family. Instead of focusing solely on individual symptoms, the therapy transforms the family dynamic for sustained positive outcomes.

Inclusive approach: This therapy involves multiple family members, recognising that each person’s experiences and contributions are integral to the family system. This inclusivity helps include all members of the family, no matter what age and status they are.


When is it time for multigenerational family therapy?

Take a moment to reflect on your family dynamics and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Has there been a breakdown in communication between different generations within your family?
  2. Do family members often feel misunderstood or unheard in their concerns or perspectives?
  3. Have there been repeated conflicts or unresolved issues that span across multiple generations in your family?
  4. Are there patterns of behaviour or dynamics passed down from one generation to the next?
  5. Have significant life events or changes (such as a divorce, loss, or major transition) affected multiple generations in your family?
  6. Is there a lack of cohesion or disconnection among family members of different age groups?
  7. Are there long standing issues or traumas that have not been effectively addressed within the family?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to some or more of the questions above, it may indicate that multigenerational family therapy could benefit your family.

How can UKAT help?

Reaching out to UKAT means choosing a path towards positive change and a brighter future. Don’t let addiction and mental health issues define your life any longer – take charge and contact us today. Our experienced team is ready to listen, understand, and guide you towards a life of recovery and well-being.

(Click here to see works cited)

    • American Psychological Association. “Apa PsycNet.” PsycNET, 2016, psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-06282-009. Accessed 10 Nov. 2023.
    • ScienceDirect. “Family Systems Theory – an Overview.” ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/family-systems-theory. Accessed 10 Nov. 2023.
    • The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. “Learn about Bowen Theory.” www.thebowencenter.org/core-concepts-diagrams.  Accessed 10 Nov. 2023.
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