It’s hard to change yourself, much less your whole family! Thankfully, family systems therapy is there to help.
Families are designed to resist change. Families are what scientists (and family-systems therapists) call “self-regulating systems.” Since self-regulating systems prefer stability, the self-regulation response automatically resists change. This can be tricky during family therapy (the point of which, of course, is to facilitate change)! Because a family is a system of interdependent members, it tends to interfere with changes attempted by individual members as well, since any significant change to a family member means change for the whole family.
So now you know why it’s so tough to change!
Family systems therapy takes these change-resistant, self-regulating dimensions of family life into account. One way a family systems approach addresses this resistance is to view change as occurring on two levels: first-order and second-order.

Family Systems Therapy: First-Order Change

First-order change occurs on the behavioral level without impacting the operating rules of the system. These changes are considered more superficial and less sustainable than second-order changes.
* John and Mary fight all the time.
* Tired of all the fighting, they decide to just stop talking altogether.
* Now they are no longer fighting, but they have not changed the underlying dynamic, or “rule,” of hostility that governs their relationship. They just don’t yell at each other anymore, but the dysfunction is still there.
First-order changes are considered less sustainable and less impactful than second-order changes but play a practical role in systems therapy. First order changes can create a temporary shift in systemic dynamics that can set the stage for more sustainable second-order changes.

Family Systems Therapy: Second-Order Change

Second-order change involves not just behavior, but changes, or “violations,” of the rules of the system itself.
* John and Mary fight all the time.
* Next time they fight, John does a silly dance.
* By engaging Mary in a somewhat ridiculous and unexpected manner, John has broken the rule of hostility (at least temporarily) and disrupted this habitual negative dynamic of fighting. The hostility that is at the root of their fighting is itself interrupted.
While approaches like behavior modification primarily seek first-order change, family systems therapy seeks principally second-order change. For a young person in treatment, successfully breaking dysfunctional family rules at the second-order level can transfer to other systems she participates in like high school, work, and eventually college. That’s because we tend to replicate rules from our primary system–the family–to other systems we participate in. So second-order change can occur for a whole system and/or for an individual member of that system, and it can occur for an individual across multiple systems. Powerful stuff!
So while the road to healing may be fraught with systemic resistance, take heart! By acknowledging this normal systemic resistance to change and outwitting it, family systems therapy can help revise even the most entrenched behaviors. It just takes some time, persistence, and maybe a little silly dancing.