Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

Function of the Symptom in Family Systems Theory

  • Jenna C. ScottEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_275-1


The Function of the Symptom is a foundational concept of family therapy. The concept extends family systems theory, which posits that parts of the family system are interrelated, and change in one part of the system brings about changes in other parts of the system (Bowen 1974). The notion emerged when family therapists observed that the presenting problems of family members play an important role in maintaining family stability or homeostasis. Family theorists termed this pattern the Function of the Symptom.

Theoretical Context

Early family theorists believed that the client with the presenting problem in a family, formally known as the “identified patient,” diverted conflict in the family. Diverting conflict helped maintain homeostasis in families. Articulating this pattern, family theorists in the 1950s developed the concept the “Function of the Symptom” (Jackson 1957). The idea that families need their problems to preserve stability can be linked to several early...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Bowen, M. (1974). Alcoholism as viewed through family systems theory and family psychotherapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 233, 115–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Haley, J. (1976). Problem-solving therapy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  3. Jackson, D. D. (1957). The question of family homeostasis. Psychiatric Quarterly. Supplement, 31, 79–90.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Jackson, D. D. (1959). Family interaction, family homeostasis, and some implications for conjoint family therapy. In J. Masserman (Ed.), Individual and family dynamics. New York: Grune & Stratton.Google Scholar
  5. Jackson, D. D. (1965). Family homeostasis and the physician. California Medicine, 103, 239–242.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Nichols, M. P., & Schwartz, R. C. (2008). Family Therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston: Pearson.Google Scholar
  7. Vogel, E. F., & Bell, N. W. (1960). The emotionally disturbed child as a family scapegoat. In N. W. Bell & E. F. Vogel (Eds.), The family. Glencoe: Free Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Kearns
    • 1
  • Bahareh Sahebi
    • 2
  1. 1.Iowa CityUSA
  2. 2.The Family Institute at Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA