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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Developmental and systemic approaches: The clash of paradigms in group care treatment

Wander de Carvalho Braga

It is exceptionally difficult if not impossible to hold two or more contrasting vantage points in understanding the same phenomenon – thus, the controversy between the individually oriented developmental practitioner and the system-oriented one. It is entirely possible that this type of controversy cannot be resolved on scientific/epistemologic grounds. It may very well be that ethical and esthetic preferences will decide. In addition, a utilitarian comment may be in order; that is, "the customer is always right." The purchasers of services will ultimately decide what works best for themselves.

With these cautions in mind, let me briefly indulge in a few comments.

  1. In family therapy, it is my impression that the theory lags far behind the practice. The latter is vital, exciting, challenging, and innovative. Observing family therapists (systemic or otherwise), one senses their people orientation, their openness to being scrutinized, and their efforts to demystify the process of treatment. Yet systemic theory is rather impersonal, full of electronic metaphors that in my opinion are no improvement over the so-called mechanistic, hydraulic, Aristotelian-Newtonian-Cartesian metaphors of the developmentalist.
  2. The developmentalist, because of his anchoring in psychodynamic theory, may be excessively focused on the intrapsychic, risking the danger of losing the broad perspective and neglecting the ecological reality of the individual in need of help. On the other hand, the systemic thinker, if he or she becomes a systems purist, risks the danger of neglecting the reality of the individual and its intrinsic contributions to behavior. People are not "black boxes."
  3. If the whole cannot be explained on the basis of the functioning of its parts, it also follows that the functioning of the parts cannot be explained by the whole. This concept is most important in group care treatment settings where the child or adolescent has de facto been separated from the family.
  4. Whether or not the concept of the mind (personality, self, ego, and the like) is an important one in the study of behavior is at the core of the controversy between systemic thinkers and developmentality The announcement that the mind is dead is probably extremely premature.
  5. The insistence on the part of systemic thinkers that their theory represents a new epistemology is probably incorrect. It would be more appropriate to refer to it as a new teleology. Witness the common dictum that symptoms universally have the purpose of preserving equilibrium in the family.
  6. Systemic family theory is in its infancy. The systems it deals with are closed (interactional/communicational) and unidimensional (tend to avoid biology and psychology). In pursuing a new paradigm, family systems theoreticians are throwing out both the water and the baby. There is very little place in their theoretical formulations for accumulated knowledge from various other disciplines that have studied human behavior, and their thinking truly represents a quantum jump in theorizing. Thus, it can be characterized as segregationist, at least at this stage of its development.
  7. Developmentally oriented group care treatment stands to benefit a great deal from practitioners who are versed in family therapy but who for the moment disregard systemic purism. Several approaches to family therapy are more easily integrated with the developmental approach: examples are (using Nichols’ [1984] classification) the various types of psychoanalytic family therapy, the group family therapy, behavioral family therapy, the approach of Bunny and Frederick Duhl, and very likely Kantor’s systemic family therapy These approaches give due consideration to the individual as a subsystem with properties of its own that cannot be explained on the basis of interactional systemic properties alone. Other approaches may cast residential group care practice into the role of villain. The assumption is that the residential setting, by removing the child from the family, may collude with pathologic processes in the family that themselves produce the symptoms. (Of course, it is probably a myth that every symptomatic child is scapegoated or a depository for family dysfunction.)
  8. The developmental approach stands to gain a great deal by further exploring ways of applying general systems theory to its theoretical constructs as outlined by von Bertalanffy himself [1966], Grinker [1966], Marmor [1983], and others. The developmental perspective has the potential of satisfying the five Bertalanffyan principles as enunciated by Gray et al. [1969]: (a) the insistence on an organismic or anti-reductionistic approach; (b) the insistence that the psychophysical apparatus is characterized by primary activity that is anti-robotic; (c) the demand that an adequate general systems theory must concentrate on those characteristics peculiar to the human species, such as symbolism, which establishes an anti-zoomorphic position; (d) the inclusion of anamorphosis (as opposed to isomorphism) and organizational laws at all levels as an essential component of advanced general systems theory; and (e) the requirement of values, affect, and morals as a necessary part of a new image of man, thereby establishing an anti-mechanistic orientation.


Gray, W, Duhl, FJ., Rizzo, N.D. General Systems Theory and Psychiatry. 1st Edition. Boston: Little-Brown and Company, 1969.

Grinker, R. The relevance of general systems theory to psychiatry. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 3, 1st edition. S. Arieti, editor. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1966, pp. 705 –721.

Marmor, J. Systems thinking in psychiatry: Some theoretical and clinical implications. American Journal of Psychiatry 140, No. 7 (1983): 833-838.

Nichols, M. Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. New York: Garden Press, 1984.

von Bertalanffy, L. General systems theory and psychiatry. In American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 3, 1st edition. S. Arieti, editor. New York: Basic Books, 1966.

de Carvalho Braga, W. (1988) Developmental and systemic approaches: The clash of paradigms in group care treatment. In Carman, G.O. and Small, R.W. Permanence and family support: Changing practice in group child care. Washington: Child Welfare League of America, pp.61-82

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