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The “Fuel” for Family Systems

Nov 3, 2020

Stephen Honaker LMHC, QS – Family Services Counselor

In my role as a family counselor at Hanley Center and Headwaters, I am frequently educating clients and family members regarding the topic of families as systems.

While it is true that people inherently understand that families come with many moving parts, it is also true that families are frequently not viewed as a type of a system – the same way that one may view the solar system, an eco-system or, for that matter, an automobile engine. And while systems have numerous components that are important for their operation, the most important component would be some form of fuel. Fuel is the catalyst that provides energy for the system and is responsible for causing the parts of the system to move or to operate.

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Solar systems need fuel, eco-systems need fuel, automobile engines need fuel and, yes, family systems also require fuel. But what types of fuel are responsible for operating a family system?

Family systems are generally what I would consider to be top-down systems. In layman’s terms, this simply means that the power within that system is concentrated at the top and flows from top to bottom. More simply put, parents normally possess the power within a family system (either equally shared power or primarily owned by one of the parents) and they use that power to create movement from their children. That movement may be directed towards schoolwork, extracurricular activities, household chores, following certain family rules or within a number of other areas. Having said that, there are occasions in which the parents directly or indirectly cede power to the children within that family. This type of family system is one in which children “run the show” and parents, to some degree, get their marching orders from the children. While we could use an entire paper to dissect this type of inverted family system, I would like to utilize this paper to generally focus on top-down family systems and, specifically, the type of “fuels” that energize those family systems.

Families are generally considered to be “open” or “closed” based upon how that family operates within a number of different areas.

Those areas include items such as communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, nurturing relationships, flexibility (willingness and ability to embrace change) and many others. While no families are perfect, open family systems tend to promote the overall health of both the family system and the individuals within that system. Closed family systems, on the other hand, have at least one major area of systemic malfunction (and normally more than one) that can create a harmful and unhealthy environment for the individual members of that family system. Closed family systems typically are also more focused on maintaining the “status quo” and not what is best for the individual members of the family. This distinction is important to highlight because open and closed family systems run on different types of fuel. In the remainder of this article, I will discuss those types of fuel.

The Fuel of Love

Within open family systems, the primary fuel for that system tends to be love. Love tends to be the emotional catalyst that drives behavior. It certainly does not mean that other emotions do not at times seep into the fabric of the family system. It simply means that the majority of the time love is the fuel which influences the framework of the family system. Structures such as rules and consequences, communication, conflict resolution and problem solving are created and maintained through the lens of love. Rules are created and maintained due to love. Examples may include:


When Mom and/or Dad do not allow daughter Susie to attend the party that many of her friends are attending it is because “we love you and believe that you are not prepared for many of the temptations that will be present.”


The family adopts an assertive communication style that reflects love and respect between family members. Opportunities to have genuine open communication such as at dinner or family meetings allow family members to cultivate stronger bonds with each other.

Conflict Resolution:

The family adopts a system that allows family members to avoid “walking on egg shells” and stuffing feelings so that conflict and disagreement can be brought out into the open and resolved.

Problem Solving:

Problems are not “swept under the rug” but are dealt with in a direct and loving manner.

All of the examples listed above, and potentially many more, are put into place and maintained in an open family system when love is the primary fuel within that system.

Alternate, Unhealthy Fuels for Family Systems

While no family system is perfect, and other emotions can creep into and begin to influence even the healthiest of open family systems, love remains the fuel and primary catalyst of operation in the open family. In less healthy, closed family systems, other types of “fuel” can and often do have a much more profound impact on the operation of those families. Just as some engines run on gasoline and others on diesel fuel, unhealthy family systems are more likely to operate on an alternate fuel other than love. This in no way implies that closed family systems are absent of love or that family members do not love each other. Quite the opposite. It simply means that the fuel that drives the “operation” of a closed family system has a greater likelihood of being something other than love. What are these “other” alternative fuels? While there could likely be multiple categories, I find it helpful to segment them into three: Power / Control, Fear and Shame.

Power and Control

Closed family systems can operate on the fuel of power and control. The power / control that rests within the hands of the parents (or parent) is the driving force that turns the spokes of that family system. Examples include:


Rules are often enforced with an iron fist. When daughter Susie asks why she cannot go to the party that her friends are attending, the answer she may likely receive is “Because I said so!”


Communication is frequently shut down and / or very superficial. The only person who can have an opinion is the person who holds the power within the family system.

Conflict Resolution:

Conflict and disagreements are often viewed as an attack. Conflict is normally not allowed (conformity with the one in power) and ended quickly.

Problem Solving:

Often the primary problem is if family members disagree with the holder of power within the family. “If I talk about the problem, I become the problem.”


Fear can also be a fuel that drives unhealthy family systems. While fear can be a much more subtle fuel and thus viewed to be less toxic than power and control, it can also have significant negative repercussions on the family system and members of the family. Examples include:


Rules are likely to be very restrictive. This is not because of a power and control issue, but due to the belief that the world is a “scary and dangerous” place.


Communication is likely to be quite passive due to the fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Difficult conversations are likely avoided, although communication may become “passive – aggressive” when strong feelings build up through non-expression.

Conflict Resolution:

Conflict is normally avoided at all cost. There is great fear of conflict of fear that someone may get upset.

Problem Solving:

Parents may solve most problems for children out of fear that they will make a mistake or be harmed in some way. Thus children may grow to be ill-prepared for the challenges of adult life.


Shame-based family systems may the most toxic for of family systems. When shame becomes the primary fuel of the family system, individual family members may feel a sense of brokenness and even worthlessness. Even more frightening, shame-based family systems are often multi-generational and move from generation to generation. Examples include:


The person (or people) that hold power within the family frequently use shame to solicit rule compliance and whatever other behaviors are desired. Mistakes are met frequently with shaming remarks, expectations are often unrealistic and validation is provided based upon performance.


Any communication that runs counter to the shame-based power holder(s) within the family is shut down via shame. Members are often shamed for having a differing opinion or communicating in a way that may reveal the shame of the holder(s) of power.

Conflict Resolution:

Conflict again is often seen as a personal attack. However, shame is now the weapon that is used to deflect and shut down conflict. Anyone who presents a challenge to the shame-based holder(s) of power becomes a target of being shamed.

Problem Solving:

Problems may be addressed as long as they do not threaten to expose the core of shame of the power holder(s) within that family. Any person who, directly or indirectly, threatens to reveal the shame of the power holder(s) automatically becomes “the problem.”

In closing, as you can see, the type of “fuel” that is used within a family system greatly influences how that system operates.

It influences the overall health of both the family system as well as the individual family members. Part of the work that I do as a family counselor at Headwaters is to help families identify what type of fuel their family system runs on. Once this is accomplished families can then, if desired, make changes that will allow their family system to operate in a healthy and vibrant manner.

About Headwaters

Headwaters is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 561-270-1753.

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