Families are More Than the Sum of Their Parts

Families are more that the sum of their parts

Families are more that the sum of their partsFamilies are More Than the Sum of Their Parts


My seven-year-old son loves rocks. His passion for the popular game Minecraft has led him to successfully beg for various forms of rock-smashing and investigating apparatuses like a hammer, microscope, and sorting boxes.

He is currently holding out for something that can melt rocks ….“We need to get a furnace!”

Start earning money kid.

As part of a lazy non-rock-smashing day we stumbled across a Netflix show on the elements that had just enough burning and exploding chemicals to keep him interested.

Between experiments and explosions we were surprised to learn that the human body is composed of only eleven elements, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium.

With all the curiosity of his seven years peaked, my son asked me excitedly to explain how all of those elements can combine to form humans and then quickly followed with the wide-eyed hope that he could make his own little brother!


I responded that I don’t really know exactly how it works, but that I do know that the whole is more that the sum of its parts.

He stared at me for a few seconds and, mercifully, a new explosion of some sort distracted him on Netflix saving me from breaking the bad news about his brother creation idea.

Later that day, after he was off doing something else, I was thinking about the idea that the sum is always greater than its parts. It is quite amazing that only 11 elements make up the human body.

Essentially, the idea that the sum is greater than its parts maintains that the relationship and interaction between complex individual things creates something new and more complex than the original.

Applying this idea to counseling we have the basis of systems theory. Anyone who has studied Salvador Minuchin will immediately understand what I mean.

Minuchin maintained that everything is composed of, or is a part of, a system of interlocking relationships.

Thinking in terms of a family, a family is composed of multiple people who are in relationship with one another. These interlocking and influencing relationships are called a family.

When working with a family this idea means assessing and addressing the entire family, the sum of its parts, and not simply the individuals that comprise it.

From a systems perspective an individual in a family who is experiencing distress of some kind may not have a problem that originated solely within him or her but could be experiencing a natural reaction to a family  dynamic that creates the distress.

By way of example, a child in a family who is experiencing a high level of anxiety in social situations may be reacting naturally to unusually high stress levels or expectations in the family as a whole. Perhaps the child loves the parents very much and has a great fear of not meeting the parents’ expectations.

In this example, the point of intervention may not be the child, but the family system. Helping the family system to reduce the level of stress then reduces the anxiety in the child.

The idea that the whole is greater than its parts is one that can be very helpful when working with families in the same way as it helps us to understand how we are greater than the sum of the 11 elements that form our bodies.

I would ask you, as counselors, to consider how the various relationships your clients are a part of may be influencing them and how they, in turn, may be influencing others and other systems.


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J. Christopher Hall, LCSW, Ph.D.

J. Christopher Hall, LCSW, Ph.D.

Chris holds a PhD and LCSW specializing in clinical individual and family therapy. He is a researcher, educator, practitioner, and supervisor with over 16 years experience. He has published chapters and articles in peer reviewed scientific journals and is an active scholar on the effectiveness of clinical practice.

July 12, 2014


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