“Butterflies on Strings”

Better ways of understanding the role of families in shaping trauma

Human beings are social creatures who rely on connections with others to survive and thrive. Our relationships with the people around us influence the decisions we make and our understanding of the world. In working with individuals with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) or other mental health issues, taking those connections into account is paramount to providing treatment that will be effective, meaningful, and lasting.

While connections to friends or colleagues can be important, connections to the family are the most critical connections to consider when working in the field of treatment. However, this can be a complex and delicate matter; families are complicated and often multigenerational, comprising numerous traumas at multiple levels. It can be challenging to know how best to address these vast networks of individuals in a way that will support meaningful treatment for the individual. 

One of the best ways to conceptualize the role of the family in shaping trauma is to consider Family Systems. Understanding the family as a system can help trace the traumatic roots of addiction or substance abuse and better locate the emotional or mental triggers at their core. 

Family Systems Theory

The term Family Systems Theory was coined by American psychologist Murray Bowen in 1988 [1]. The idea behind the theory is that a family unit is a complex social unit within which the interactions of individuals will influence each other’s behavior. Bowen’s theory has been expanded upon by many scholars—notably by Salvador Minuchin in his Structural Family Therapy model [2]— but the gist of it is that a person is as much a part of a family system as they are an individual. Their actions will in large part be determined by their place in that system.

This is not to say, of course, that individuals do not have agency over their own choices. However, Family Systems Theory was the first theory to propose that the interpersonal dynamics of a family—who says or does what to whom and how—might have a great deal more influence over individual behaviors than was initially conceived.

Consider the following example. Suppose a mother calls her seven year-old daughter into the kitchen and asks the young girl to relay a message to her father: dinner is ready. The young girl dutifully races upstairs to where her father is working in his office to repeat what her mother has said, but the father is busy and distracted.  Perhaps he is in the middle of an important piece of work and becomes annoyed at the interruption.  His tone when responding to his daughter is angry. 

The daughter, who has merely come up the stairs to relay a message from her mother, hears her father’s tone and thinks that he is angry with her. She may now feel confused and hurt and may associate being asked by her mother to do the task with the feeling of hurt she is experiencing. She may go back downstairs and find herself crying from fear the next time her mother asks her to do another simple task: set the table, for example, or go outside to call in her sister. In this way, the system of the family has directly influenced the emotional state of several individuals.

Butterflies on Strings

A good way to envision the system of the family, with all its delicate movements and connections, comes from the work of Sharon Wegscheider Cruse [3]. Cruse conceives of the family system as a hanging mobile—the kind that you might find above a baby’s bed. At the top of the mobile is a structure of sticks, below which are hanging several strings. At the bottom of each string, a delicate butterfly is dangling. 

These butterflies are the members of the family. Each butterfly is an individual person: mother, father, brother, grandmother, etc. The sticks of the mobile’s structure are the values and beliefs that hold the family together, and the strings are the roles that connect each individual to their family. So, if you have a family of seven people—father, mother, child one, child two, child three, grandchild one, and grandchild two—your mobile will be made up of seven butterflies dangling from seven strings, all attached to a frame of sticks above. 

The beauty of this metaphor is that while it portrays how fine and delicate all these relationships are, moving one of the butterflies by, for example, attaching a paperclip to its wing, will affect the entire mobile. The gentlest of touches to the structure of sticks at the top will result in swaying among all the butterflies below. 

Family Systems and Trauma

Picturing these butterflies, it becomes easy to understand how important family systems are to the formation and treatment of trauma. To begin with, each family member has the power to deeply affect each other member in the system with even the slightest movement. To return to our previous example, the father who becomes frustrated because he has been interrupted has unwittingly created a painful and fearful reaction in his daughter, and will potentially later evoke a shocked and frustrated reaction in his wife, who may find herself startled when her little girl cries when being asked to set the table. A moment of movement by one butterfly has sent three others on the mobile fluttering.

Trauma is never the isolated problem of an individual. Understanding the complicated relationship between the family system and trauma is critical to successful treatment practice. 


[1] Kerr, M. E., & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: An approach based on Bowen theory. W W Norton & Co.

[2] Colapinto, J. (2015) “Salvador Minuchin.” In Neukrug, E. (ed.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy . Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2015; pp. 661-663.

[3] Wegscheider Cruse, S. BLOG. Available at: https://sharonwegscheidercruse.com/blog/

Sign up for our newsletter

At your side whenever you need us.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our team here at Heather R Hayes & Associates. We are just one phone call away. 

Heather Hayes & Associates is your trusted ally for navigating the complex world of treatment and recovery options for substance abuse, mental health issues, and process addictions.

Contact Us
Media Inquiries

Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc, offers experienced, trained professionals with clinical oversight, providing discreet and compassionate services in any situation.
Heather R. Hayes & Associates, Inc. is committed to providing the highest level of care without compromise, and we are not employed by, nor do we receive any form of payment or compensation from, the providers with whom we consult for placement or referrals.

Contact Us