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FTHY606 Systemic Attachment Processes and Neuroscience

Teaching organisation

150 hours of focused learning.

Unit rationale, description and aim

Researchers in a number of domains of practice are increasingly identifying the importance of transgenerational and cascading loss and trauma. Such trauma can be experienced by indigenous, refugee and socially disadvantaged marginalized families and is heavily involved in complex internalizing and externalizing emotional-behavioural disorders in children, adolescents, adults and their families. A number of family and systemic trauma based treatments have demonstrated enduring and effective outcomes with these complex individuals and their apparently treatment-resistant family systems. The delivery of these evidenced-based and research informed systemic treatments are essential to students as couple, family and systemic therapists and as professionals in the field, and require an advanced level of knowledge and conceptual and theoretical understanding emerging from research on loss, stress, coping, trauma and high prevalence mental illness. To deliver effective research informed Family and Systemic Therapy for complex families students need to learn how to assess family functioning and the nature of the trauma disrupted systemic processes, and recognize which aspects of the models, processes and practice they will need to use to tailor treatment to the specific family presentation. The unit addresses the impact on the individuals, particularly the impact of complex loss on parents and their capacity to nurture their children of different ages. The unit builds on research on attachment theory and neurophysiological-relational process, and focuses on loss and trauma as the core activation of the defence cascade in families. The aim of this unit is build to on FTHY608 Systemic Attachment Processes & Neuroscience by providing students with advanced level conceptual, theoretical knowledge and research on the processes involved in families surviving and adapting to cascading and complex losses. A particular focus of this unit is the most recent research indicating the far reaching impact of trauma and loss in relational-systems and how the fear-defence cascade in families is implicated in mental illness and recovery.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Demonstrate specialised knowledge of research-informed systemic loss-trauma and brain-mind based treatment frameworks and the associated practices (GA3, GA5, GA8)

LO2 - Critically analyse and evaluate the usefulness of integrating the loss-trauma cascade and brain-mind distinction into a systemic framework for clinical applications in therapy with couples and families (GA3, GA4, GA8)

LO3 - Design a case-based research project of direct relevance to their practice, utilizing research-informed systemic loss-trauma cascade and brain-mind distinction based treatment frameworks (GA3, GA8)

Graduate attributes

GA3 - apply ethical perspectives in informed decision making

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 


Topics will include: 

  • Conservation of Resources Theory (COR); and cultural & indigenous focus: how individuals, families and other relational systems respond to losses and cascading losses 
  • Conservation of Resources Theory (COR); culturally focused intervention in loss-driven relational systems (indigenous focus) 
  • Cascading losses, anxiety and depression, and the recovery model 
  • What happens in families when a child or multiple children die? 
  • Families and divorce 
  • High conflict families and divorce 
  • Systemic treatments for grief and trauma in children 
  • Systemic art therapy and other experiential therapies for treatment of trauma in children and adults 
  • Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) for the treatment of trauma in children and adults 

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

This unit is delivered in the context of a collaborative-learning and relational system, which is congruent with the systemic-relational concepts students are learning. It is offered concurrently with FTHY611 Advanced Live Supervision & Clinical Teamwork 2 and involves 40 hours of group learning, using an intensive workshop structure. Each workshop is either two or three days in duration, with a total of 40 hours per semester. There are about 4-5 weeks between each workshop, and in these periods students are supported to continue the learning-conversations begun during the intensive workshops, particularly focusing on the work they are doing on their case-based research project. In this relational learning context, students participate in a review of the principles of case-based research and they will be introduced to the findings from investigation in Conservation of Resources Theory (COR) and how individuals, families and other relational systems respond to loss, cascading loss and trauma. Students' clinical experience will bring a richness to the discussion of the research on the distinction between ‘mind and brain’ and how this has changed the way we think about and use and integrate COR theory into systemic work with couples, individuals and family systems. Students' clinical knowledge and practice is an active contribution to the lecturer led didactic presentations, case illustrations, critical analyses and evaluation of the material presented, culminating in reflection on their process of learning. 

Assessment strategy and rationale

The two assessment tasks used in this unit assist students to achieve the unit learning outcomes and develop the associated graduate attributes. 

Task 1: Literature Review (2000-2500 words), Graded  

By conducting and writing a literature review, students demonstrate their advanced skills in locating, organising, analysing, and synthesising information required to respond to their chosen question about the state of thinking and research in this area. Students demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the limitations of the conceptual material and treatment frameworks emerging from the integration of conservation of resources theory, neuroscience ‘brain-mind’ distinction and family and systemic therapy research and other relevant domains of knowledge. This assessment task further develops students as practitioner-researchers, and lays the foundation for their future contributions to the research base and their participating in research-to-practice-to-research. The task also includes a brief self-reflection on practice, acknowledgement of collaborative-knowledge sharing and discussion of ethical dilemmas, all of which are core to the development of expertise as a family and systemic therapist. 

Task 2: Case-Based Research – Comparison of two cases (2000-2500 words), Graded 

The purpose of this task is to develop students' knowledge and confidence as practitioner-researchers by demonstrating their higher level of knowledge of the case study research method, and the integration of clinically relevant research into their current work, with a case for which they carried clinical responsibility. This task allows students to demonstrate the capacity to select a question or theme evident from the literature reviews they conducted in FTHY608 and for this unit, and use the material to examine two cases, one from the previous semester, and a current case. This task further develops students as practitioner-researchers, and lays the foundation for their future contributions to the research base and research-to-practice-to-research participation. The task includes critical reflection and self-reflection of students' own practice, acknowledgement of collaborative-knowledge sharing, discussion of ethical dilemmas which emerged and how they were resolved, and identification and discussion of students' learning edges, all of which is core to the development of expertise as a family and systemic therapist.  

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

1.Literature Review (2000-2500 words).

Select, organise, analyse and synthesise scholarly literature required to respond to your chosen question about the state of thinking and research as is relevant to your practice. 


LO1, LO2

GA3, GA4, GA5, GA8

2.Case-based research – comparison of two cases (2000-2500 words). 

Develop a research project, using the Case Study Research method, using a client system you investigated for FTHY608 and one that you are currently seeing or recently completed work. 


LO2, LO3

GA3, GA4, GA8

Representative texts and references

Carr, A. 2012, Family Therapy: Concepts, Process and Practice, NY, Wiley-Blackwell.

Chapman, L., 2014, Neurobiologically Informed Trauma Therapy for Children; Understanding the Mechanics of Change, NY, Norton. 

Cozolino, L. 2010, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, NY, Norton.

Falicov, C. J. (1995). Training to think culturally: A multidimensional comparative framework. Family Process, 34(4), 373-388.

Freedy, J. & Hobfoll, S., (Eds), 2013, Traumatic Stress: From Theory to Practice, NJ, Springer.

Goodman, N. & Meyers, M. (Eds) 2012, The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations and Traces of the Holocaust, NY, Routledge.

Hobfoll, S., 1998, Stress Culture and Community: The psychology and Philosophy of Stress, NJ, Springer.

Hobfoll, S., de Vries, M.W., (1995), Extreme Stress and Communities: Impact and Intervention, NJ, Springer

McLeod, J. (2012) Case Study Research, London, Sage.

MacKinnon, L.K. 1998, Trust and Betrayal in the Treatment of Child Abuse, NY, Guilford.

Pavio, S.C. & Pascual-Leone, A., 2010, Emotion Focused Therapy for Complex Trauma: An Integrative Approach. Washington, APA.

Porges, S., 2011, Polyvagal Theory: The Neurophysiological Foundation of Emotion, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation, NY, Norton.

Reichelt, S., & Sveaass, N. (1994). Therapy with refugee families: What is a “good” conversation?Family Process, 33(3), 247–262. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1994.00247.x

Roberts, J. (2010). Teaching and learning with therapists who work with street children and their families. Family Process, 49(3), 385-404.

Satel, S. & Lilienfled, S 2013, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, NY, Basic Books.

Van Der Kolk, B. A., 2014, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, NY, Viking.

Weine, S. M. (2011). Developing preventive mental health interventions for refugee families in resettlement. Family Process, 50(3), 410-430.

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