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September 24, 2015
by Lorna Hecht, MFT

Thinking About The Ahmed Mohamed Case From a Family Systems Perspective

September 24, 2015 12:30 by Lorna Hecht, MFT  [About the Author]

Monday September 14, 14 year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested when school administrators and local police suspected him of having brought a bomb to school.Ahmed maintained that his device was a clock that he had built in a briefcase and brought to school to show his engineering teacher.  After being handcuffed and interrogated without the presence of his parents on suspicion of having a “hoax bomb,” he was eventually released but given a three day suspension from school.  (Cooper, 2015)

There are many potentially inflammatory aspects to this story: bigotry, racial profiling, mass hysteria, and violation of the rights of a minor.(Cooper, 2015) Some of these interpretations can be proven but others are speculative.   Family Systems Theory provides a unique conceptual framework with which to view Mohamed’s story in an attempt to move toward an objective explanation of events.    

Emotional Reactivity

"Emotional reactiveness in a family or other group that lives and works together goes from one family member to another in a chain reaction pattern.The total pattern is similar to electronic circuits in which each person is "wired" or connected by radio to all the other people with whom he has relationships. Each person then becomes a nodalpoint or an electronic center through which impulses pass in rapid succession, or even multiple impulses at the same time...." (Bowen 1978, pp. 420—422)

In the above quote, family researcher Murray Bowen, M.D., attempted to explain the way emotions become contagious in a family or group.  It has been pointed out that if, indeed, Ahmed was suspected of bringing a bomb to school, the response should have been to clear the school and call in a bomb squad.  This is not what happened.  It is imaginable that school and law enforcement personnel may have gotten caught up in an emotional reactivity that interfered with logical reasoning.  Ahmed himself would have been part of the emotional contagion as it was observed that he wasn’t forthcoming with information to the police.  (Owens, 2015) (There are details of the case that are not discussed here. The point is to use available information to illustrate principles of Systems Theory and not to assign blame to any individual or group.)

Why do Individuals and Families Turn Out Differently?

Bowen developed his theory as an attempt to explain the variability in human functioning.  He wanted to answer the question:  Why do individuals and families turn out so differently?  Some people are beset with physical, emotional, or social problems throughout their lives.  Some people go through bad episodes but recover.  Other people live lives that are largely problem free, or they seem to exhibit a great deal of resiliency when they experience normal life problems like the death of a family member, loss of a job, etc.  There is even great variation in the functioning levels of siblings raised by the same parents.  How does one explain these differences?  After observing hundreds of clinical families, Bowen developed the concept of the Family Emotional Process.  This is the process by which anxiety in the family system is disproportionately directed at the most vulnerable member of the family, often a child.  Anxiety is projected at the child in the form of worry and increased emotion, either positive or negative.  The child responds by accepting the projection and engaging in a reciprocal process of giving the family more to worry about.  Everyone knows a parent (or is a parent) who worries more about one child than the others.  In our society we have many names for this:  Gifted, special needs, ADD, sensitive, introvert, black sheep, etc.  According to Bowen’s Theory, all of these conditions may be valid, but they are part of a species-wide pattern of family emotional process. (Bowen, 1978, p. 12)

Bowen thought that a parallel process may also play out in the greater society in what he called the societal emotional process. (Bowen, 1978, p. 269) One group can be singled out for more worry, anxiety and projection by the larger society.  Jews in Nazi Germany have become arguably the most well-known example of this phenomena.  (The details of a reciprocal interaction are beyond the scope of this examination.) Many ethnic groups in this country have been on the receiving end of cultural projections over time; the Irish, African Americans, Jews and Catholics have taken, and continue to take, their turns.  Muslim Americans may be seen as current players in the societal emotional process in which Ahmed found himself an object of suspicion. 

The Universal Drive for Togetherness

The togetherness force is the name for the universal drive for acceptance, approval, and agreement by the group.  All living things have to operate as individuals within a group.  Even a lowly bacterial cell must “know” what is self and what is not self and must balance the need to belong with the need to protect self.  Humans are no different.  As part of the survival instinct, togetherness pressures intensify as anxiety increases.  As the togetherness forces amplify, forces for individuality are squelched.  In other words, it can become dangerous to be different. (Bowen, 1978, p. 277)

The togetherness forces can be seen to play out in at least two ways here:  School personnel and police joined together in dealing with the fear generated by Ahmed’s device.  The togetherness force discourages dissent and makes it difficult for anyone to speak out against the majority.  If anyone involved had wanted to handle things differently in this situation, it would have taken a certain amount of emotional strength to go against the group and say so. 

The togetherness force also makes it likely for suspicion to be cast upon a minority that has refused to join the togetherness of the majority.  This is seen throughout the world when those who hold a dominant religion or philosophy express discomfort or outright discrimination against those who refuse to accept it. 

Emotional Triangles Result From Tension

It is inevitable that tension will arise between any two people who spend enough time together.  The natural reaction is that one or both of them will involve a third person in the relationship.  This can be done through gossip, affairs, “venting” to an outsider, joining together to worry about or blame a third person, or hiring someone to intervene in a conflict (therapists, lawyers, consultants, mediators, etc.).  This is what Bowen called “triangling,” the purpose of which is to relieve anxiety in the emotional system by providing it with another “circuit” to run.  When the simple triangle is no longer able to absorb the anxiety in the system, another triangle will be created.  Bowen saw all relationship systems as connected series of interlocking triangles. (Bowen, 1978, p. 161)

At any moment in time participants in the emotional triangle form a two-insiders one-outsider configuration.  This insider-outsider formation can shift rapidly.  For example, in a simple triangle between a mother, father, and child, the mother and child may be chatting in the kitchen (insider position) while dad watches TV in the den (outsider position).  Then Dad comes into the kitchen and asks the child if she’s done her homework, moving the two of them to the inside position and Mom on the outside.  If Mom answers Dad for the child, “Yes, she’s done her homework,” then she’s moved herself into the inside position with Dad, putting the child into the outside position.  This is a completely ordinary interaction and simply describes the way humans-and probably other animals as well-form and maintain relationships. 

In larger groups people can figuratively “bunch up” on the corners of a triangle configuration.  In this case, teachers and police took the inside positions with Mohamed, and later his family, in the outside position.  Now that the story has reached a national audience, many members of society have “bunched up,” again in triangle fashion.  President Obama has contacted Mohamed, putting them in the inside position. (Fernandez, M., & Hauser, C. 2015)School, police, and their supporters are currently in the outside position in that triangle.  TV personality Bill Maher took an inside position with the police and school by supporting their handling of the situation, which then put Ahmed into the outside position of the triangle. (Bradley, 2015)

There is a valuable purpose to examining the details of Ahmed’s story through the lens of Family Systems Theory.  Understanding human behavior as a part of nature helps to alleviate the tendency to assign blame and leaves us more open to owning and addressing the areas in which we, as individuals and a society, could stand to improve. 


Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: J. Aronson, 1978. Print.

Bradley, Bill. "Bill Maher Wants America To Tone Down Ahmed Mohamed Outrage." Huffpost Comedy., Inc., 19 Sept. 2015. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <>.
Cooper, R. (2015, September 17). The Ahmed Mohamed fiasco: When racial stereotyping meets scientific illiteracy. Retrieved September 20, 2015.
Fernandez, M., & Hauser, C. (2015, September 16). Handcuffed for Making Clock, Ahmed Mohamed, 14, Wins Time With Obama. The New York Times. Retrieved September 20, 2015, from
Owens, M. (2015, September 16). Irving PD chief: Student will not be charged. Retrieved September 20, 2015, from

About the Author

Lorna Hecht Lorna Hecht, MFT

I specialize in the study of human relationships and behavior and have extensive advanced training in Family Systems Theory, including attendance at the Bowen Center for The Study of the Family in Washington, D.C. from 2012-2015. My private practice is in San Diego, CA, centrally located in Mission Valley.

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Phone: 619-838-4551
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