Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.
What Is the Focus of Family Therapy?
The primary purpose of the different approaches to psychotherapy is to help people feel differently and to change their thinking and behavior. Individual and family therapies are approaches to understanding human behavior, and treating emotional and psychological difficulties in clients.
While individual therapy focuses on helping clients to gain insights into themselves and their problems in order to change, family therapy emphasizes the family system and changing its organization. Changing the organization of the family leads to change in the individual members.
The systems perspective views the family as a self-regulating system held together by unspoken rules to maintain itself. Structure is very important, and this defines how a family organizes and maintains itself.
What is also important is how the family adapts and changes over time; for example, learning to connect with teens. Psychological symptoms are viewed as indications of a dysfunctional family. Thus in family therapy, the focus of treatment is the family system, and not the problem or symptomatic family member.
Family therapy is a developing field with diverse viewpoints on understanding and working with families, and these approaches include:
- Bowens Family Systems
This guide focuses on structural family therapy (SFT). If you are considering family therapy or want to improve your knowledge of SFT, this article presents relevant information on its origins, key concepts, therapeutic goals, and some of the therapeutic interventions used in the approach.
Salvador Minuchin and Structural Family Therapy
Salvador Minuchin developed structural family therapy (SFT). This approach is considered to be the most influential approach to family therapy worldwide.
Minuchin was born in Argentina in 1921 and was trained in child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He moved to Israel in 1952 and worked with displaced children.
Structural family therapy was developed out of work with people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In the 1960s while he was training as a psychoanalyst, Minuchin began to develop structural family therapy through his work at Wiltwyck School in New York. This was a school for boys who were troubled. He recognized that he needed to see the boys’ parents for effective treatment of their problems.
Minuchin was self-taught in family therapy and collaborated with many of his colleagues including Jay Haley (strategic family therapy) in the 1960s. He was director and head of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic from 1965 to 1981. It was there that he refined the theory and practice of SFT.
Minuchin started his own center in New York in 1981 where he continued to practice and teach family therapy until 1996. He retired in 1996 and 2005 and continued to travel and teach across the world. He has contributed to numerous professional journals and co-authored many books including, The Craft of Family Therapy: Challenging Certainties, which was one of his latest books. In this book, Minuchin includes the basic principles of Structural Family Therapy (SFT) and explores the craft of the approach.
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Important Concepts in Structural Family Therapy
Structural Family Therapy is concerned with how families are organized, and the rules that govern their transactions. According to this approach, family problems are maintained by dysfunctional family structures or organization.
Families are organized in subsystems with boundaries regulating the way the members interact with each other. SFT recognizes families are competent and capable to solve their own problems. The approach also retains traditional views concerning the importance of power and hierarchy in the family.
SFT is an approach to understanding the nature of the family, the presenting problem, and the process of change. This change occurs in family members through a new way of thinking and restructuring of their relationships. The hierarchies, and the clear and even the hidden rules, must be understood before the therapist can help the family to change. This change could result in a better style of parenting and interacting in the family.
The three essential concepts in SFT are:
- family structure
- family subsystems
The family is a basic human system and consists of various subsystems. These are subgroups within the family’s structure with the responsibility to carry out various family tasks. Subsystems in families could be based on generations, gender, and common interests and role functions
These subsystems categories include:
- spousal (wife and husband)
- Parental (mother and father)
- Sibling (children)
- Extended (grandparents, other relatives)
The above subsystem categories are common, but there are numerous possibilities for sub-groupings. For example, a mother and her youngest child could form a tight subsystem from which others are excluded).
Each family member plays a different role in different sub-groups (subsystems). For example, consider the case of Pauline who is married with two children. She is a mother in the parental subsystem, a wife in the spousal subsystem, and third sister in the sibling subsystem of her own family of origin.
Each subsystem has appropriate tasks and functions. So when one subsystem, for example, the sibling subsystem, intrudes on another subsystem, such as the spousal subsystem, where it does not belong, this could result in structural difficulties.
There are rules that organize the way the family interacts, and different families interact differently depending on their rules. These repeated interactions promote expectations that establish lasting patterns.
According to Minuchin and his colleagues in Mastering Family Therapy, "Family members adapt to family rules that allocate roles and functions. This adaptation fosters smooth functioning, anticipating responses, security, loyalty, and harmony" (p. 33).
It is possible to understand the structure that governs a family’s communication patterns by observing the family’s actions. This would include which family member says what to whom, in what way, and also the results of the interaction. In addition, it is important to observe how appropriate the hierarchical structure in the family is.
The repeated sequences emerging in family therapy reveal the structural patterns of the family. But the family structure is reinforced by expectations that establish rules in it. The structure is also shaped partly by general, and partly by family-specific constraints. For example, all families have some kind of hierarchical structure, with adults and children having differing amounts of authority (Nichols & Schwartz, 2005).
If the underlying structure is altered, this will have ripple effects on all the family transactions. So according to Jorge Colapinto, “Consistent with its basic tenet that the problems brought to therapy are ultimately dysfunctions of the family structure, the model looks for a therapeutic solution in the modification of such structure.”
Boundaries are invisible barriers that allow contact between individuals, subsystems, and families. They protect the integrity of subsystems by regulating what enters and leaves them. For example, when children are allowed to freely interrupt their parents’ conversation, this erodes the boundaries separating the generations and the spousal subsystems from the sibling subsystem.
Boundaries range from rigid to diffuse. Rigid boundaries are very restrictive and permit little contact with outside subsystems. This leads to disengagement, where individuals or subsystems within the family become isolated. This could limit affection and support in the family system
Diffuse boundaries are unclear to the extent that others can intrude into them. They lead to enmeshment, where family members become over-involved in each other’s lives. While a sense of mutual support is beneficial, too much could result in lack of autonomy and dependence.
Clear or healthy boundaries are an appropriate blending of rigid and diffuse features. While clear boundaries help family members attain a sense of their own individuality, they also lead to a sense of overall belonging within the family system.
The lines below illustrate the three types of boundaries.
- ____________ Rigid boundary (disengagement)
- - - - - - - - - - - - Clear boundary (healthy range)
- . . . . . . . . . ...... Diffuse boundary (enmeshment)
Key Concepts in Structural Family Therapy
Organized patterns by which members of the family interact
Families comprise of coexisting subsystems
Regulate the contact between subsystems
Expectations reinfoce family structure
Subsystems include spousal, parental. sibling and extended
Range from rigid to diffuse
Sequences during family interactions reveal the structural patterns of the family system
Members in a subsystem join together to perform tasks for the benefit of the subsystem and the whole family
Rigit boundaries permit little contact with outside subsystems
Appropriate hierarchical structure is important in the family
Each family member may belong to several subsystems at the same time
Diffuse boundaries allow others to intrude into subsystems, leading to enmeshment
Observing the interactions among members indicates the structure
The spousal subsystem is especially important for family functioning
Clear boundaries are appropriate and facilitate parental and family unity
Goals and Techniques of Structural Family Therapy
The primary goal of SFT is to bring about structural changes within the family system. This is achieved by modifying the family’s way of interacting and developing appropriate boundaries. Another goal is to create an effective hierarchical structure where parents are in charge of their children.
The functions of the therapist are to:
- Join the family in a position of leadership so that it is active and involved.
- Map the family’s underlying structure (boundaries, hierarchy, and subsystems) and identify its potential for change.
- Plan and implement interventions to transform an ineffective structure into healthy functioning.
Some techniques structural family therapists use include:
1. Joining and Accommodating
Joining is the process of building a therapeutic alliance with every member of the family to get a picture of how the family interacts. From his or her initial greetings and comments, the therapist eases the family members’ anxiety and wins them over. It is important to build an alliance with each member of the family. The therapist conveys respect for the individuals in the family, and for the hierarchical structure.
2. Working with Family Interactions
The therapist gains insight into the problem through observing enactment or the spontaneous behavior sequences that explain it. Through this exercise, the therapist elicits information about the family structure and could help to:
- Discover if the boundaries are clear; for example, if two people can speak without being interrupted
- Determine who is on the defensive and who attacks
- Identify family members who are central and those who are on the periphery
- Find out if there is enmeshment, for example, parents bringing the children into their discussions.
3. Mapping Underlying Structure
The family structure is revealed when members interact, and mapping captures the interrelationship of the members. The therapist draws a family map to identify rigid, diffuse, or clear boundaries, transactional styles, and the structure of the family system, to discover changes that are needed in the system.
The therapist encourages members to role-play family conflicts within the session. He or she observes as family members demonstrate how they deal with conflicts. Then the therapist devises interventions to modify their interactions and creates structural changes in the family.
6. Boundary Making (Restructuring)
Boundary making restructures the boundaries and increases either closeness or distance between family systems. For example, in enmeshed families, interventions are intended to strengthen boundaries between subsystems and increase the independence of individuals.
During unbalancing, the therapist joins and supports, that is, briefly takes sides with one individual or subsystem as opposed to another. The goal is to use their authority to break an impasse in the family system and change the relationships in a subsystem or between subsystems.
Summary of Important Concepts About Structural Family Therapy
- Salvador Minuchin developed structural family therapy (SFT).
- Three important concepts in SFT are family structure, family subsystem, and boundaries.
- Family structure is dependent on the repeated interactions in the family, and its hierarchical structure.
- Family subsystem includes spousal, parental, and sibling
- Boundaries range from rigid to diffuse.
- Rigid boundaries lead to disengagement.
- Diffuse boundaries lead to enmeshment.
- A combination of the features of rigid and diffuse is considered healthy (clear) boundaries.
- The primary goal of SFT is to bring change within the structure of the family system.
- The structural family therapist assesses the family and instructs family members to interact to determine the structure and changes necessary.
- Some SFt techniques include joining, enactment, and unbalancing.
- SFT is suited for treating different types of families such as single parents, nuclear, blended, and extended families.
Closing Thoughts on Structural Family Therapy
This guide is intended to help you understand SFT's system focus on the problem of the family's structure rather than the individual perspective. Central to the approach is understanding the concepts of family structure, subsystem, and boundaries.
With an emphasis on these key concepts, the primary goal of therapy is to help to bring about structural changes in the family. Therefore structural family therapists are active in family sessions, as they make suggestions, and direct the activities of the family.
Importantly, structural family therapists focus on modifying the family structure within the immediate therapeutic context. As such, they use techniques including enactments, highlighting and modifying interactions, unbalancing, and boundary making to restructure family dynamics during the sessions.
Colapinto, J. (1982). Structural family therapy. Retrieved from http://www.colapinto.com/files/SFT.doc Accessed August 21, 2013.
Corey, G. (2001). Theory and practice of counselling and psychotherapy (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Doorey, Marie. Minuchin, Salvador. Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 21 Feb. 2014
Goldenberg I. & Goldenberg, H. (1995). Family therapy, pp. 356-385. In Raymond J. Corsini, & Wedding, D. (Eds.) Current Psychotherapies. Itasca, IL: Peacock Publishers.
Munichin, S., Lee, W. & Simon, J. (1996). Mastering family therapy: Journeys of growth and transformation.. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, Inc.
Nichols, M. P. & Schwartz, R. C. (2006). Family therapy: Concepts and methods. Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2014 Yvette Stupart PhD
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on December 04, 2017:
Hi Marshalee, I am very happy that you found the information on Structural Family Therapy helpful. All the best for your oral exam. I am sure your preparation will pay off.
Marshalee Johnson Spencer on December 04, 2017:
Hi Dr. Stupart. Thank you for this post. It has assisted me in understanding this particular family therapy better. The information is surely useful for my upcoming oral exams in Counselling Psychology at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on October 26, 2017:
Hi Thomas, thanks for reading my hub and your kind words. I am happy that you found the material helpful in your studies. All the best for your graduate work in Counseling Psychology.
Thomas Kiseu ( email@example.com) on October 26, 2017:
Thanks a lot for the wealth of knowledge you have shared in this article. I found your explanation in SFT easy to understand and was very helpful in my studies. Am currently in my postgraduate 2nd year Counselling Psychology studying at Kenyatta University in Mombasa , Kenya( East Africa)
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on August 13, 2017:
Thanks Martha. I am happy you found my article on Structural Family Therapy helpful.
Martha Anhalt on August 13, 2017:
Your methods of explanation and summary are clear and well done throughout this article. Thank you so much.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on July 23, 2017:
Hi Andy, I am happy you found my hub helpful. I wish you all the best for your studies and your pursuits to help at-risk teens and their families.
Andy Fires on July 22, 2017:
Thank you for posting this information. I am a 3rd year student at Fresno Pacific University studying Social Work. The class I'm in right now focuses on family therapy, and different ways to approach it. Since my overall focus is to assist at-risk teens, family therapy will be a big part of the picture. I found this information to be very helpful in the current assignment. Thanks again for your efforts.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on January 31, 2017:
Thanks Nikita for commenting on my hub and for your kind words. I wish you all the best for your further studies.
Nikita Thompson on January 31, 2017:
I enjoyed reading your article. I was introduced to SFT / Salvador Minuchin principles while in school here in Maryland. ( Washington Adventist University/ B. Sc. Counseling Psychology) . I am considering further study to apply to post graduate coursework/clients. Please continue to share your knowledge, I greatly appreciate it.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on October 31, 2016:
Hi Silvia, thanks for reading my article. I don't know any clinician who applies Structural Family Therapy in that area. However, you could contact the Minuchin Center for Family. They might be able to give you the information you need.
Silvia Hurtado on October 31, 2016:
Hello Yvette, I learned about SFT at Austral University in Argentina while studying Family Counseling. Do you know about a psychologist who applies this method in Chesapeake area. Md, DC, Baltimore?
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on December 04, 2015:
Hi Tamika, thanks for visiting my hub. I am so happy to hear that you found it helpful.
Yes, I am a graduate of Regent University and I had a great experience there. All the best for your studies and professional development at Regent!
Tamika L on December 04, 2015:
After reading your bio, I see that you were also a graduate of Regent where I am completing my degree! Thanks, I look forward to reading more from you.
Tamika L on December 04, 2015:
Thank you so much, I am a student in counseling. This information is very helpful to the new counselor.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on March 26, 2014:
Thanks DDE. Structural family therapy focuses on changing dysfunctional behaviors in a family through improving the organization and boundaries in the family system
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 26, 2014:
Family life is so important and your ways sounds most useful.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on March 15, 2014:
Thanks for reading my hub Eiddwen, and I'm happy you found it interesting.
Eiddwen from Wales on March 15, 2014:
Very interesting and voted up.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on March 04, 2014:
Thanks for you comments mylindaelliott. Structural family therapy is a popular approach to family therapy.
mylindaelliott from Louisiana on March 03, 2014:
Interesting approach to therapy. I think I have experienced parts of this but it wasn't called Structural Family Therapy.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on February 25, 2014:
Thanks FlourishAnyWay. Structural family therapy is said to be the most popular approach to family therapy worldwide. One strength is that it can be used effectively with different types of families - nuclear, blended, single parent, etc.
FlourishAnyway from USA on February 25, 2014:
I wasn't familiar with this, and I was very interested in your description here. Voted up and more!
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on February 25, 2014:
Thanks for your comments MsDora. Yes, the the focus of structural family therapy is to deal with the structure of the family system which includes the interactions and hierarchy. Change in the organization of the family leads to change in family members.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 25, 2014:
Interesting concept of dealing with the family structure instead of the family member. I can see how the procedures can influence the members and make the whole family more functional.
Yvette Stupart PhD (author) from Jamaica on February 24, 2014:
Thank you for visiting hub and commenting.
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on February 24, 2014:
I wasn't familiar with this approach. Very interesting. Voted as interesting. Thanks for sharing