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A Guide to Structural Family Therapy

Dr. Yvette Stupart is a clinical counselor and educator. She gives insights on how to experience emotional health and relational well-being.

Interactions between family members are an important frame of reference for structural family therapists.

Interactions between family members are an important frame of reference for structural family therapists.

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 understand human behavior, and to treat emotional and psychological difficulties in clients.

While individual therapy focuses on helping clients to gain insights on 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 a 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 to understanding and working with families, and these approaches include:

This guide focuses on structural family therapy (SFT). If you are considering family therapy or want improve you knowledge on 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- Founder of Structural Family therapy

Your Knowledge of Minuchin and SFT

Salvador Minuchin

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 in1921, 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 the lower socioeconomic background. 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 a many of his colleagues including Jay Haley (strategic family therapy) in the 1960’s. He was director and head of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic from 1965-1981. 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 his latest book. In this book, Minuchin includes the basic principles of Structural Family Therapy (SFT) and explores the craft of the approach.

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Overview and Role Play of Structural Family Therapy

Important Concepts in Structural Family Therapy

Structural Family Therapy is concerned about how families are organized, and the rules that govern their transactions. According to this approach, family problems are maintained by dysfunctional family structures or organisation.

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 their 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
  • boundaries
The members of a family cannot be understood in isolation because they function together.

The members of a family cannot be understood in isolation because they function together.

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 of 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, in 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.

Outcomes of Family Therapy

Family Structure

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 adult 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.”

In structural family therapy, the son is considered a member of the sibling subsystem while the father is a member of parental subsystem.

In structural family therapy, the son is considered a member of the sibling subsystem while the father is a member of parental subsystem.


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 in 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 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)