is an approach to psychology that addresses problems within a
family by charting the relationships between family members, or between subsets of family. These charts represent
power dynamics as well as the boundaries between different subsystems. The therapist tries to disrupt dysfunctional
relationships within the family, and cause them to settle back into a healthier pattern.
Structural family therapy was developed by Salvador Minuchin, a family therapist born and raised in San Salvador, Entre Ríos, Argentina.
According to Minuchin, a family's functionality is based on the how well they adapt to stressors and their subsequent
creation of subsystem boundaries. Boundaries are what he called enmeshed, semi-diffused, and rigid. He noted that the
family subsystems are characterized by a hierarchy of power.
The Goal of Structural Family Therapy
The aim in structural family therapy is to restructure the family system into a healthier one. The therapist does this by
joining the various family subsystems during therapy sessions and intentionally causing upheavals which must then be resolved.
By using interventions in therapy will produce unstable situations, the therapist creates a situation that requires change to resolve the conflict
as well as a restructuring of the family dynamics.
Structural family therapy holds that change cannot occur unless pre-existing perspectives are modified, flexibility is increased,
and new ways of functioning are developed. To accelerate such change, the therapist manipulates the format of the therapy
sessions as described above, while at the same time isolating certain family members from the family. This is done in a variety of ways,
such as use of seating within the therapy room.
The goal of these interventions in structural family therapy is often to cause the family system to become unbalanced in order to help them
to see the dysfunctional patterns and to become willing to restructure. Once this happens the change can occur and be maintained
by positive reinforcement and positive feedback from the therapist.
Family Patterns in Structural Family Therapy
Minuchin believed that through observing patterns of interaction repeated across time and situations that an understanding of roles,
subsystems, coalitions, hierarchy, and rules of the family structure can be achieved.
Structural family therapy outlines three basic subsystems:
A family may be comprised of these subsystems and operate either according to either generic or idiosyncratic family rules.
- the spouse subsystem in which the couple relationship, its function and roles are contained;
- the parental subsystem in which the parental relationship including its roles and function are maintained; and
- the sibling subsystem in which the children’s relationship, function, and roles are contained
A family operating under a generic hierarchical structure places the parents at the helm, in good communication overseeing the family
together with mutually agreed rules and roles. A family operating under idiosyncratic structure might have the teenage children as
a team running the family, making the rules. The latter is considered problematic even if it is an adaptation to parental incapacity.
Family Boundaries in Structural Family Therapy
According to Minuchin, understanding a family requires identifying the processes and boundaries that operate the
subsystems and coalitions in that family. He defined three types of interpersonal boundaries -- clear, rigid,
or diffuse -- that determine the overall ability of the family to adapt successfully to change:
Either of the two latter boundary styles make it difficult to attain optimal adaptation because the family structure either lacks flexibility (it is too rigid) or has too much flexibility (it is too diffuse) to permit the successful re-adjustment of all the family members.
- Clear boundaries around generic subsystems are ideal because they are firm yet flexible, permitting maximum adaptation to change.
- Rigid boundaries imply disengagement between family members or subsystems. The prevailing non-communicative hinders support and limits effective adaptation.
- Diffuse boundaries imply enmeshment where everyone is into everyone else’s business. In this case, no one and everyone is taking charge and effective guidance during times of change is impossible.
Using Structural Family Therapy in San Jose | (408) 264-3082
In addition to identifying the parts that make up the family’s whole, structural family therapy defines the rules, processes, and
their interconnections in ways that are more versus less functional. The goal of the family therapist is to help family members understand
the current structure and the way it may be preventing effective adaptation. This is
often sufficient for powerful, long-lasting change.
Counseling and Psychotherapy Articles