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What is Structural Family Therapy?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Structural family therapy is an approach to treating various psychiatric problems by looking into family dynamics and trying to change them. Therapists who practice structural family therapy generally believe that many problems can be traced back to bad group dynamics in the family setting. The therapist tries to insert himself into the family group during therapy sessions so that he can understand what is going on and eventually attempts to make changes from within.

People who practice structural family therapy see the family in a very scientific way. They often break families down into three different kinds of relationships. There is the marital relationship between the parents, along with the sibling relationship, and the relationships between parents and children. The therapist will generally look for dysfunctions in these relationships as a possible cause for mental problems in a particular patient.

Sometimes the problems in family dynamics can happen because of unbalanced alliances. For example, two siblings may have a tendency to side with each other against another sibling. This can cause severe problems for the bullied sibling that might affect other parts of his life. It could even have long-term consequences that might change the way this person relates to others as an adult.

Many therapists look at family dynamics when trying to diagnose problems, but one thing that separates structural family therapy is the way the actual therapeutic work is conducted. The therapist will actually try to fit in as a family member, at least during sessions. Sometimes the therapist might even try to spend time in the family's home environment to see how people interact in less artificial circumstances. Initially, the therapist will usually be looking for problems and studying the situation. Later, once he has an understanding of what is going on, the therapist will generally try to intervene.

The actual intervention aspect of structural family therapy is often handled in very subtle ways that may not be obvious to the patients. For example, the therapist might request help from one of the family members and give that person very specific instructions about how to interact with the rest of the group. The therapist may also try to change family dynamics during therapy sessions by interacting with different members in ways that disrupt unhealthy patterns. All of this interaction requires certain social skills and very specific training that generally goes well beyond a normal psychology education.

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