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Family Structural Theories

Updated on August 23, 2010

The heritage of an individual encompasses subject matter and dispositions of the preceding generations. The trans-generational family system involves the transmission and exchange of cultural affairs as psychological experiences of an individual are related thus influenced by the relationship web in the family structure. From this structural model’s point of view, the family process moves in chronological fashion feeding and transmitting emotional events from great grandparents, to grandparents, to parents and finally into their children’s lifetime (Coyne & Anderson, 1989). This process occurs as a result of relational events that distinguish the family, such as, power and intimacy management, and attachments.

The relationship coupled with inner dynamics of a family play an important role in providing direction to the members. In family systems, some myths, roles, rules, and structural patterns are transmitted unconsciously across numerous generations thereby making their differentiation impossible. Thinking and feeling patterns are also non-genetically transmitted through generations (Coyne & Anderson, 1989). The failure to adapt successfully in adulthood is the major source of conflict leading to dysfunctional families, and is associated with the failure of an individual to differentiate sufficiently from the family of origin.

There are different theoretical models that can be used in family counseling. A therapist can utilize the behavioral model, Gestalt principal, which entails monitoring behaviors of family members. In this approach the therapist observes interactions between family members and views of non-interactive members of the family. Another model involves a combination of therapeutic approaches. In this approach, therapists teach family members better ways of communicating with each other. The main objective of these models is to improve the relationship between or among family members thereby ensuring that they continue to live together harmoniously.

The key concept in framing and presenting assessment information is to put more effort on externalizing the problem from the family or individual (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2004). This is normally achieved by consistently referring to the problem at hand as a separate entity, thus not owned by the family or an individual. Questions are therefore designed in a way that enables the therapist to obtain initial rating of problem magnitude from the family’s perspective, monitor family’s progress, identify therapy goals and make plans for enhancement. Therapists can use either scaling or percentage questions which are usually similar, however percentage questions provide therapists with a simpler method for measuring the nature of change.

Depending on the information provided by the family, the therapist may use several approaches of treatment which include narrative, constructive or solution- based (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2004). The narrative approach involves focusing on experiences and integrating them into the personal tales. In using this approach, small changes occur at first instance but later lead to major changes. The solution-based approach is similar to the narrative but usually takes very little time since it focuses on the solution rather than stories concerning the patient. A solution-based therapist ignores most of the patient’s statements concerning the problem and reorients the therapy session towards the solution. Conversely, in the constructivist approach, the therapist assists the family to shell out their old life stories and transform them into new and different ones prior to trying to assimilate them again. Unlike the preceding approaches, the constructive approach does not support traditional models of psychopathology.

Family subsystems play crucial role in promoting the restructuring of family systems along healthy lines. They provide an entrance through which the therapist cause commotions by continually intervening in manners that generate unstable situations calling for change and restructuring of the family system. Unless several pre-existing systems are reframed, flexibility introduced and new improved ways of functioning developed, therapeutic change will not occur. Aimed at accelerating such changes, therapists manipulate the session’s format by isolation of some members from the family thereby structuring the desired subsystems. The goal of such intervention is mainly to cause unbalance in the family system thus opening their eyes to see the dysfunctional patterns which in turn leads to their acceptance of restructuring.


Coyne, J. C. & Anderson, B. A. (1989). The psychosomatic family II: Recalling a defective model and looking ahead. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 15: 139-148.

Sommers-Flanagan, J. & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2004).Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.


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