When we think of someone doing therapy, we usually imagine a one-on-one session in which a person interacts with the psychologist. We may also conceive the possibility of a group session, with different people with the same type of problem.
But there is also a type of therapy that is applied to a family group, called family therapy, in which conflicting aspects between members of the same family are treated. In this article, we will tell you what it is and what it is used for.
What is this type of psychological intervention?
Family therapy is understood as a modality of therapy focused on the family as the object of intervention. The objective is to strengthen and provide the family with resources so that they can act collaboratively, thereby resolving disputes and conflicts that they may have between them or problems of a single individual.
The family is understood as a basic element in the development of the human being, as it represents the fundamental element that allows the infant to acquire a model regarding how to see, act, relate and communicate with the world. It is an essential element when learning emotional and relational aspects, with great influence on development.
That is why in this type of treatment an attempt is made to involve two or more members of the same family to observe and, if necessary, modify the patterns of interaction between family members.
It is conceived that the internal problem of an individual is preceded by the presence of interpersonal conflicts, which when internalized can cause symptoms. The pathological is linked to the non-acceptance of new roles in one of the individuals, roles and communication is the basis of the existence of numerous mental and social problems.
Family therapy and the systemic perspective
One of the main currents and the one that is most linked to this type of therapy is the systemic current. From this perspective, the family is conceived as a system, a set of elements whose sum generates a greater result than the simple addition of each of them, new elements, properties, and characteristics being born from their interaction.
From the systemic perspective, the behavior and state of one of the components of the family cannot be understood separately from the system, as the system influences each and vice versa. The family would be an open system, receiving information from the environment, being affected by the environment, and exchanging information with it to adapt and survive. Each of the members is thus affected by the environment.
Change behavior dynamics
From the systemic model, it is not intended to directly modify the problematic behavior, but to change the family dynamics and the pattern that provokes it, facilitate it or give it utility or meaning. A more indirect path is sought to reach the same goal, while at the same time causing an improvement and strengthening of positive family dynamics and the strengths of both the system and each of its components.
Some of the key aspects of systemic family therapy are the communication processes (in which incongruent communication styles are worked on at an analog or digital level, the affectivity and emotion expressed or the presence of rigidity), the assignment of roles, and the need for a change of these, the clear or diffuse structure of the family and the limits between the people that can allow or inhibit the process of creating their own and autonomous identity, the negotiation in the conflicts or the establishment of power relations between the members of the family. the family.
There are many schools and techniques even within the same perspective. The Milan school, the structuralist school of Minuchin, and the Palo Alto school are examples of different perspectives within the systemic current. As for specific techniques, the prescription of tasks, imbalance (temporarily allying with one of the components of the system to change family limits), dramatization, redefinition of symptoms in a positive way, paradoxical intention, or instigation.
The properties of the family system
Within the system different properties are given:
1. Circular causality
The behavior of a member of the system is influenced by that of the others, just as one’s influences the rest of the system. If one shouts, the rest will react, while the reaction will generate a response in the first.
The system generates its responses due to the interaction, being more than the mere sum of its parts.
Different people can reach the same point through different paths. In this way, two people can arouse anxiety (for example) from different stimulations.
The opposite of equifinality. The same starting point can lead to different conclusions. Thus, an event will be experienced differently by different people.
The system tends to try to find an equilibrium state. This causes that deep changes to be necessary to be maintained over time, or else it could return to the original state. On the other hand, if a consistent change is achieved that is integrated into the system, it can be maintained over time.
Family therapy from other perspectives
When we talk about family therapy, we are generally associating it with a type of treatment linked to the systemic current. However, even though the development of family therapy is closely linked to this current of thought, throughout history there have been multiple theoretical perspectives that have worked with this type of therapy. In this sense, we can find that, in addition to the systemic perspective, this form of therapy has been worked on, among others, from the two that you can see below.
Some currents of psychoanalysis have also applied aspects of family therapy, especially those that follow object relations theory. From this perspective, a patient’s symptom is seen as indicative of a failure to resolve the developmental sequence of one or both parents.
Existing conflicts cause the infant’s emotions to be repressed, which on the one hand causes the conflicted parent to remember and relive his lack of developmental resolution and on the other hand causes him to reflect on his conflicts in his treatment of his child. The therapy focuses on visualizing and working with transference and countertransference relationships to help the family as a whole to resolve their developmental sequences.
From this perspective, therapy focuses on the direct resolution of a specific problem presented by the family or one of its members, the objective being quite specific.
Couples therapy, parent training, or psychoeducation are some modalities that have been treated from this perspective. In some cases, the family can be used as a co-therapist, if the objective is to modify the behavior of one of the members. But it can also serve to solve dysfunctional aspects of the family itself.
Applications of this type of therapy
Family therapy has been used since its origins to help solve various types of problems. Among them can be found the following.
1. Family crises
The existence of family problems that cannot be resolved by traditional means has frequently been the reason for consulting family therapy. In a difficult situation, aspects related to the life cycle such as the birth of children or the arrival of their emancipation, a death whose mourning has not been elaborated, or some latent conflict between its members are valid examples.
2. Couples therapy
Couples therapy is one of the subtypes of family therapy that there is. Overcoming problems in the couple such as lack of communication, exhaustion, infidelity, or incompatibility in some aspects of life are some of the most frequent reasons for consultation.
3. Behavior problems or mental disorders in one of the members
Especially when the subject in question is one of the children, it is not strange that the parents decide to try to remedy it. In many cases, parents or relatives can be used as co-therapists who can facilitate the maintenance of changes and the following of programs established by the therapist.
Likewise, in other cases, the problems presented can be strongly influenced by the communication patterns of the families (for example, broken homes or couples who continually argue can contribute to causing emotional and behavioral problems).
4. Treatment of addictions and other disorders
In the treatment of various addictions and even other psychological disorders, it can be very useful to integrate the closest relatives, so that they can help the subject to stay away from stimuli that elicit the consumption response. They can also participate in making the subject see the need to continue with the treatment and the advantages of stopping consuming, as well as reinforcing behaviors that favor their recovery.
Psychoeducation with families can be essential to help a person’s environment understand their situation, what can be expected, what they can do to help, or the steps that need to be taken.
6. Parent Training
Training for parents is a great advantage for those parents who have children with behavioral problems or who do not know how to deal with specific situations that they are experiencing throughout their development. It teaches how to deal with maladaptive behaviors through shaping and positive stimulation that allows the minor to adapt.
The therapist’s position
Within family therapy, the therapist has a particular role. Although it depends on the perspective from which family therapy is applied, as a general rule the professional must remain in an equidistant position between all the members of the family present in the therapy, without taking sides for any of its members. He must ensure that all members can give their opinion and that it is heard and valued by the other participants.
Depending on the case and the family therapy modality, occasionally you can establish temporary alliances with one of the members to focus the group’s attention on certain aspects, but later on, you have to return to a neutral position and/or.
In some cases, it will have to remain as an external and cold element that is limited to pointing out the patterns of family functioning, while in other cases it may be necessary to play the role of one more relative to introduce a new element in therapy and help to see the different points of view.
- Almond, M.T. (2012). Psychotherapies. CEDE PIR Preparation Manual, 06. CEDE Madrid.
- Minuchin, S. (1974). Families and family therapy. Gedis: Mexico.
- Ochoa, I. (1995). Approaches in systemic family therapy. Herder: Barcelona.