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What Is Structural Family Therapy?

The family unit is one of the main building blocks of our society. However, many families experience dysfunctional relationships which can lead to mental health issues for both parents and children. Structural family therapies can assist families to develop healthy relationships so that they are able to function better. 

Structural Family Therapy Defined

Structural family therapy looks at family dynamics such as hierarchy, boundaries, enmeshment, and subsystems. The emphasis is on the whole family, rather than an individual’s struggles. It is therefore a type of group therapy that takes in the entire family as a closed set of people. 

The structural family therapy approach is often used for families who are facing marital issues, single-parent households, as well as families who are struggling with trauma. 

Therapists help families to recognize negative behavior and patterns that adversely affect family dynamics. A healthier, more stable family is then established via techniques such as restructuring, reframing, and creating boundaries. 

structural family therapy
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Structural Family Therapy Goals

The main goal of structural family therapy is to help families form healthy interaction patterns that will lead to happier, better functioning families. 

While short-term goals include alleviating the immediate symptoms of unhealthy family interactions, structural family therapists work hard to help families establish clear boundaries. 

Hierarchical family structures are sometimes shifted to promote happiness and improve functioning. Family members are also given the space to adapt to the changes as they learn to work together and respect and understand each other. 

Structural family therapy is one of the most effective types of family therapy. The effectiveness of structural family therapy is established for families with children who have been diagnosed with mental health issues as well as for families who are going through marital conflict

Structural Family Therapy Techniques

A structural family therapist will usually work to address current situations or issues, rather than delve into the histories of individual family members. Structural family therapy techniques include:

Mapping / Genogram

Structural family therapy usually beings with the therapist mapping a genogram of the family structure. This task helps to explain how things are currently working in a particular family. Mapping makes it possible for both the therapist and family to have a clearer picture of the current hierarchy, relationships, and boundaries. 

A genogram is achieved by having each family member share freely and thoroughly about family issues they are facing. 

Reframing

Reframing is a technique in which a new perspective for a particular situation is offered. Alternate perspectives encourage family members to interpret issues constructively, resulting in less hostility towards each other. 

For example, a therapist might help reframe a mother’s high expectations for her son’s academic performance as her being worried about his future and wanting him to have a good life. 

Reframing fosters a positive focus that offers hope as the family becomes less judgemental and more understanding towards each other. 

Boundaries

Functional families have clear boundaries that are clear, but adjustable if need be. Dysfunctional families typically have strict, rigid boundaries that are not flexible. For example, family members may be required to follow certain rules or beliefs even though they do not agree. 

Boundaries can also be enmeshed – blurred or nonexistent. Enmeshed boundaries usually result in a lack of privacy and family members being over involved in each other’s lives. 

Enmeshed families usually struggle with identity, assertiveness, and decision-making. At times, these families may be ‘closed’ to those who are non-family members. 

The structural family therapist often has to help the family adopt clear boundaries and adjust hierarchical positions if needed. 

Enactment / Role-Play

Enactment or role-playing a scenario allows the therapist to observe family interactions, such as their response and reactions closely. It also allows the clients to be more aware of problematic patterns that then need to work on.  

Restructuring

Similar to reframing, restructuring too disrupts the current family hierarchy and dynamics. Because families may not recognize that certain behaviors can cause damage, the therapist uses exercises such as setting boundaries and heightening emotions to assist families to adapt to changes. 

Restructuring goals should be realistic and feasible, with the family members taking ownership of the changes they want to see. 

Shaping Competence

In shaping competence, positive behavior is acknowledged and reinforced. It encourages the client to continue making that particular choice. It also helps the family to realize that they are capable of doing the right thing under a particular circumstance, thereby building self-esteem, confidence, and competence. 

Structural Family Therapy Benefits

Structural family therapy offers many benefits including:

  • Positive reframing brings fresh perspectives for clients who are struggling with numerous ongoing issues
  • It is a type of therapy that advocates clear goals with a ‘no blame’ approach
  • It advocates the ownership and equips families to help themselves
  • It empowers the family unit to create and sustain long term changes
  • The therapist helps individual family members to identify positive skills that they are able to contribute to their family. 
  • It promotes communication and helps family members have deeper compassion and empathy for each other 
  • Healthier boundaries result in better family dynamics
  • It is a great approach for blended families that need help adjusting

Conclusion

Structural family therapy focus is on current issues and emphasizes good family dynamics makes it suitable for families with ongoing struggles. Its effective approach makes it a popular type of family therapy. 

If you are looking for a structural family therapist, your mental health practitioner will be able to offer you recommendations. 

If you are a structural family therapist looking for a safe and neutral place to meet your clients, A Space Between has 14 well-designed rooms suitable for individual, couple, group, and family therapy. 

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A Space Between is a destination for mental health therapy activities. Counsellors utilise our many conducive therapy rooms for consultations. Located conveniently downtown and offering your independent therapists rent by the hour, we house many professional mental health practitioners, including LGBTQ+ friendly ones. To find out more about the therapists practising in A Space Between, write to us at [email protected].
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