What is structural family therapy?

What is structural family therapy?

Structural family therapy is a type of therapy usually used with families. With the aim to improve communication and relationship among the family members which is otherwise disrupted by some internal problem.

Structural family therapy does not focus on one individual as a client rather focuses on the entire family to improve the strained relationship between the family members.

A family approach to therapy was originally developed by Salvador Minuchin. Today family therapy is widely used to resolve a number of problems in a clinical setup.

The underlying principle of structural family therapy is that unhealthy relationships between family members can create excessive stress and mental strain for the members belonging to the family.

So structural family therapy aims to help members of the family identify and acknowledge that each member contributes to another state of mind.

This also helps them to understand that one person cannot be responsible for the problem that is resulting in stress and strained relationships.

This further motivates the members of the family to work together in order to resolve the issue and carry a healthy family life.

According to Jorge Colapinto, in the article “Structural Family Therapy,” published in Family Counselling and Therapy, the three main areas of focus for the family therapist is:

  • The family
  • The presenting problem
  • The process of change

What is the principle used in structural family therapy?

Like every therapy works on a set of rules and principles structural family therapy also lies on a principle known as family mapping.

Family mapping focuses on understanding the patterns of behavior and family interaction that takes place in a family environment.

To understand these patterns of behaviors and interaction the therapist tries to create a visual representation.

This helps to understand the root cause of the family’s problems and how these issues have been carried on as a result of family dynamics.

This family mapping also helps to understand various important factors of the family. For instance, it gives information about the members of the family, genders, relationships with one another, and also their ages.

The family mapping requires the family members to outline and describe their families. This process helps the therapist to understand how an individual views their place within a family.

Apart from this main underlying principle of family mapping the other minor principles that might be applied based on the complaint and severity of those problems are:


In role-play, the therapist asks the family members to act out various scenarios following their guidance in order to understand a particular behavior and help the family members to identify and enact other favorable alternatives.

Cognitive restructuring

Another commonly used principle by therapists in a family session is to help them identify unfavorable thoughts and behaviors and help them replace them with more favorable ones.

Making boundaries

One of the most crucial and important principles that a therapist might adopt in a family therapy session might be helping the members to identify explore and adopt clear and healthy boundaries within the family which gives clarity with the hierarchy as well.

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Creating an empathetic bond

One of the most primary and important principles that are applied to many structural family therapies is creating an empathetic bond and relationship between the family members.

This helps the family members to understand how each member in the family feels and how this in turn can result in a particular behavior.

Forming an empathetic bond also helps in reducing the blame game where the family members end up blaming each other for a particular problem and do not view it as shared contributions and experience.

What are some areas that structural family therapy can help with?

Structural family therapy looks at the family as a complete unit and focuses on all the members of the family and the relationships that they share.

Some problems that structural family therapy can help the family with are as follows:

Families affected by trauma

structural family therapy can primarily be used when a family has been affected by trauma be it recently or a while ago.

In both circumstances, trauma can change the dynamics and structure of the family depending on its severity and the consequences that it leads to.

These traumas can be a death in the family, major accident, terminal illness, divorce, and separation.

Divorce separation or remarriage

Divorce among two individuals does not only remain constrained to them rather affects the dynamics of the entire family.

It affects all the members of the family in different ways which might disrupt the cordial relationship between the family members.

Significant life changes

Significant life changes such as moving out, change in career can also be distressing for certain families.

Single-parent families

The challenges faced by single-parent families might be many and difficult to tackle all together. These problems might become overwhelming if not dealt with effectively requiring professional help.

Compromising health conditions

Certain health conditions be it physical or mental might be very exhausting for family members. conditions such as anxiety, depression, disability, chronic illness affect the family functioning and might hamper the relationship between the members.

What are the benefits of structural family therapy?

Structural family therapy might have several benefits when family members cooperate with the therapist such as:

  • Help establish healthy boundaries
  • Manage anger and resentment among family members
  • Help in improving the communication between family members
  • Help the family members to accept, explore and adapt to the challenging and changing demands of life.
  • Help resolve complex and hidden interpersonal problems between family members and within the family.
  • Help in improving the overall relationship of the family
  • Helps in identifying the hierarchies within the family structure.
  • Helps in identifying and replacing negative patterns of thoughts and behaviors with more positive ones.
  • Helps the family members to look at the family as one unit.


Structural family therapy has been widely used to restore communication and healthy growth within the family. It is important to look at the family as a unit rather than a group of individuals with separate needs, demands, and end goals.

Family therapy helps the members of the family in order to understand that to remain in a healthy family environment it is very important to be empathetic towards the family members.

working as one family is the key to successful and expected results in a family therapy. The desired result or resolution of problems might take an ample amount of time that varies from family to family depending on the severity of the problem and also the cooperation of the family members with the therapy process and the therapist.

Family therapy is not about reaching an end goal rather it focuses on making lifetime changes that help the members of the family to accept, explore and adapt to the various challenges that come their way.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

What is structural family therapy used for?

Structural family therapy is a form of therapy that is used to tackle behavioral problems in children. In addition to this, it may also be used in order to resolve other family-related issues such as grief, illness, and adjustment problems.

What is the key concept of structural family therapy?

Structural family therapy works on various principles in order to understand and resolve the problems of the family.

Some of the key concepts that are utilized by a family therapist are family structure, disengagement, subsystems, power, and coalition.

What is the structural approach in family therapy?

The main focus and approach of family therapy are to resolve the concerns and strengthen the family systems to ensure a healthy relationship between the members of the family by setting favorable boundaries.

What are the different types of families?

Families can be of different types based on their size and structure. The different types of families are:

  • Joint family
  • Nuclear family
  • Single parent family
  • Blended families
  • Extended family
  • Family without children
  • Grandparent family

How long does structural family therapy take? 

Therapy of any kind might vary from individual to individual. Similarly with family therapy the number of sessions each family requires to resolve the concerns and issues might vary.

However approximately structural family therapy takes about two to six months depending on the nature and severity of the problems and how well the family cooperates with the therapist.