4 min read


Tanisha Herrin

How Structural Family Therapy Helps Families Get Through Difficult Times

Many of us have been there: dealing with a parent, sister, aunt or nephew whose questionable behavior has caused arguing, fighting, or turmoil between family members. Next thing you know, the way family members communicate goes downhill. In this case, both the person and others experiencing the issues may find it easier to work through them as a unit. This is where family intervention, or family therapy, comes into play.
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The role of the family unit is far more important than what most people would initially assume.

Consider this: do you know why certain movies and television shows are very popular among viewers?

In one way or another, it’s often because they feature settings that include families in all their different forms.

People who view these scenarios typically become very invested in the characters because they can relate to the drama and dysfunction they are going through.

If you have a favorite show or movie that reflects a family unit, you may have noticed that each family member has a particular role that adds to the course of the family life. For instance, one person may have communication and trust issues that make it challenging to have a meaningful relationship with other family members. While such dynamics make for compelling TV or movies, unfortunately, viewers who have had similar experiences know that it is not easy dealing with such issues in real life.  

When it comes to family drama, it’s not uncommon to see family members blame one another for conflict arising from someone's actions or emotions.

Many of us have been there: dealing with a parent, sister, aunt or nephew whose questionable behavior has caused arguing, fighting, or turmoil between family members. Next thing you know, the way family members communicate goes downhill.

In all cases, it is typical to assume that someone who displays this type of behavior  may need help dealing with his or her experiences. But what happens when those issues are not isolated to that one person? When they become so severe that several members of the family have now taken on the responsibility of dealing with those problems? .

In this case, both the person and others experiencing the issues may find it easier to work through them as a unit. This is where family intervention, or family therapy, comes into play.

What is Structural Family Therapy?

Structural family therapy (SFT) is a therapeutic intervention for families that focuses on improving the family structure.

The family structure comprises various components that relate to how members interact and communicate with each other.

The concept of SFT was developed by psychiatrist Dr. Salvador Minuchin while working with troubled youth in the 1960s. Minuchin recognized the importance of involving all family members when providing support to a troubled child. Having family members involved to improve the child's behavior brought attention to significant aspects of family structure that may have contributed to the child's troubling behavior.

There are many contributing elements to family structure, such as routines, habits, and patterns of behavior – all of which comprise family dynamics. SFT works to understand such aspects by looking at how they affect families, making it possible to establish solutions that address problems and create family stability. Families participating in SFT work as a unit—as opposed to focusing on one family member's issues— to learn healthier ways to confront their problems and strengthen the family structure.

SFT is designed to help families understand their ability to work together to make decisions and solve problems. Perhaps the most important benefit of SFT is that the therapy is useful for various family arrangements, including single-parent structures, blended family settings, and families that have endured trauma or significant change.

What Happens in SFT Sessions?

The therapist’s foremost goal throughout SFT is to help the family establish a safe space within its own structure to talk through and work out family differences.  

The first step of SFT requires that the attending therapist spends time learning about the family's dynamics through observation.

The therapist will have a firm understanding of the pillars that organize the family unit, things like boundaries, habits, and roles. Throughout the session, the therapist will take notes on what he or she identifies as being the healthy and unhealthy elements affecting the family structure. The information gathered is then used to develop a plan of action for improving and governing the family’s behaviors and functioning, respectively.  The plan doubles as a comprehensive treatment outline that details how best to  encourage family members to be proactive in confronting problems and conflict.

The plan will also consider the reason(s) why the family sought SFT.. Therefore, after evaluating the interactions and behaviors causing problems, sessions can be tailored to facilitating an environment that encourages healthy communication among members.

It is expected that by the end of SFT, each family member has been able to gain a deeper understanding of his or her role in the family structure. This is an outcome achieved in the portion of the therapy where members learn the significance of boundaries and what to do when they become distorted or ignored.

Depending on the problem and goals the family wants to achieve, both individually and collectively, various exercises and techniques are applied to help the family communicate feelings, emotions, and perceptions. From here, rational approaches to communicate are identified and adopted.  

Overall, SFT helps family members concentrate on presenting their problems to one another, engage in the process of change, and fix the family unit from the inside out.

How Long Does the Family Need SFT?

Based on what you now know about SFT, how long do you think this type of therapy should last?

Well, there is no wrong answer because the length of SFT varies from family to family.

The therapy is administered based on the depth of the family's issue, problems, and concerns.

In some cases, a therapist may present the desired outcome and give an idea of the amount of time (typically expressed as number of sessions) needed to achieve that outcome.

Some families may spend only a few weeks in SFT, while others may require months – it all depends on the progress being made and the cooperation of everyone involved. It is important to note that the plan developed for the family will include milestones that help facilitate and gauge progress. Also, the plan may also require that certain family members are responsible for more elements than others.

Other factors that weigh into how long it takes to complete SFT are the extent to which  of participation and cooperation occur and the overall amount of treatment needed. When family members are willing to listen and participate in therapy techniques, it generally shortens the amount of time that family spends in SFT..

Also, therapy sessions will vary in delivery. For example, one session may include the therapist working with individual family members to tackle specific issues, while another session will involve the therapist addressing concerns with the entire unit. Meaning, the therapist can create a unit within the unit to focus on addressing communication needs.

Depending on the family's needs, the therapy can be restructured to focus on specific issues while meeting overall needs. One example is a session that involves the therapist working with just the parents to examine and address parental behaviors. Such an approach is designed to give the family time and space, practices that can be duplicated  to create a healthy, stable home environment.

Which Families Benefit from SFT?

Families of different structures use SFT to confront tension and conflict within their family dynamics. It is common for blended families to use this form of therapy, but families with a member that has a disability, mental health condition, or other physical or mental disorder also benefit.

Family structures with people considered at-risk and single-parent families benefit from SFT when issues include resentment and establishing boundaries. Research indicates that such structures tend to suffer the most when communication between members breaks down due to tension or stress.

SFT helps families create smooth transitions and healthy boundaries when facing challenging situations, including trauma or a family loss. Families learn how to create space to deal with complicated feelings and emotions so they can go through the healing process together. Sometimes trying to process things individually creates more space between a member and the rest of the family, mostly when something unexpected or detrimental happens.

The overall goal of SFT is to help families establish healthier patterns of interaction that improve family functioning now and in the future. Families learn to create flexibility within their structures to manage or alleviate problems and life changes. By learning how to accommodate or adapt to their own role in the family, each person can effectively contribute to the behaviors and systems that ensure every need is being met.

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About the author

Tanisha Herrin is a self-published author and independent writer for over 15 years. Her writing interests started with journaling and poetry writing and grew into professional writing for various subject areas, including health, relationships, and finance. After dealing with personal experiences of depression and suicide, she developed an interest in research and writing in mental health and self-improvement subject areas.

Tanisha has self-published books on self-help, depression, and poetry. She has written articles about depression and mental health topics at SelfGrowth.com and her blog: The INSPIRE blog (www.inspirewritings.com). Tanisha is an avid supporter of different mental health organizations and initiatives supporting mental health advocacy.