Psychology understands that the family is a construction and basic component for the development of the individual. It is a construction that serves as a reference to the child for the conformation of their emotions, vision, forms of behavior and mediation with their environment, essential for their development.

Family psychotherapy in general integrates elements of psychoanalytic doctrine, group and child psychotherapy, however, it differs from these therapies due to its scope of intervention: it does not act on a particular subject, but on a family nucleus, with in order to provide adaptive tools and new ways of connecting.

Therapeutic practice first identifies a family member as the “patient”, but it is very common that more than one or all of its members require psychological support.

In this sense, family therapy seeks to involve two or more of its members in order to attend and – if necessary – transform the mediation models between family members.

It is common for a person’s conflicts to have their origin in interpersonal problems, the externalization of which generates symptoms. The stages of internal conflict may be due to the reluctance to assume new roles on the part of one of the family members. Mental and social problems are understood to be linked to role assumption and communication difficulties.

What is family therapy and what is it useful for? 

Family therapy is a kind of psychological intervention that deals with the family. The purpose is to strengthen and provide resources to the family so that it can provide the necessary support in the event of conflicts between its members or one of them.

From the practice of the systemic current, one of the most relevant trends in family therapy, the family is understood precisely as a system. For the systemic theory, the family is not only the arithmetic sum of its members, but its set produces a larger balance. Family mediation generates other components and peculiarities.

The behavior and status of any component of the family is inseparable from the system; it is by concept the consequence of a constant interaction between the system and the individual or member of the family. 

For the systemic tendency, the family is an open system, which maintains a reciprocal influence with the environment, affecting and feeding each other to adapt and maintain itself. This is how its members are influenced by the environment.

For the systemic premise, behavior arises from feedback, therefore the behavior is analyzed in the interpersonal environment in which the members develop.

Behavior is also for the systemic theory not a consequence or the cause of contextual situations, but the phenomenon that makes up a developing pathological system.

The job of the systemic psychologist, then, is to modify the way in which the members of a family relate to each other and the patterns of behavior that originate, allow and give space or meaning to the conflictive behavior . That is, the systemic practice does not stop at directly altering the caustic behavior of the brother, sister, father, uncle, etc., of the family.

Systemic therapists focus on solving family problems by going to the whole, thereby enhancing and favoring family mechanisms of coexistence and strengthening not only the system, but each of its members.

Elements of systemic family therapy

The most important elements that make up a systemic family therapy are described below. They are as follows:

  • Communication . Systemic family therapy gives communication an essential role. The therapy addresses communication problems in their analog or digital aspect and the noises present in emotional expressions, such as harshness, exacerbation, etc.
  • The roles . Role functioning is also a key element of systemic family therapy. The therapist addresses the issue of the allocation of roles and the relevance of their redistribution, in order to establish a clear structure.

This point is fundamental to define the competences of the members of the family, because the constitution of the power ties in the family and the resolution of differences depend on it. In addition, therapy provides the tools to adequately channel the development of the personalities and autonomy of its members.

  • Cooperation: Systemic therapy understands that cooperation in the family group is based on the differentiation of roles, underlining the importance of their heterogeneity in the family group. And complementarity, essential for it to function properly, is only possible with heterogeneity.

Techniques and exercises used by family therapy (systemic)

In Systemic Psychology, the so-called systemic-prescriptive prescription technique is used, worth the redundancy, which is based on the application of conceptual systems from cybernetics, the general theory of systems and the utilitarian perspective of communication.

On this basis, the family is understood as a system that is capable of correcting itself, according to specific rules. It is there where the therapist intervenes, causing the exposure of hidden norms – not perceptible to the naked eye – that only prolong the problems of the family group.

The function of therapy is to modify these norms or, in other words, the way the family functions as a system.

Prescription as a strategy finds a useful tool in games. For example, parents are instructed to play a game, which is also shared by the other members of the family and in which the therapist joins as a meta-player.

The exercises consist of assigning tasks for the family group, which have the following functions: a) it can be reforming, where the therapist recommends the acceptance of a behavior b) with paradoxical or instigating intention, when the therapist eliminates the paradox to which he is exposed by the family group by wanting to modify their relationships without altering their behaviors.

The expert provokes the reaction of the family group by ordering norms of ties classified as dysfunctional; The strategy works in reverse because the family is forced to violate the order given, promoting the appropriate behaviors.

Another therapeutic technique consists of dramatization . In its socio-drama aspect, it focuses on the group as an integral system to solve conflicts of function and group.

Imbalance is another technique in which the therapist takes the side of one of the family members or aligns himself with him in order to modify family limitations.

On the other hand, there are three fundamental principles for the development of family therapy that the therapist must know: neutrality, hypothesis formulation and circularity.

Neutrality in group therapy is essential because what is sought is to stimulate the exchange of information and its archiving. The therapist’s posture is neutral; it does not judge and does not prejudge, only then will it be able to observe, collect data and intervene.

The circularity of a family system is expressed in the idea that the behavior of one element of the family is influenced by that of the rest, in the same way that the behavior of that subject affects others. The family therapist is aware of this reality: for example, if the father yells, the children will react, and in turn the father will be compelled to respond.

In a circularity scheme, linear causality does not exist; the responses of a second member retroactively reinforce the behavior of a first member.

Examples of 4 exercises

The exercises most used in these cases are described below. Most of them allow to rebuild the family relationship , as well as to heal those relationships that have had some conflicts. These exercises can be used in different contexts depending on the criteria of the therapist, it also depends on the commitment shown by family members.

1. Ask about aspirations and fears 

The goal of this exercise is to explore what people’s aspirations and concerns are. It is usually used in those cases where it is observed that two members of a family have higher levels of conflict.

Understanding that all people suffer some kind of suffering, but at the same time they maintain the hope of achieving some specific goal. This is a practice that explores those most relevant aspects of the patient’s psychology, a recovery is achieved within a therapeutic context. The interaction between both parties can be very useful because it delves into other personal aspects that are relevant to both parties.

2. The exchange of roles

This is a basic exercise that is commonly known as the role exchange. It is about the analysis of those personal aspects that define the personality, as well as the role that a person fulfills within the family environment. What you are trying to achieve with this exercise is that there is a greater understanding as to why you proceed in a certain way.

Sometimes we forget that certain aspects that are out of control significantly intervene in people’s lives. This exercise is usually recommended in families where the lack of communication and understanding is notable , it allows to achieve an approach as well as to communicate information that previously had not been possible to share.

3. Genograma

It is about the realization of a graphic representation of the family tree, through this scheme each individual understands their participation within the family group. This provides information that may not have been known to most of the members until now. In the same way, it allows to have a clearer and more precise notion of the different relationships between the members of a family.

Not only information such as names and dates of birth or death is used. Additional information such as occupation, education and other relevant events of a social nature; they must also be taken into account. But above all, it should not be forgotten to mention aspects related to chronic diseases and other physical or mental health problems, as well as friendship or romantic relationships.

With this information, the therapist will be able to create family patterns where different levels of behavior and emotions have affected some members. At some point during the process, a point of interest will be found, which will be used for further analysis.

4. List of compliments

A list made up of aspects considered positive related to a family member should be created. The exercise will offer the possibility of mentioning notable qualities that could perhaps help to improve self-esteem, but also allows for the recognition and mention of aspects that had not been able to be discussed. It promotes a more positive scenario where the use of disqualifications is avoided.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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