Theories of Family Counseling

Sophomore (College 2nd year) ・Psychology ・APA ・7 Sources

The notion of family includes a couple who are committed to remaining together from different backgrounds and upbringings. The counseling of family structures draws from the knowledge that the family is an emotional entity. Applying the principle of system thought implies that one or more individual couples' conduct is informed by the root or environment of the parties. When attempting to solve problems relating to the family unit, it is this idea that counselors must keep. The understanding of the different theoretical approaches is an in important part of the therapeutic process as the psychotherapy theories helps to provide the much needed framework for counselors to interpret and understand the behavior of their clients, the thoughts, the feelings, and effectively help them to navigate through the diagnosis and treatment process. This paper compares and contrasts the different theories as used in family counseling.

Family Systems Theory

The backbone of family counselling is perhaps the family systems theory. Proposed by Dr Murray Bowen, the theory holds that individuals cannot be understood by analyzing them in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of their family. This is the underpinning of the concept of the family being an emotional unit. The theory holds that families are interconnected systems of interdependent people and hence if one wants to counsel a party, they must be understood from the concept of the emotional unit first and not individually ("Family Systems Therapy", 2016).
From Bowen’s perspective, it can be deduced that he thought of the family as consisting of members with different roles to play. The family consists of unset rules that dictate how the parties respond to each other, largely dictated by relationship agreements. At the same time, within the boundaries of the family, patterns are bound to result. Maintaining the same patterns of behaviors within the system creates a balance.
There are eight critical concepts that can help us understand the family systems theory as brought out by Bowen.

  • Triangles: Bowen used triangles to bring out the aspect of conflict. He argued that triangles often have one side in a conflict and the remaining two sides in harmony. This is contributor to many clinical problems.
  • Differentiation of the self- he presented this concept to explain the fact that, to a given extent, individuals are susceptible to depend on their spouses for approval or acceptance, and this can hurt or intensify a relationship.
  • Level of emotional support provided by the nuclear family. The nuclear family affects the relationship patterns as they bring forth the four main areas where relationship problems are most bound to come up from: marital conflicts, dysfunctional spouse, and impairment in one of the children or emotional distance (Titelman, 2012).
  • Family protection process: this entails the fact that some problems are transmitted from parents to children as a result of overprotection or underproduction.
  • Multigenerational transmission process: transmission of behavior from one generation to the next.
  • Emotional cut-off: entails the act of lowering the emotional contact between family members as a means of tackling unresolved emotional issues.
  • Sibling position: deals with the role that the position of siblings has in the development of behavior.
  • Societal emotional process: analyses the role that the emotional systems in a given society have on the behaviors in the society.

Psychotherapy theories

As noted in the introduction, psychotherapy theories are important in interpreting the behaviour of the individuals seeking therapy from family issues.

Psychoanalysis/psychodynamic theory

The main underpinning of this theory has its foundation in the Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the different unconscious forces that are bound to affect and drive behaviour. He ended up developing the different techniques that he felt were pertinent in driving the behaviour of humans and could hence be used in the provisions of therapy. The free association technique that Sigmund Freud developed entails allowing the individuals seeking therapy to talk freely to the counsellor about anything that comes up without any fear. He also reflected on the aspect of dream analysis as an important source of information that can be used to understand the unconscious mind, an area that Sigmund invested a lot of time researching and understanding (Titelman, 2012). Another important bit of the psychoanalysis theory is the transference aspect which entails the transfer of feelings from the lives of the individuals onto the therapist.
The main reason that makes psychoanalytic therapy to be pertinent to the counselling process is that it tends to take a look at the experiences of an individual from childhood to adulthood, and using the same premise to explain behaviour or some occurrences. The analysis of past events in one’s life can help explain whether some events affect one’s life. If one grew up in an abusive family, such behaviour may reflect later in marriage, according to the psychoanalytical theory. Traumatic childhood experiences can lead to conflict later on in life as the individual’s perception of marriage and relationship is skewed by the bad past.
It can be argues that revealing and bringing forth all the possible experiences that an individual faced in childhood can be the most appropriate way of providing care.
As compared to the other theories, psychoanalytic theories are more intense as they aim towards making changes in the personal and emotional development. It may take a longer time, from weeks to months, or even years. This is because it is largely designed to make deeply ingrained changes in the behaviors of individuals.
Behavioral theory and family counseling
The theory is also a fundamental inclusion in the family therapy process and it holds that behaviors are learned and can therefore be unlearned. The classical conditioning explained by Ivan Pavlov is the underpinning of the theory which seeks to believe that the aspects of rewards and punishments have a great role to play in shaping behavior. The theory’s practitioners hence strive to change the unwanted or destructive behaviors through the modification techniques discussed in the theory such as positive and negative reinforcement. The administration of therapy to unlearn some of the bad behaviors has been seen to be effective. The therapists take a look at the thoughts and feelings of the individuals that supposedly lead to behavior and start the process from there.
It is action-based and it seeks to foster positive change in the behavior. While the other therapies such as the psychoanalytic approach are more focused on insight and understanding the past, the behavioural therapy, while appreciating the past as being significant in revealing the past unwanted behavior, rather holds that it is important to focus on the present behavior and on the possible ways to rectify the same.

Cognitive theory

Developed by Aaron Beck, the approach focuses on how individuals’ thinking can affect feelings and behaviors. It is usually brief and directed towards addressing a given problem. The therapists focus more on the clients’ present conditions and situations rather than the past as the psychoanalytic approach suggests. The underpinning is simple: in relationships, every decision that is taken involves a complex cognitive process. The decisions may be as small as making a choice between jam or peanut butter on the bread, to bigger ones such as when and where to buy a car or an apartment. The process entails ideation, creation of mental pictures, inclusion of values and attitudes that together shape the subconscious. The main concern is that these processes often lead to the development of negative patterns of thinking which if left to manifest hold the problem of triggering or fuelling health concerns. It is heavily based on the concept of thoughts and perceptions which have a profound impact on individual feelings and behaviors. Cognitive therapy focuses on reassessing the negative thoughts and giving the individuals more chance to learn flexibly and positively.
Beck developed the main idea of the theory that thoughts and feelings are interconnected and through the identification alteration of inappropriate thinking or negative thinking and other distressing emotional responses, individuals can effectively overcome their conflicts, and this can lead to the building of better relations. The main premise of the theory is therefore the argument that reassessing and alteration of the negative thought patterns can lead to more flexible thinking, boost the levels of positivity and increase the willingness and readiness to take on challenges. It involves a skill-building approach where the therapists work and practice independently. As noted, this theory is more specific than the others as it is direct to the point and is geared towards specific problem solution by making the individual aware of the problem and helping them address the root of the conflict.

The Humanistic Approach

Humanistic theories are more client-centered and were developed by different people. For some time, the humanistic approach has proven a successful approach to family therapy that entails helping clients to attain their highest levels of potential instead of focusing their energies on their past or negative behaviors. The central idea is that self-growth and self-actualization should come first.
The humanist approach differs from all the other approaches of family therapy as it only focuses on the positives, giving the individuals the space and opportunity to explore their wide levels of creativity, focus on personal growth and acknowledging choices. This approach is unique as it appreciates that individuals have different potentials and focusing on the same can be the source of gratification and positive development.
The Gestalt therapy is a constituent of the humanist approaches and is more direct and individual-centered, offering the clients a chance to explore and understand their thought processes and feelings. It gives the incentive of becoming more aware of their minds, bodies and spirits. The transactional analysis counseling on the other hand focuses on the clients’ self-development and growth, giving the patients a chance to understand how their past influences present decisions and further acknowledges the parent, adult and child ego states and their impact on relationships. Overly, the approaches are unique and different as they allow the clients to have a better meaning in their lives through the focus on free will, taking responsibility and self-determination. The therapists handle the clients in a humanistic way, giving them room to explore their entire life experiences with a particular focus on the past, present and future. This implies that the approach does not just focus on one area of one’s life or problem at hand, but analyses everything in its entirety.

Holistic and Integrative Therapy

This approach entails the integration of different elements of different theories in a bid to address clients’ issues. The approach is addition to the traditional therapy models as discussed above and includes things such as hypnotherapy. It focuses on understanding the integrated relationship between the mind, body and spirit, and consists of an attempt to address the issues related. The end objective of the use of the approach is to ensure that the clients become more self-aware and that they have a better acceptance of the self.
The integrative approach is based on the premise that there is no single approach that can treat all the situations in their entirety. It combines the merits of nearly all the other methods and holds that each individuals’ needs should be considered as a whole and that the techniques used should be tailored to the individual level and circumstances. It further holds that there are many ways in which the human psychology can be explored and that no single theory or structure can be able to do so. The approach therefore takes a focus on integrating the different theories with the hope that they can be more impactful that way. It integrates the affective, behavioral, cognitive and other systems within the individual. It also entails addressing the social and mental aspects as they may have a role to play in explaining particular behaviors in the individual.
The counselors are therefore more concerned with tailoring the needs of their clients to what works best to them, customized. The approach seeks to intervene on all the three pertinent levels: the body, the emotions and the mind. The approach has been noted to be useful in addressing issues relating to depression, anxiety and stress disorders. The approach takes the form of alternate practices that are used elsewhere such as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and massage therapy.
The approach is one of the most used. One of its main limitations is that reaching the mind and soul level as it strives to often impossible. It takes a long time, usually years and may lead to disinterest by clients. All in all, it is one of the most important therapy methods today as it takes the pros of all the other methods.

Structural Family Therapy

Apart from the theories, there are several approaches that are important in family therapy. Formulated by Salvador Minuchin, the Structural family therapy deals with understanding the role of family relations, patterns and behaviors as manifest during therapy and how they can be used to understand the structure of the family. It is a constituent part of family systems therapy and entails the perception that the family unit is a system that is part of an even larger system such as the community, society and organizations. The system increases and undergoes several changes subject to time. The family unit can, however, be affected by the behavioural or mental health conditions of one of the members.
The main strength of the method is taking a focus on the individual’s family structure as the explanation of any given pathological issue or dysfunction in the way a family operates, interacts or functions. It takes a look at the transactions, the patterns that indicate the routine interactions with family members. A parent’s transaction with her child can be controlling or overprotective, and the same could shape the behavior of the child over time. Transactions allow a family to establish norms or rules for day-to-day functioning ("What is Structural Family Therapy?” 2017). The therapy process thus entails an analysis of the entire family’s interactions, taking a keen look to understand the family hierarchy and the relationships, and subsequently help to change the family structure by getting the harmful interactions unstuck.
Salvador envisioned that family problems are as a result of boundaries that are to porous and those that are too rigid or disengaged. In his article titled ‘Structural Family Therapy’ and published in the Family Counseling and Therapy magazine, Jorge Colapinto focuses on the family, the way the problem is presented and the change process. Colapinto further noted that changes in the position of family members may have a profound impact on the family relations and is often a source of conflict. The therapy process therefore differs from most of the traditional therapy approaches such as those discussed above as it involves aspects such as role play sessions, examination of family subsystems and structure, and talking to family members such as parents and siblings.

Strategic Family Therapy

This approach was developed by Jay Haley, Milton Erickson and Cloe Madanes. It entails the assessment of family processes such as communication and the ability to resolve problems and disputes. It is strategic in the sense that the focus is on solving the problem and finding the solution. The concern is not on how the problem began but rather on what needs to be done to solve it at the specific point in time. It is therefore unlike the others which incorporate an analysis of the past or past subsystems and using the same to resolve the problem.
According to Haley, strategic therapists focus on the identification of the problem, setting goals, designing the possible interventions that will be used to attain the set goals, administering and examining the responses from the patients and checking the outcomes of the therapy ("What is Strategic Family Therapy?", 2017). The therapeutic approach often include the reframing or redefinition of the problem using a set of paradoxical interventions in a bid to create the much needed change. The fundamental idea is that change can take place speedily with minimal intensive analysis of the problem source.

Intergenerational Family Therapy

This approach considers the role that the family plays on individual behavior. It appreciates that the identification of multigenerational behavioral patterns in individuals can help explain occurrences such as anxiety. Designed by Murray Bowen, the approach is designed to be used in the management of conflicts in individuals. The main focus of the method is that it is theory-based. Bowen introduced the concepts of clinical practice with relation to multigenerational assessment, concepts of family life-cycle development, birth positions and differentiation of the self among others.
The approach is based on the premise that the family unit and relations can best be understood when it is analyzed from the perspective of at least three generations. In that way, a predictable pattern of relations is revealed that connects the functioning of the family across the generations. It can then be safe to say that personal problems can best be understood when the family unit is treated as one emotional unit as supposed by the first theory analysed above ("Family Systems Theory - GenoPro", 2017). Unresolved emotional attachment to one’s family has to be addressed first if one holds the hope of achieving a mature and distinct personality.
Bowen used the intergenerational family therapy perspective to treat individuals and couples alike and it involved approaches such as developing scenarios and description of family members.


There are many theories that aid the counseling process in family therapy. From the above discussion, it can be noted that there is no one-way-fits-all mechanism to family therapy. The many theories mentioned above help in the understanding of the roots of different problems that present during the therapy process, as well us give the way the different issues can be addressed. It is important that the problem at hand is understood such that the interpretation does not solve the abstract only, but rather analyses where the problem emanated from, and that the resolution gives a long lasting reprieve to the patient. In all the above, it can be deduced that the past experiences play a big role in resolution of the problem as well as the environment in which one is exposed to and solving the problem has to take all this into consideration.


Family Systems Theory - GenoPro. (2017). Retrieved 20 April 2017, from
Family Systems Therapy. (2016). Retrieved 20 April 2017, from
Holistic Psychotherapy. (2017). Retrieved 20 April 2017, from
Titelman, P. (2012). Triangles: Bowen family systems theory perspectives. Routledge.
What is Strategic Family Therapy?. (2017). Retrieved 20 April 2017, from
What is Structural Family Therapy?. (2017). Retrieved 20 April 2017, from

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