Family therapy is a therapeutic approach and practice whose approach considers the family as a significant social unit. The consequence of this is that treatment and intervention are not focused on the individual but on the family system as a whole.

This discipline has different applications and schools that have significantly impacted the work of psychology. Its history dates back to the 1950s in a constant dialogue between the most important currents of psychology and anthropology in the United States and Europe. Next we will see a brief history of family therapy, as well as its main authors and schools .

History of Family Therapy

The 1950s in the United States was marked by major changes resulting from World War II. Among other things, social problems began to be thought of from a reflective field that had been overshadowed by political conflicts. A holistic and systemic understanding of the individual and human groups emerges that quickly impacts the objectives and applications of psychology.

Although psychology had been developing from perspectives strongly centered on the individual (the most dominant were classical behaviorism and psychoanalysis), the rise of other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and communication allowed an important exchange between individual approaches and social studies .

It was these two growing currents, one of individual approach (predominantly psychoanalytic) and the other of social approach, together with some mixed approach proposals, that represented the first bases of family therapy between 1950 and 1960.

After its expansion, thousands of people were trained in systemic therapy, reflecting its growing professionalization, while expanding it. The latter was in constant tension between finding the methodological purism of the systemic approach, or reforming the basic psychoanalytical concepts without necessarily abandoning them.

Pioneers of the psychoanalytic approach

In this period, the therapy of psychoanalytic approach did not give visible results in the treatment of psychosis , so the specialists had to turn to other elements beyond the individual, and the first of them was precisely the family.

In this approach, one of the pioneers was Milton Erickson, who placed special emphasis on the study of communication beyond the psychism. In the same sense, are representative Theodore Lidz, Lyman Wynne and Murray Bowen . Another one of them was Nathan Ackerman, who started working with families as a “child therapy complement” from the same psychoanalytic approach. The latter founded the first family care service, the first family institute, and the main family therapy magazine of the time: Family Process .

Also known are Carl Whitaker and the Philadelphia Group led by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, David Rubinstein, James Framo and Gerald Zuk. Also important in the development of this approach was Harold Searles, who works with people diagnosed with schizophrenia and, without focusing solely on the family, described the importance of the family in the development of individual psychiatric manifestations.

From childhood to family

On the other hand, some specialists were studying childhood pathologies , a field of study that allowed for attending to the experiences and tensions of the family as a form of auxiliary treatment.

One of them, John Bell, witnessed the works of the Englishman John Styherland in this area and soon reproduced them in the United States, to finally publish one of the pioneering books in North America: Family Group Therapy . Christian Midelfort published another of the first books in family therapy The Family Therapy , in the same decade.

Pioneering the anthropological approach

The second key approach to the development of systemic therapy was anthropological in nature, and in fact began with concerns similar to those of psychoanalysis. Interested in understanding how different elements of language and communication are generated and distorted, they ended up studying the group relationships marked by psychosis .

From there, different schools were developed which, without abandoning many of the psychoanalytic postulates, represent the most important bases of family therapy. We will see below what they are.

The Palo Alto Group

In constant dialogue with specialists from the University of Berkeley, this school was created from the work of Gregory Bateson, an English biologist and anthropologist with a special interest in communication. He is the most cited author in family therapy for transferring the general theory of systems of the also biologist Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy, to anthropology and later psychotherapy.

The latter formed an important working group at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Psychiatric Hospital in California, where different psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts who were already working with group approaches were incorporated. Together with Paul Watzlawick and other specialists, he developed different theories about communication and cybernetics.

Palo Alto is recognized as one of the most representative groups in the history of family therapy. Pioneers are William Fry, Don Jackson, Jay Haley, John Weakland and, later, Virginia Satir, who is recognized as one of the main founders of this discipline.

Among other things, Satir introduced an extra profession in the area of family therapy: social work. From there he developed a therapeutic model and conducted many seminars and professional training programs. He also published one of the first books on the subject.

The Strategic School and the Milan School

Subsequently, Jay Haley founded the Strategic School and is positioned as one of those interested in distinguishing the principles of the systemic approach from the other currents of psychology and anthropology.

Haley met Salvador Munich in the 1960s, who was developing the Structural School on the other side of the United States. This gives rise to the strategic-structural approach of group therapy , which ends up uniting the proposals of Palo Alto with the ecological orientations carried out on the east coast of the United States.

Also representative in this area, although equally psychoanalytically based, is the Milan School. It was founded by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, who together with other psychoanalysts gradually changed the focus of study of the individual towards work with families, their communication models and the general theory of systems .

Unifying Project Approaches

After the success of family therapy, now also known as systemic therapy (not only in the United States but also in Europe), the unifying project of psychoanalytic, anthropological and mixed approaches was based especially on the analysis of the four dimensions that make up any system: the genesis, function, process and structure .

Joining the unifying project is the approach of the Second Cybernetics, which problematizes the role of the observer of the system in modifying it; an issue that had been absent in the history of therapy and that is strongly influenced by contemporary theories of quantum physics.

In the 80’s the paradigm of constructivism was joined, whose influence turned out to be greater than that of any other. Taking up again both the second cybernetics and the general systems theory, the incorporation of constructivism proposes that family therapy is in fact an active construction of therapist together with the family, and it is precisely the latter that allows the professional to “intervene to modify”.

Thus, family therapy is understood as a therapeutic system in itself, and it is this system that constitutes the fundamental unit of treatment . From this, and towards the 90’s, new therapeutic approaches such as narrative techniques and psychoeducational approaches are included, while this discipline is spreading around the world.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bertrando, P. (2009). See the family: theoretical views, clinical work. Psychoperspectives, VIII(1): 46-69.
  • Pereira Tercero, R. (1994). Historical review of family therapy. Psychopathology Journal (Madrid), 14(1): 5-17.